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Centring social reproduction in the study of development

The fourth post in the blog series: What’s Wrong with Development Studies.

Sara Stevano, SOAS University of London

I would like to start with a short premise, to clarify my viewpoint on the question we are addressing in this panel: What’s wrong with development studies and how can we change it? I am trained in economics and, despite having had the opportunity to work across disciplines – particularly with anthropology, development studies and food/nutrition science – I have always practiced in the field of economics. So, from my perspective, I have often looked up at development studies as a space that can embrace interdisciplinary and context-specific approaches, thus more welcoming to critical thinking if compared with the rigid epistemological boundaries of economics. The recognition of such openness should not however neglect the existence of universalising and colonising frameworks in development studies too, as widely discussed at this conference.

Where economics and development studies have a similar problem – most notably in their mainstream versions, but not limited to them – is in the failure to incorporate social reproduction as a fundamental dimension of development. All the work and material practices needed to reproduce life and capitalist relations have never taken a centre stage in the foundational taxonomies of development studies, as shown, for instance, in Andy Sumner’s most recent take on the nature of this area of enquiry.

Such absence from the building blocs of development studies is somewhat surprising given that there is a consolidated feminist scholarship that has been pivotal to analyse the role of women or, more broadly, gender relations in development processes. Some of the key debates, just to name a couple, have been for instance on whether economic development leads to more or less gender inequality; whether women’s participation in the labour force leads to their empowerment or rather to super-exploitation. It is important to recognise the existence of debates within feminist perspectives on development; yet, the nuance and complexity of feminist debates is often lost in wider approaches in development studies and, even more so, in policy making. The most limited and neoliberalism-aligned approach to gender and development – Women In Development – has been the most successful in influencing the practice of gender mainstreaming in development policy – leading to calls for a radical re-appropriation of gender and feminist ideas, to use the words of Kalpana Wilson in a paper that should be a must-read for all development studies scholars.

How scholarly ideas are translated into policy is an issue of broader concern but, to keep my focus on academic issues, feminist approaches to the study of development face a more specific problem. These approaches exist in an epistemic silo that is granted the legitimacy to exist (every development studies department has a gender expert and perhaps a gender-specific course too), at times they may make inroads into the wider epistemic community, but in fact they are never considered to be a foundational pillar in the study of development.

My call here is for the recognition of feminist approaches to development as foundational to development studies. The way to do so is to go beyond the necessity to document and analyse gender inequality and embrace a wider concern with social reproduction. Centring social reproduction in development processes entails a revolutionary shift in perspective because we need to stop and ask ourselves to consider and shed light on everything that underpins and surrounds the development process. So, if we take as an example the Lewis model of economic development, we need to ask ourselves: how is labour produced? In fact, how is abundant labour produced? Instead of assuming that a poorer context is characterised by abundant labour supply, we need to unpack this assumption and interrogate the conditions that may make it possible.

Such shift in perspective, through foregrounding social reproduction, is necessary for at least two main reasons. First, to capture how structural inequalities are reproduced. Second, to fully understand how capitalist production is organised, and its implications for development processes.

Understanding how structural inequalities are reproduced

Social reproduction offers a unifying lens to understand the articulations of oppression and exploitation on grounds of class, gender, race, ethnicity, migration status and so forth (see for example Bezanson and Luxton on social reproduction in Canada; Bhattacharya on Social Reproduction Theory; Mezzadri, Newman and Stevano on social reproduction and work across various contexts). By analysing the articulation of social reproduction and capitalist production, the allocation of people to different forms of work and their associated value becomes apparent, revealing the fundamental existence of social differentiation. This view reconnects the understanding of inequality with Marx’s original formulation in the Grundrisse (p. 95):

‘The structure of distribution is completely determined by the structure of production. Distribution is itself a product of production, not only in its object, in that only the results of production can be distributed, but also in its form, in that the specific kind of participation in production determines the specific forms of distribution, i.e., the pattern of participation in distribution.’

In this respect, however, a critical feminist extension of Marx has documented that the working class is differentiated and not homogeneous. As such, structural inequalities are reproduced through the expansion of surplus populations and through the adverse integration or expulsion from wage labour and global circuits of production (see Bhattacharyya and Mezzadri on these topics).

Towards a full understanding of the organisation of capitalist production

In structuralist approaches to development studies, concerned with production, social reproduction is often considered as residual to capitalist production. However, in peripheral economies, where social reproduction imperatives are not mitigated by the state and social reproduction is largely family-centred, social reproduction comes before and shapes engagement with production – being it agricultural production, cash earning activities or (casual) wage labour. Mozambique, a country that represents the periphery of the periphery in the global economy, exemplifies these dynamics. For example, the workforce in the Mozambican agro-industry, such as cashew processing factories, is highly fluid because often workers are not only wage workers but have to combine wage work with other forms of occasional or seasonal work to make ends meet and, in the case of women, who dominate the workforce in these factories, they have to skip factory work to carry out domestic work at times (see these two articles that use a social reproduction lens to analyse work in the Mozambican agro-industry and in the cashew factories more specifically). Beyond specific sectors and embracing the complexity of Mozambican labour markets not connected to global production networks, it is evident that people with care responsibilities, such as women with young children, are excluded from certain types of work that entail mobility, such as trade; further, the most significant interruptions of paid work are often caused by the necessity to care for an ill relative in the context of very weak health care provision (see this article for a full account of these dynamics). In essence, the social reproduction imperatives are met in conditions of chronic and pervasive precarity of work and life, which produce negative effects on the capital, via low labour productivity and foreign capital volatility, as well as negative effects on labour, through the unmitigated reproduction of intersecting forms of marginalisation and oppression.

In conclusion, the message is clear, we need to bring social reproduction into development studies with the aim to reclaim a feminist political economy understanding of development, not only as an add-on or specialised knowledge, but as a fundamental component of the analysis of development.

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Read previous blogs in the series: