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Lone Mothers and Paid Work - Rational Economic Man or Gendered Moral Rationalities?


  • Simon Duncan
  • Rosalind Edwards


In this article we examine the inadequacies of the rational economic man approach for understanding individual economic decision-making, and we suggest an alternative concept which we call ''gendered moral rationalities.'' We carry out this critique in the context of research on lone motherhood and paid work. This is an important social and political issue where analyses commonly use the rational economic man approach (although often only implicitly). However, these analyses have not, we argue, been able to understand the social processes by which lone mothers take up, or do not take up, paid work. In this paper we take the debate further by using recent empirical work on the employment position and values of lone mothers in Britain, integrating information from interviews with census data. The results suggest that it is nonmarket, collective relations and understandings about motherhood and employment which are the primary factors in explaining lone mothers' uptake of paid work. We term these ''gendered moral rationalities.'' While individual levels of human capital and policy constraints remain important, in a causal sense these are best seen as contingent, secondary factors. The source of economic rationality therefore, at least in this case, primarily lies outside the market and in the domain of collective, and highly gendered, understandings about proper social behavior. This critique parallels recent work by feminist economists who call for a complete restructuring in how economists think and conduct their research.

Suggested Citation

  • Simon Duncan & Rosalind Edwards, 1997. "Lone Mothers and Paid Work - Rational Economic Man or Gendered Moral Rationalities?," Feminist Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 3(2), pages 29-61.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:femeco:v:3:y:1997:i:2:p:29-61
    DOI: 10.1080/135457097338690

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    Cited by:

    1. Anzelika Zaiceva & Klaus Zimmermann, 2014. "Children, Kitchen, Church: does ethnicity matter?," Review of Economics of the Household, Springer, vol. 12(1), pages 83-103, March.
    2. repec:ilo:ilowps:360912 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Esther Geisler & Michaela Kreyenfeld, 2009. "Against all odds: fathers’ use of parental leave in Germany," MPIDR Working Papers WP-2009-010, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany.
    4. Margaret Lewis & Kimmarie McGoldrick, 2001. "Moving Beyond the Masculine Neoclassical Classroom," Feminist Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 7(2), pages 91-103.
    5. Therese Jefferson & John King, 2001. ""Never Intended to be a Theory Of Everything": Domestic Labor in Neoclassical and Marxian Economics," Feminist Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 7(3), pages 71-101.


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