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Why hasn't social economics focused more on the family?

Mark D. White

A question occurred to me this morning as I did some basic research on alimony after reading Alexandria Harwin's New York Times op-ed "Ending the Alimony Guessing Game": why don't social economists focus more on the family? Ms. Harwin's article interested me more at first due to her discussion of judicial discretion and formulae with respect to alimony determination, but then I dipped my toe into the literature on alimony on JSTOR, and found two primary recent resources: Elisabeth Landes' "The Economics of Alimony" (Journal of Legal Studies, 7/1, 1978) and Ira Mark Ellman's "The Theory of Alimony" (California Law Review, 77/1, 1989). Both take what can be fairly called a neoclassical economic approach to marriage, divorce, and alimony, Landes' paper more obviously than Ellman's (which linked the shifting interpretation of alimony to other trends in family law, especially no-fault divorce--very interesting).

To be fair, a neoclassical approach to alimony is not necessarily inappropriate: upon divorce the former partners do become independent bargaining agents (at least with respect to each other), and alimony is, after all, essentially monetary. Nonetheless, this made me think of all the aspects of the standard economics of the family that, in the interest of facilitating mathematical modelling and scientism, leave out important ethical and social elements--elements which are important in most if not all areas of economic analysis, but surely none more so than the family (understood very broadly as any small and close relationship between persons based on care).

There is some social economics research of the family--for instance, Deb Figart and John Marangos' special issue of Review of Social Economy in 2008 on living standards and social well-being contained some great work on the family--but it just seems there should be more. As I said with respect to law and economics in the past, I can understand social economists' disdain for neoclassical analysis of the family, but why aren't we showing the world that we can offer better insights on what is, at its core, a social issue?

There oughta be a book...  ;)


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