Integ 221 – Social Nature of Knowledge
Thinking about economic systems with feminist empiricism.
Feminist empiricism is a philosophical idea that shatters the traditional perception that scientific theories objectively represent reality or “truth”. Scientific theory is more like a pragmatic tool used to approximately map an ephemeral notion of reality or “truth”. In economics, the relationship between price and value can be understood in a similar way. The price of something only loosely approximates to the value of that thing. Using this analogy, feminist empiricism can also be a framework for describing economic systems and may be useful for generating normative ideas for how these systems might be improved.
Feminist empiricism is an extension of the Duhem-Quine thesis. It says that data are not sufficient to determine theories (Plaisance). Background assumptions play a role in the types of questions one asks and the patterns determined from the data produced by those questions (Plaisance). Feminist empiricism suggests that scientists are prone to personal bias because of their humanity. The bias of scientists can show up locally or systemically in the form of faulty theories (Plaisance). This is groundbreaking in a field that seems to be historically dominated by the concept of withdrawn observation leading to objective truth. The quintessential example of scientific bias is how racist and sexist notions can show up in science due to the predominantly white-male perspective of scientists (Plaisance). Androcentrism can not only produce racist and sexist theories, but it can also limit the scope of what experiments might be undertaken (Plaisance). If lines of inquiry are dominated by a homogenous perspective, white-male in this case, then the approach to science will be narrower than if we include the scientific perspective of women and people from diverse cultures (Plaisance).
In Helen Longino’s paper Subjects, Power and Knowledge, she espouses the idea that “we are all in relations of interdependence”(112). It means that the theories scientists produce are influenced by their values, and scientists’ values are influenced by others in their community (Longino 113). She describes science as an “interactive, intersubjective, interdependent community” that transforms itself and creates understanding with theories that will always be partial (Longino 112). These theories are generated by interactions of conflicting views of participants with many perspectives who share a common currency in the form of a set of scientific practices (Longino 115). Longino makes it clear that science does not have an end point, there is nothing pre-determined to be known or unlocked (Longino 117). The validity of a scientific theory is measured by the acceptance of that theory within the community, not by how effectively a method uncovers part of an eventually definable whole (Longino 117).
There are some generally applicable takeaways from feminist empiricism and Longino’s work. One is recognizing that any system of methods that is operated by humans has emergent values and biases. Humans generate inquiries and theories. Lack of recognition of their individual biases can lead to systemic bias either locally or globally in the system. The best way to recognize bias is to introduce diversity into the system; a heterogenous group is better able to identify its internal biases than a homogenous group governed by its own assumptions. Further, theory acceptance emerges out of a general community consensus, and is reflexive within the community. Finally, every theory is partial, there is no permanent “truth” to be uncovered.
The effectiveness of analogizing with economics may help us evaluate the concepts of feminist empiricism. I have identified: value as analog to truth or reality in science, price as analog to scientific theory and currency as analog to scientific methods and practices.
I see currency as analog to the scientific method in the relationship between reality and theory. It is a paradigmatic common language that binds the relationship between value and price. A community can only argue and eventually settle on an aggregated price if it has a common, persistent, and yet dynamic language to do so. Much like how science could not settle on theories as a community if it did not have a common set of practices (e.g. the scientific method) by which to communicate with.
I see value as pluralistic and relative. For different people in different contexts an object is valued differently, based on their experiences, biases and perspectives. The value placed on a single good or service by a person could be considered a context-dependent synthesis of the values and biases of that person’s perspective. Therefore, there are infinite perceptions of the value of any one good or service. No single “true value” exists, much like the passé concept in science of objective truth. It was once a paradigm in science that truth or reality could be mapped out and fully understood (Longino). This was the theoretical end point of science. As we have seen, new philosophies have led us to view value and truth as ephemeral concepts.
I see price as an approximation of value aggregated from situated perspectives of a community. Response to context affects the temporal element to price; these include scarcity, events in the natural world, or trends in our society (Kosakowski). Context is analogous to data in theories. Context plays into the approximation of price at a fundamental level: only as much as the aggregated perspectives individually consider or ignore context. Like theories, price is incomplete and constantly shifts. It only partially maps on to value. The greater diversity and number of perspectives, the better the approximation. Price only makes the complexity of value understandable, it does not represent a complete understanding of complexity. It gives us a benchmark to solve problems. I claim that various economic systems have been developed and will succeed each other based on their general accuracy and precision in reliably aggregating a single price from society’s many perceptions of value.
Three simplified cases of theoretical economic systems setting the price of oil will demonstrate the basic relevance of this analogy.
In a command economy, the price of oil is decided by a centralized group of people. All members of this group are members of the elite, guided by a specific ideology and are predominately male, representing a very small subset of the population (Watts). The group dictates price based on its perception of how the population values oil. It often makes faulty predictions, leading to shortages and surpluses (Bishop). Price is accurate in terms of value in this paradigm.
In a free-market economy, the price of oil emerges out of millions of interactions between people (Watts). These people still operates under an ideology, but virtually everyone from every perspective is participating to some extent. Shortages and surpluses occur less frequently, and are corrected more quickly (Watts). Price is accurate and precise in terms of value in this paradigm.
An enviro-economy might use the free-market to decide the price of oil, but it also takes into account the negative externalities of oil (Lazin-Ryder). This utopia represents a mean-shift in aggregate perception of value of the environment. The price of oil is much greater than in the free-market, because people experience true fear of climate change (Lazin-Ryder). Price is accurate and precise in terms of value, but shifted to a different paradigm of value.
What feminist empiricism offers is a philosophical, transdisciplinary, analytical framework for understanding the universal human mismatches between the ephemeral ideal and the pragmatic reality. This framework can foster new ideas of actions to limit these variances, and appreciation of mean-shifts in understanding.
Word Count: 1200, citations exempted
Bishop, Matthew. Essential Economics. London: Economist in Association with Profile, 2004. Print.
Lazin-Ryder, Matthew. “Externalities.” The Invisible Hand. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Vancouver, British-Columbia, 08 Aug. 2012. Radio.
Longino, Helen E. “Subjects, Power and Knowledge: Description and Prescription in Feminist Philosophies of Science.” Feminist Epistemologies. New York: Routledge, 1993. 102-20. Print.
Kosakowski, Paul. “What Determines Oil Prices?” What Determines Oil Prices? Investopedia, 06 June 2011. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.
Plaisance, Kathryn. “Overview of Feminist Empiricism.” INTEG 221: The Social Nature of Knowledge. University of Waterloo, Waterloo. 22 Feb. 2013. Lecture.
Watts, Michael. “What Is a Market Economy?” An Overview of the U.S. Economy. US Department of State, n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.
And by currency I mean the idea of currency in general, like the idea of money.