Penn State

Michael F. Polgar - associate professor of sociology, Penn State Hazleton

Book Title: The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency

Author: Martha A. Fineman

Book Description:

Martha Fineman's essay "Dependency and Social Debt" (2006) articulates the ways that government policies may perpetuate a stigmatized view of social support, which is more often done in families and by women. Caring for dependent family and friends is necessary work, but historically it has been a woman's burden and not wage labor. Subsequently, dependency has been devalued and law has recognized a largely autonomous view of human individuals. We need others, especially as children ("it take a village"), but our own vulnerability is masked by the autonomous subject in law.

Fineman's the Autonomy Myth (and her scholarship more generally) develops these ideas, reframing social and legal theory against "the rhetoric of independence." Poverty as social inequality is not simply a failure of society or individuals, it is not only a result of discrimination, it is related to the fact that social institutions do not reward caretaking. All people in society are more or less vulnerable and need social help to be free; we do not create or maintain a society of free people without helping each other. Assorted constellations of families take on most vulnerabilities ("privatization" of dependency), and women usually get most of the work, both feminizing poverty and creating "derivative dependency" (e.g. poor mothers).

This legal scholar and these concepts inspired me to continue my work in sociology and to understand social problems and policies in new ways.

I look forward to working with students and colleagues to blend and advance these ideas; please help me use them to improve our society.


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