Sociology 304

Folbre's Feminist Approach.

Note: These notes cover some of the issues in Who Pays for the Kids? pages 38 to 50. These were not covered in class but provide a discussion of Folbre's approach.

I. Introduction

Following the introduction and discussion of REM, IRSEP, Mr. Prol and M. Neo-prol, Folbre develops her own approach. This is the section "Identities, Interests, and Institutions," pages 38 - 50, and continuing in Chapter 2. In developing this approach, Folbre is trying to do two things - analyze social reproduction and develop a feminist theoretical approach.

A. Who pays for the kids? First, she is concerned with who bears the costs of social reproduction and the issues surrounding males, females, children, family, and the social interactions among these that are relevant to this question. The various factors in the framework she develops lead to a reinterpretation of historical evidence, and provide new insights into how issues related to children and the family are interpreted. In Canada, current discussions concerning child tax benefits, child poverty, and a national system of day care show the relevance of issues of social reproduction. For Folbre, analysis of both the public and private spheres, and their interaction with each other, is necessary in order to develop an understanding and explanation of these issues.

B. General Theoretical Approach. In Who Pays for the Kids? Folbre develops a general approach to the study of social issues - summarized as the "stylized feminist approach" (p. 49). This is the common framework that she raises on p. 40, noting that it should be possible to develop a "systematic framework that accommodates the interaction between interests and identities, choices and constraints." In developing this approach, Folbre examines individual and collective action, and the framework can be viewed as emerging from the action of groups and collectivities and from the common actions of individuals as they undertake activities.

1. Collective Action is concerned with showing how people decide to join or become part of 'interest groups' (p. 40, top line). Individuals join or become part of interest groups and as they participate in and act as parts of these groups, they act in coordination with others to pursue their common interests. These may be collective interests developed through organized groups, for example, political action of students to improve state support for education or people with favoured positions or with power creating and maintaining networks of influence within an organization (old-boy networks).

Alternatively, collective action may emerge in a less conscious manner as part of the social structures of society - class, family, peer groups. These are sometimes chosen groups or they could be structures to which people are ascribed and in which individuals may participate in a less conscious manner. Folbre refers later to "structures of collective constraint" (p. 57, bottom) as common positions in which a number of people find themselves, where they have a group identity and common interests. Within this, as people act together, they exercise a form of collective action. Examples of this type of collective action include attempts by some individuals to exclude those of a different skin colour or sex from participation in certain activities. Racism, discrimination, and patriarchal power can be considered to emerge as a result of the structures of collective constraint, where a set of individuals with common interests take collective action to maintain their privilege, power, and position. Note that some of these latter forms of action are not so much personally advantageous (except as a matter of maintaining honour or standing in the collectivity) as they are for the benefits of the common interest. A particular individual might undertake actions which are more personally advantageous to himself or herself. That is, not all collective actions of this sort can be reduced to an expression of individual interests - some are truly collective interests and actions.

2. Common Actions. These are closely related to the last point - actions of individuals who are in a similar position to that of others, with similar identities and interests. The common actions of people in this situation are common responses of people in their daily lives, responses that may develop into norms and rules (e.g. number of children in the family, actions related to the division of household labour and responsibilities, interactions between children and parents). As people carry out their activities, and have similar actions and responses as do other people in a similar situation, this does create a form of collective action. That is, collective action need not be explicitly organized, but can be how people together develop certain common forms of action and behaviour. This form of collective action may be less noticeable than a social movement, but may have effects which are as widespread as movements that are more political and public.

The decline of fertility, along with the increased participation of women in the paid labour force, both of which took place in the 1960s and 1970s, is an example of this common type of action. Neither of these developments were planned or anticipated by the individuals involved, but emerged as a result of similar set of interests coincided to create common actions.

In constructing the stylized feminist approach, Folbre draws from the neoclassical tradition, especially the idea of "rational, instrumental choice" (p. 40). From the Marxian approach she uses the emphasis on asset distribution, structures, and political power. To this, Folbre adds feminist insights and approaches concerning individual and collective identity and makes norms and preferences an endogenous part of the model. In combining these approaches, Folbre produces a theoretical framework that should provide insights not just into issues related to social reproduction, but to a wide variety of social issues and problems.

II. Stylized Feminist Approach

See Folbre, p. 49, figure 1.3.

Structural factors: assets, rules, norms, preferences

Agents: individuals, chosen groups, given groups

Processes: coercion, production, exchange, coordination

Sites: firms, states, markets, families

A. Structural Factors.

The first part of the model is the assets, rules, norms, and preferences that form the structural part of her model (pp. 40-43).

1. Assets. The neoclassical model, with its focus on how decisions are made, tends to regard the assets with which the individual enters the decision-making process in the market as being fixed or exogenous. The micro-choice models do not include an explicit examination of differences in assets and how they emerged, rather these models focus on the choices the individual faces, given the assets. As a result, there is an underlying implicit assumption that there is not great injustice in the distribution of assets. In contrast, the Marxian model recognizes assets as one of the major factors governing the position of the individual or group when entering into social relationships. Marxists focus on the inherent injustice associated with the inequality in the distribution of assets, especially those that inequalities that emerge from the unequal distribution of ownership of private propoerty.

There are many aspects to the initial endowments that people bring to the decision-making process. Some of these are as follows.

One example of how a neo-prol analysis can be conducted is that of Erik Olin Wright, with four types of assets forming a typology of modes of production and classes: labour power, means of production, organizational assets, and skills. Each may be unequally distributed and each forms the basis for a form of exploitation and class location (Wright, pp. 73-92. Note the summary charts on pp. 83 and 88). For example, in feudal societies, exploitation is primarily based on the unequal distribution and exercise of labour power, in capitalism the unequal distribution of the means of production make exploitation of labour power possible (p. 83).

Each individual comes into the world with certain biological (and perhaps psychological) assets, and certain are ascribed to the individual on the basis of social class, sex, region, culture, etc. As individuals become older, many of these remain the same, but some change on the basis of education and training, skill and ability, effort, chance, choice, coercion, cooperative and competitive efforts, and other historical factors. In the highly mobile society of contemporary capitalism, many of these change considerably over the course of an individual lifetime. They can change as the result of either individual or collective action. In a traditional society, or in feudal society, these change slowly for the individual, for groups in society, and for the society as a whole.

2. Rules "formally define the parameters of acceptable behavior" (p. 40). These are laws, regulations, contracts, and codes of acceptable behaviour. In contemporary society, these are often written (Weberian rationality) although in traditional societies these may be part of oral tradition and practice. In addition to laying out the limits of acceptable behaviour, these generally lay down certain punishments for unacceptable behaviour and rewards for acceptable behaviour. Family law, rules concerning inheritance (females were often excluded in Western Europe and North America), laws governing sexual and reproductive behaviour, laws governing sale and purchase of labour power all are important for the issues raised by Folbre. Laws are always subject to change, and are often the result of the formalization of norms. Rules change as the result of both conscious and unplanned behaviour of individuals and collectivities. Those who have highly valued assets in the society may set the laws (the wealthy, the military, or the politically powerful) but those who feel oppressed or exploited by these laws may collectively be able to organize and obtain the assets that allow them to change the rules of society. Trade unions, the civil rights movement, and feminist movements are examples.

3. Norms are implicit rules, not enforceable in law, but part of "social authority, based on common agreements and understandings" (p. 41). Some of these may be generally agreed on (individual citizenship rights and equality, freedom of movement, not exercising physical harm on others, trust) and may be set down in law. These tend to be decentralized and are less commonly enforced. Enforcement may be more in the form or social approval and disapproval (Parsons) than through explicit sanctions and punishments or rewards. In Canada, some of these have become part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Other norms may differ from group to group, for example, norms concerning sexual preference may be subject to dramatic disagreement among groups in contemporary society. Also note that there may be a wide range of acceptable behaviour, with the norms governing generally agreed upon features such as individual rights to enter contracts, rights to freedom of movement, etc. Other norms are more restrictive, for example, acceptable forms of religious expression and lifestyles among members of a particular religion.

Some forms of common behaviour might not seem to be governed by law, when in fact legal codes and structures stand behind these. Durkheim in The Division of Labour in Society outlines the different forms of law characteristic of different types of societies. For Durkheim, the type of legal system provides an index of the type of society. Further, Durkheim notes that contracts and market exchange are governed by regulation and rules that are socially created. Today the ability to buy and sell and enter into market exchange is so widespread and common that it appears to be natural. Durkheim points out how such exchange is rooted in social convention and subject to the general will (Division, pp. 210-215). Further, Durkheim argues that the division of labour, and the exchange that is part of the division of labour, is a result of collective life, a result of the cohesion of society due to a "community of beliefs and sentiments" (Division, p. 277). For example, in our society we generally agree that each individual should have the right to buy and sell, and to possess personal property. These norms are not necessarily agreed upon in all societies, and even in Canada today may be disputed or subject to limitations by traditional First Nations or by groups such as the Hutterites. Folbre notes that economic transactions depend on "a set of mutual understandings enforced by informal sanctions such as approval and disapproval" (p. 41).

Just as with assets and rules, norms can result in great injustice and exploitation. Norms that limit what types of work females can do or are required to do, that shape views of what individuals of certain ethnic groups are capable of, that define difference and identity (insiders and outsiders) may result in great inequities. Norms can also change very rapidly as a result of organized social movements (civil rights movement in the United States) or as a result of the common actions of many individuals (gay and lesbian activities and lifestyles).

4. Preferences are "the dimensions of desire" (p. 42) and are often play a major role in guiding the decision-making of individuals. Structures and similar circumstances may lead to similar preferences, and some preferences may be generally considered to be ascribed or inherited, although they are more likely to be part of slowly changing structures. In modern and contemporary societies, preferences can change rapidly and there is great flexibility for preferences. Some would argue that these differences in preference can be exercised only over superficial differences such as brand or toothpaste or type of sport or exercise preferred.

Preferences may be contradictory with each other, they may change over time, and individuals may be unaware of their preferences (preferences and patterns of behaviour may only be revealed from the choices people actually make). Folbre treats preferences as endogenous, in contrast to the neoclassical approach, but in agreement with the Marxist view. But she regards them as more flexible than the Marxian model.

Similar preferences may form part of the collective activity of people. Those with similar preferences may find it in their interests to form common groupings with other people (environmental groups, gays and lesbians). Alternatively, similar preferences may lead to common patterns of activity, so that collectively certain patterns of action take place, even though these are not so consciously developed (musical preferences and youth life styles).

Summary. Together the assets, rules, norms, and preferences form the structural factors in the Folbre model. Folbre shows how these structures are formed and change as a result of collective activity, and how collective activity is itself shaped by these structural factors.

B. Agents. Agents may be individuals or groups. The latter may be chosen groups, selected by individuals on the basis of their choices (youth peer groups, political parties, social groupings), or given groups, ascribed on the basis of birth, socialization, or structural position (gender, religion, class). Note that some groups may fall in between, not exactly the product of conscious choice but neither ascribed at birth. Individuals may find themselves in certain positions that have much in common with others, and as a result these people act in common - for example, members of an urban neighbourhood or a rural area who may initially be thrown together but develop a similar set of interests and a common identity.

Agents might be the self-centred, utility maximizing, rational choice individuals of the REM model of neo-classical economics. Or they might be politically or economically powerful individuals who can make decisions that affect many in a society, because of the position they occupy or the assets or resources they command. Most agents are not in a position to make such clear decisions, and Folbre's purposeful choice and strategies might more appropriately describe the manner in which agents pursue activities and actions. These could be either individuals or collective agents (such as Folbre's given or chosen groups on pp. 49-50). That is, agents must have some ability to take some action, and this action must lead to some outcome, but the outcome may not be all that remarkable. In fact, the outcome may be one that achieves the purpose of the agent, but also contributes to the maintenance of the structural patterns of which this agent is part. Or the outcome could be an unintended one.

C. Processes. The processes that Folbre notes are production, exchange, coordination, and coercion. This is a broader range of processes than the production and exchange of the neoclassical model, or the production and coercion of the Marxian model. In Who Pays for the Kids? there are shifting processes depending on which agents are being examined, the purpose of the interaction, and the structures of collective constraint. Coercion and coordination have much less determinate outcomes and are much harder to model than are production and exchange. For example, the likely outcome of workers going on strike at a workplace is much less certain than the day to day exchange of labour power on the labour market. In the case of a strike, there are elements of coercion, bargaining, and coordination, and none of these have a clearly defined outcome. As another example, in a household, coercion in the form of violence may destroy the interaction of household members. In her analysis of patriarchy and discrimination, Folbre shows the importance of these processes, but Who Pays for the Kids? does not develop a general theoretical approach for these.

D. Sites. These are firms, organizations, states or governments, and families, institutions or places where production, coordination, exchange, and coercion take place (pp. 48-49). These sites may involve physical locations, but perhaps more important, they are institutions that have been developed by society. In a functionalist framework, they can be viewed as having certain purposes such as carrying out production (firms), ensuring social reproduction and carrying out public tasks (governments), and reproducing population (family and household). In this context, these sites can be considered to be efficient solutions to coordination of activities, solutions that otherwise would not be possible, or would use many more resources. At the same time, there are a diverse set of other activities that go on in these sites, some intended, some unintended, and many that may be more purposeful choice rather than well developed functions. Two other characteristics of sites are that they are (i) problem solving situations and (ii) they have a division of labour associated with them (p. 48).


Wright, Erik Olin, Classes, London, Verso, 1985.

Last edited on March 10, 1998.

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