One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Women's Work

The award yesterday of the Nobel Prize for Economics to Elinor Ostrom represents something of a back-to-basics, firstly in that it is the first award to a woman, and secondly in its topic: the management of common property resources by communities.

There's a common misconception that equates economics with money. Not so. The circulation and (ultimately) accumulation of money is the topic of a rather dull subset of economics: finance.

I'm not a trained economist. But my economics teacher, Pedro, has told me a couple of interesting things:

  • The origin of the word Economy is 'household management'. (by the way...look at how recent that coinage is. It hasn't been synonymous with 'finance' for very long at all!)*
  • Quote (and I've stolen this repeatedly from him): 'Economics is about decision making. Usually we use money to keep score.'
The way I see it is this. Women, typically, have various decisions to make:
  • Do I spend money on school shoes for the kids, or can I afford to eat myself?
  • Is it more important to take the kids to the cinema to see the new Pixar or to pay the electricity bill on time?
  • Should I keep having sex with that drunken bastard who sometimes hits me but who also brings home money?
Those are micro-economic examples. Can anyone think of any macro-economic?

Isn't it amazing how ordinary women manage these complex, long-term planning decisions on a daily basis, all without the aid of the theories, spreadsheets, computer models and the like that financiers can't seem to manage without?







* This I already knew. It's the topic of 'A History Maker' by the great Glaswegian pedestrian, Alasdair Grey. The book is set in a futuristic time of plenty wherein the men occupy themselves by running around playing at Battles, while the women stay at home and TCOB. How very unlike our own time.

22 comments:

pedro said...

Dude, you really *could* find yourself a better teacher..

It's quite interesting that Olstrom won the Nobel. Hardin's 'Tragedy of the Commons' has been the dominant paradigm about resource management for a while now, but it's... wrong! If it was right, pre-industrial cultures would *all* have starved. What he missed (going back to that Polanyi convo a while ago..) was that economics is embedded in social institutions. Social institutions are, in themselves, enough to manage resources, if only when groups are small enough.

http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=21664

It's pretty cool that the NP in E has gone to someone pointing this out.



~Can anyone think of any macro-economic?~

Do we lower interest to boost exports through some devaluation, even though it will cause inflation and erode all our savings? IE, do we keep workers or rich folk happy?

Edward said...

Ah. I was meaning some macro-economic examples of the ways in which ordinary women decide on central societal issues. One interesting one: more women vote then men.

Ben Warsop said...

>> some macro-economic examples of the ways in which ordinary women decide on central societal issues.

Ah well, I could let out my inner feminist, but she's rather more oestrogenny than is polite.

I'll flip that question back at you Edward - can you think of macro-economic examples of the ways in which ordinary MEN decide on central societal issues.

One thing that is interesting is that cars are far more feminised than they used to be; rounded corners, cute and cuddly, pretty colours, big appealing eyes.

Another example I have just thought of is to what extent the developing world's sweatshops rely on a predominantly feminine desire for wear-once t-shirts for two or three pounds from New Look and H&M and Primark.

But what you are talking about was ever thus: the family unit is a woman and a handful of children. Men would bring home the wage and hand it over, and only retain the price of a couple of beers. I know professional men whose household budget works on just that principle now.

Ben

Edward said...

Ben,

I was, of course, Begging The Question. The subdivision of labour within households os a purely Capitalist phenomenon. Men were required to go down t'pit. Women were required to wash their husband's filthy clothing.

Until, that is, male labour rates became depressed. Them women (and children) would also have to work down t'pit, in th'mill, etc. etc.

Either way, households and other voluntary units became subservient to the needs of Capital.

So you're right - if you're saying what I think you're saying - the Feminist debate is somewhat moot. The Struggle (note capital S) is for self-determination at all levels of human association.

pedro said...

~The subdivision of labour within households os a purely Capitalist phenomenon.~

D'ya reckon? I sometimes wonder how sexual dimorphism plays out in people. In gorillas, the (bigger) male has a harem of females, which he fights other males for. I don't think the male gets much with feeding though (but I dunno..).

In lions, males fight for control of a pride, and let the womenfolk do the hunting, then barge them out the way and get first dibs. They probably help fight hyaenas 'n' stuff too. When a new male takes control of a pride, they usually kill all the cubs too, bringing the females into heat (in humans, children are more likely to be killed by stepdads than anyone else).

How much of gender is biology? Not that it makes much difference in today's, erm, capitalist society ;)

Edward said...

Oh, allright...I shall backpedal slightly from 'purely capitalist'.

Yes, job roles are influenced by sexual dimorphism. It kinda makes sense, for example, that women will be occupied by things like suckling infants while their menfolk and other non-lactating members of their community/household do the things that allow them to do so.

What I'm trying (clumsily) to express is that a Capitalist system, which relies on the extraction of surplus value from a worker, also places a burden on the worker's household. The (typically) man who is required to work late at the office and jet around the country while the (typically) woman who holds the family together doing the school runs, making Halloween costumes...etc. Neither women nor men *have* to do thse things: only if they want promotion, job security, etc. etc.

So where does this leave us? In an entrenched social system in which gender roles are dictated by the competing demands of work and family. Work generally wins.

Edward the Bonobo said...

btw...what I'm *not* arguing is that Capitalism is a pernicious plot against women in particular (nor againstb men). Merely that it reduces our freedom to determine our familial roles fror ourselves.

Women, men and children all lose out.

pedro said...

-an entrenched social system in which gender roles are dictated by the competing demands of work and family.

- our freedom to determine our familial roles fror ourselves.-

Or, 'an entrenched social system in which gender roles are dictated by biology, from which there is no escape.'

I suppose I'm looking at biological determinism. Dunno exactly where I'd be on the nature/nurture scale, but I think nature definitely has a role.

Will men and women grow to the same size in a few centuries if society moves in a gender-neutral direction? It happened on Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Green Mars'.

pedro said...

ps commented on your "Some observations on the characterisation of societies according to their position within the historical dialectic." post too.

Edward the Bonobo said...

>>Or, 'an entrenched social system in which gender roles are dictated by biology, from which there is no escape.'

No!

When talking about humans, we should be Very Careful Indeed about biological determinism. OK..so on the one hand we *are* determined by biology, but on the other our understanding of biology is clouded by our cultural perceptions.

Let's look at the African Great Apes in their round. If we take the three non-human species, we see a rough-order continuum of patriarchy -> matriarchy that goes pan troglodytes, gorilla gorilla, pan paniscus (but caution: we are infering from miniscule populations)

So where do humans fit in? Well...here I must refer you to somre excellent work by the Elaine Morgan http://www.elainemorgan.me.uk . (her latest, 'The Naked Darwinist' is available for free download there.) For thr last 30+ years, Morgan has been arguing (with growing support) that homo sapiens got its great leap forward by dint of a semi-aquatic existence, feeding on shellfish (all those Omega-3s, see?). Hence the shell middens consistently observed by paleontologists.

So - which sex is has an evolutionary at gathering shellfish? What might family life look like in a semi-aquatic society?

OK - so humans don't just do seashores (although mine did, as indicated in the meaning of my Norser surname). We are The Flexible Ape. Our Omega-3 enhanced brains allowed us to colonise other environments. Here we have operated under a range of economies and hence social systems, ranging from hunter-gathering to agrarian to feudal to Capitalist.

All I'm trying to do here is to keep things simple by restricting us to Capitalism: human household arrangrments are inextricably linked to the needs of early 21stC Capitalism.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Sorry...lousy proofreading above.

I was wondering which sex has an evolutionary advantage in gathering shellfish.

Also our human ancestors didn't just do seashores.

Mine did - my name is Norse for 'bog dweller'. The footprints of neolithic bog dwellers have been unearthed near to where I grew up. One view is that I have a proud lineage. Another is that I am the first of my line to drag himself out from the bog.

And it's not asked for on the site - but please would anyone downloading 'The Naked Darwinist' make a suitable donation to charity.

pedro said...

Yeah, we should be Very Careful Indeed. But it seems to me we've evolved sexual differentation, and there's no way that doesn't retain some influence.

What that influence actually IS, otoh, I couldn't say offhand. I'm not arguing for anything in particular, and I'm aware how gender roles are defined by society. But there is a certain economic/ecological sense in men doing the hunting and women doing the gathering. How much of our current roles are a remnant, and how much is merely a hangover of that, is what I'm getting at.

As for the naked ape, I remember (I'll read that later) that one argument was our hair encourages water to run off us easily. Wouldn't that be explained by sweat running down and helping to cool a bigger surface area?

You on a hootoo holiday?

Edward said...

>>But there is a certain economic/ecological sense in men doing the hunting and women doing the gathering.

That makes an *enormous* assumption - that we are primarily savannah-dwellers (or evolved from savannah dwellers) - which simply doesn't stack up.

>>one argument was our hair encourages water to run off us easily

Well Morgan comments on her site that naked mammals with subcutaneous fat are overwhelmingly aquatic. Where do we see the naked cheetahs, wolves? Come to it...if we wanted to keep cool, why would be have develop a layer of insulation.

I take the point that our social systems are as much part of our mammalian, primate nature as anything. But we should question what that nature is. Why make macho assumptions? And we should also recognise our flexibility that gives us such an evolutionary advantage as a species. We can organise in various ways (but are often constrained by economic structures)

And suddenly I'm thinking of this Hugh Masekela song. What does it do to a region's social structures when its menfolk are forced into migratory labour? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgYhTTZXP4g



(yeah - somewhat on a hootoo break. Too busy. Can't be bothered with inanity. The recent Stalin stuff was simply pointless. A whole lotta masturbation goin' on.)

pedro said...

..That makes an *enormous* assumption - that we are primarily savannah-dwellers..

Nope, it doesn't. It assumes that males are more expendable than women, cos one man can, if things go tits up for the tribe/whatever, repopulate it whereas the women just can't. That, very broadly speaking, the sexes have (or rather, had) different economic roles.

In modern society that might still be reflected in the fact that young men are the biggest risk-takers, while women are more sensible on average.* I'm not arguing that we should differentiate, just wondering how those differences (which I think are there) manifest themselves.

-- I take the point that our social systems are as much part of our mammalian, primate nature as anything. But we should question what that nature is. Why make macho assumptions?--

Kinda what you say below.
Me, macho? One of my neighbours thought I was gay cos I wear a scarf..

*which obviously doesn't mean that women shouldn't be bricklayers/doctors/ etc. But may mean that microfinance schemes should make loans to women, or childcare payments in Mexico help kids stay at school when paid to the mother.

PS, read this?
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/woods_hare09/woods_hare09_index.html

Really rather good..

Edward said...

So now we have to get into the realms of nature vs nurture: are boys acculturated to be risk takers, etc. etc.

All utterly untestable: show me a chid without an upbringing.

Ta. Will read edge.org.

Anonymous said...

-show me a chid without an upbringing.-

Yep, that's fair. But why, on average, the difference? 17yo boys have twice the motor insurance premium that girls have, twice (or whatever) the rate of being caught for a crime, yadda yadda. Why are men more likely to pay for sex, why are women better bets when you're making a loan, why are most non-industrial societies polygynous, why are men bigger than women?

Just because it's untestable doesn't mean it's not there..

Does it?

pedro said...

I'm anonymous btw.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Well I cover Human Variability in my lectures as part of my real job. I have a great picture of two people from the same ethnic population (Mongolia, PRC) Sorry for the M**l link:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-468172/Worlds-apart-The-moment-tallest-man-met-shortest.html

And we observe the same between sexes. Take Caster Semenya. How abnormal is it that her testosterone levels are three times that of the average woman.

So, agreed...sexual dimorphism is a real phenomenon. Thr question is, then, whether it's sufficient on its own to enforce gender role differences. Or...do we have to look at gender roles as a function of biology x environment/economy?

(I'm assuming you'd agree that we do)

In which case...here's an interesting thought experiment: How stable are role differences across households in which the dominant male and dominant female demonstrate typical or atypical sexual dimorphism? Are the same role differences observed, for example, between husband and wife of similar height as between a small wife and tall husband?

Or...is atypical sexual dimorphism strong enough to overcome economic determinism?

Agreed - we observe gender role differences amongs other species (although...how often are we projecting our own cultural values?) So which ones apply in Humans? It would be very bad science to trawl through the totality of human behaviour until we find some. So surely it's for those who suggest that there are biologically endowed, stable differences to propose some...

pedro said...

--Thr question is, then, whether it's sufficient on its own to enforce gender role differences.--

I think sexual dimorphism is an expression of an underlying phenomenon, not representative of anything by itself. And anyway, I think it would be about averages, not individuals.

Imagine a bell curve for some kind of behaviour. Risk-taking, say. What I'm suggesting is that there would be two curves, one for men, one for women, which lie slightly apart from each other. I would further suggest that there is at least a genetic component, which has been selected for.

One thing we can probably agree on is that testosterone levels correlate with aggression and/or dominance. Men have higher levels than women.

Nurture?

Edward the Bonobo said...

Then what we're tussling over is the degree of influence that testosterogenic aggression has in shaping societies. Is the dominant economic model shaping factor:
- War and more war
or
- Women (and men) quietly getting on with things.

pedro said...

-- Then what we're tussling over is the degree of influence that testosterogenic aggression has in shaping societies. --

Not really. More like, how are physical differences linked to behavioural ones, if at all.

pedro said...

Read this earlier, very interesting.

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/cronin/cronin_index.html