Theories of Value

Nancy Folbre
22 February 2008

What if all the parents in the U.S. got up one morning and went on strike, demanding more recognition and support for the work they do?

It’s kind of a kooky question, but it calls attention to a central theme of research on care–the undervaluation (you could even call it “non-valuation”) of care that is provided outside the market. The time that parents devote to their children, for instance, doesn’t come with a price tag attached. Yet if parents were unable to provide that time someone would need to buy a replacement for it.

Since we have some empirical data showing how much time parents in the U.S. devote to their children, on average, it’s not hard to multiply the number of hours spent times a hypothetical wage rate and come up with a very approximate lower-bound estimate of the value of parental services. For some nitty-gritty details, see my new book, just published by Harvard University Press, Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family.

The point of this exercise is NOT to argue that all parents should be paid a wage for their work, but to help analyze the ways that unpaid care subsidizes our market economy. What determines the supply of unpaid care services? Few parents literally go “on strike” but some uninvolved non-custodial parents do literally fail to do their job. Also, parenthood is becoming less universal–in most affluent countries, including the U.S., the percentage of adult women who choose not to raise children is growing. And overall birth rates are now way below replacement levels in many countries, including Italy, Spain, Japan, and Korea.

The scope for empirical research on these trends is enormous, and I plan to cover some specific themes in future posts and linked pages. But the more I work on issues of care valuation the more I am struck by the philosophical conundrum: how should we define the value of any good or service, separately from its market price?

This is the question that the classical political economists like David Ricardo addressed in the early nineteenth century, and I think it’s important to revisit it from a feminist perspective. So–this blog is going to include discussions of intellectual history as well as more policy-related empirical research.

One comment on "Theories of Value"

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    You say:
    ” I am struck by the philosophical conundrum: how should we define the value of any good or service, separately from its market price? ”

    This is a very very difficult question. Oh my !! kills me! I keep hitting walls thinking about it. And I feel I am prisoned within these walls.

    In my research with evlatliks (unpaid live in domestic workers) I always come to a place where I have to know more of personal and social-psychology. Or, how to explain behaviors, relations between people. This is not an ultimate solution, just an avenue. In my field work (and my own experience) , I clearly see that women do not value women (class conflict) for many reasons. I know that I have to be careful with patriarchal terrain, how it manipulates women. but we cannot deny women-to-women conflict. I see a huge emotional base under material achievements in my findings. Love, loyalty, feeling indebted, not knowing needs and interests(this is very complex), complexity of childhood development(child domestic workers, evlatliks start this way). Sure this is not SPECIAL to my case study. It happens everywhere.
    Most of the evlatliks I know and/or I got to know via this research underlined “emotions” as tools in exchange or reciprocity. In other words, emotions are part of unpaid or paid relations. Who uses it? How people use it? May be conscious or unconscious…this is the complexity. That is why (I think), we need to integrate personal and social psychology in order to work on “value”.
    The capabilities approach may help to describe some of these social and personal issues. Caroline Moser and Ruth Alsop have been working on gender assessments in international development context. They use Molyneux’s (1989)theoretic base, interest-needs framework. Gender interests and needs framework may be a place to exercise individual and social psychology. How? trying to work on it…

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