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A feminist critique of rational-choice theories: Implications for sociology

Abstract

I consider the relationship between two currents affecting sociology, rational-choice theory and interdisciplinary feminist theory. In particular, I consider how the feminist critique of the separative model of self applies to one version of rational-choice theory, neoclassical economics. In discussing this I identify four assumptions of neoclassical economics: selfishness; interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible; tastes are exogenous and unchanging; and individuals are rational. I argue that each of these harmonizes best with a view of separate rather than connected selves, and that this imbalance distorts theories, particularly those that claim to understand women’s experience. These distorting assumptions are less prevalent in sociology than in economics, but some of them are implicit in some versions of sociological rational-choice and exchange theories. I conclude by using research on marital power to illustrate how removing distorting assumptions and bringing questions about separation/connection to center stage can help illuminate sociological research.

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Correspondence to Paula England.

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Her forthcoming book,Comparable Worth: Theories and Evidence (New York: Aldine deGruyter), discusses this controversial policy issue from a perspective that draws upon sociology, economics, and feminist theory.

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England, P. A feminist critique of rational-choice theories: Implications for sociology. Am Soc 20, 14–28 (1989). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02697784

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Keywords

  • Moral Reasoning
  • Bargaining Power
  • Exchange Theory
  • Feminist Theory
  • Neoclassical Economic