Moving From Economic Production to Social Reproduction
This article is part of Canvas’s International Women’s Week mini-issue
Contemporary discussions on how to recognise parents, whether mothers or fathers, who make the decision to stay at home and raise children is currently stagnating in an unhelpful dichotomy. Radical feminists argue that salaries of those who go to work should be split, and half given to the primary caregiver, a policy which to many may seem intuitively fair but practically extreme. Defenders of the status quo will simply argue that we need to be more grateful for the efforts made by stay at home mums or dads, yet rarely put forward any methods for turning this gratitude into something more concrete.
The problem lies in both the stereotypes we use to discuss household roles, and the concepts we employ when describing the activity that occurs in this highly private sphere. Despite the gender-neutral language that has thus far been employed, these issues are also problematic for the feminist movement, given the undeniable truth that those who stay at home are overwhelmingly female. Whether the responsibility of feminists should be to tackle the expectation that they will leave work and raise children or embrace it as a challenge is beyond the scope of this article. What will be addressed is the patronising way in which the decision to become a housewife, or househusband, is viewed. The first step toward change is the introduction of social reproduction.
Social reproduction is an incredibly simple concept – it is essentially the creation of citizens through the passing on of moral values, education, norms and behaviours. It is the type of activity that any good parent takes incredibly seriously in setting their children up for a successful life and ensuring they contribute to society in a constructive and positive way. Of course this process doesn’t only occur in the household and isn’t only performed by parents – there are a great deal of influences in the classroom, media and general society that contribute to a child’s development. However, the early years of a child’s life are spent overwhelmingly in the home and this is where the vast majority of social reproduction takes place.
To date, social reproduction has been an underused concept, due to its vague and complex nature. Questions such as ‘What makes a good person?’ and ‘What are good values to be raised with?’ have been far too subjective and philosophical to allow the crucial transition from sociology to public policy. However, a shift in the way government deals with social problems has recently altered this. Successive ministers and civil servants have begun to realise that departments tally up the costs of poor social reproduction every day. Whether it’s the crime statistics at the Ministry of Justice, drug treatment budgets at the Department of Health or skills deficits identified by the Department for Business, government has begun to realise that many social problems lie in poor early years development.
The fact that the Government has shifted its focus from solving problems when they present themselves to preventing them before they develop has lead to a new focus on early intervention programmes. Indeed the first principle of the Government’s recent social justice report was ‘Focus on prevention and early intervention’ and the MP Graham Allen has launched a great deal of research in the area. These programmes, which seek to identify troubled young people and invest resources in their development, will begin to quantify and define what good social reproduction looks like and, crucially, how much it costs.
This transition significantly impacts the discussion around the household, turning it economically from a consumptive to a productive sphere. As governments begin quantifying the cost of failed social reproduction, they also start putting numbers on its successes and the activity of the household is given a new legitimacy. A startling example of this is found in the Action for Children study on third sector and charitable child-mentoring services, which shows that for every £1 invested in the area the states saves around £8.50 addressing social problems.
When this type of research is taken into account, ‘stay-at-home-mums’ are no longer seen on a separate plane from ‘working-dads’, as both can be evaluated in the same economic framework that values their activities side by side. Clearly this move towards quantification isn’t a normative one, somehow seeking to explain the development of human beings as only net contributors to GDP. The point is that this concept, and its increasing importance, gives feminists the ability to describe what occurs in the household within the economic framework presented to them by governments and civil servants.
In the long term, the move from pure economic production to a more nuanced analysis, that emphasises social reproduction, has a number of key effects. Firstly, stay-at-home-parents are given more legitimacy and the benefits of their efforts are made clearer at an economic level. Secondly, governments begin to respond to this clarity by introducing family-friendly policies to support primary caregivers. Thirdly, the prevailing relationship between the working dad and the housewife, both in the UK and across the globe, sees a fundamental shift in power and emphasis.
Social reproduction is almost certainly not a radical idea for anyone who has looked at the issue of ‘housewives’ in any detail. Any mother or father will obviously already know the importance of raising their children well, and will be more than capable of weighing up the importance of care with the necessity of work. What the concept provides is an economic framework that includes the reality increasingly realised by governments – children raised well are economically productive, and children raised badly are ultimately an expense. By shifting the focus of governments from the boardroom to the living room, social reproduction gives feminists a tool with which to legitimize the activity of housewives. From this position, the crucial debates around family-friendly policies and the gendered division of labour can occur in a more balanced and nuanced fashion.
Written by Adam Hawksbee
 Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender and Development (Princeton University Press, 1989)
 Jill Steans & Daniella Tepe ‘Social reproduction in international political economy’, Review of International Political Economy, 17.5 (2010) pp807-815