Notes for February 24, 1998
The first part of the February 24 notes contain a discussion of the costs
of social reproduction from the discussion questions distributed on February
10. Following that are notes on production and social reproduction.
I. Costs of Social Reproduction
The following notes are based on the discussion questions for
week of February 10.
A. Costs. What are the costs of caring for the kids, and more generally the costs of social reproduction? The costs may be actual monetary costs, they may be opportunities foregone, or they may be expenditures of time and energy. They may be at the level of the individual, family, group, social institution, or society as a whole.
1. Monetary: food, clothing, day care, education, health, recreation, housing.
2. Opportunities foregone: These are the economists' opportunity costs.
a. Short term costs: Travel, leisure, recreation, luxuries, individual choices.
b. Long term costs: Career, job opportunities, job advancement, cost of women not in work force.
c. Time issues: Time with others, peers, partner, social life.
Personal time, privacy. Educational opportunities restricted.
Note on Opportunity Costs. In economics, opportunity costs are the result of scarcity, or the fact that choices must be made within the context of scarcity.
Opportunity Costs in Sociology. While we sometimes discuss choices or opportunities foregone, this seems a less central concern than in economics. Perhaps this is because:
These latter costs are even less quantifiable. Note though that
these form a basic part of Folbre's arguments. She tends to introduce
these through her emphasis on norms and preferences, and the forms
of approval and disapproval that go along with those. These are
often very constraining so that people who follow the ordinary
patterns may not always be all that aware of these.
In addition, sociologists may be less concerned with the process
of choice. That is, the models of economists concentrate on the
choices made, seeming to imply that everyday life is concerned
with continually making these choices in a well thought out and
rational manner, with the individual attempting to maximize his
or her satisfaction or utility. In fact, the choices may be more
implicit and less calculated than implied in economic models,
and the process of choice may be relatively infrequent and governed
more by norms and preferences than is implied by many economic
B. Who Pays Costs? Who pays for these costs? What is the
usual situation and what are some of the different patterns? These
may be quite varied within and across societies. E.g. individual,
family (and distribution within family), taxpayers.
Note: much of the following will form the basis for discussions throughout the book. There is considerable variation in who pays the costs - individual choices, norms, patterns, and also depending on the type of cost.
Note with respect to the latter that while everyone pays taxes,
these are certainly not uniformly distributed nor the benefits
from these uniformly received. To say that the state pays for
some parts does help explain the distribution between individuals
and families on the one side, and the society as a whole on the
other. But the patterns of state expenditures, rules concerning
qualifications and eligibility, and the incidence of taxation
all need to be considered. These can raise complex poltical-economic
and policy issues and we will not be able to address all of these.
C. Costs Not Met. Are there costs that should be paid, but are not? These may be costs that are not met, in the sense that the care does not take place. Distribution of this may differ considerably across individuals and families in society.
Note that while some of these are ultimately paid by some in society,
others are opportunities and potential that may be missed entirely.
Some involve changes in systems of taxation or government programs,
and others involve the changes in the norms and preferences which
would lead to different patterns and structures. Some might require
even more radical changes in the structures of society. These
may also differ considerably by social class, ethnicity and society.
II. Notes on Production and Reproduction.
In Who Pays for the Kids? Folbre approaches many of the issues by focusing on the costs of social reproduction. These are "the costs of caring for ourselves, our children, and other dependents" (p. 1) and
They include direct expenditures on behalf of dependents such as children, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly. They also include the costs of time devoted to the care of these individuals, and to the daily maintenance of adults. (p. 3).
For individuals and the family these include the direct costs
of children, the time spent caring for children, the costs of
education, and the other costs of raising children. On a larger
scale, costs of social reproduction also include the costs of
maintaining the stock of knowledge and abilities of society,
although these can also be thought of as part of economic reproduction.
The costs of maintaining physical infrastructure and the
environment are also related to social reproduction, but
these might be more properly considered to be the costs of economic
While we talk about these costs in sociology - when looking at
the structure of the family, socialization, or education - we
do not usually try to define these very carefully or to quantify
them; perhaps they are not always quantifiable. Or sociologists
may not think of these as costs, considering them instead as ways
in which family members act and interact. Economics has only partially
dealt with these costs, tending to concentrate its study more
on commodities which are bought and sold, often ignoring those
human resources, goods and services which do not enter the market.
The latter is true of both neoclassical economics and Marxist
political economy. Both of those approaches provide well developed
theories of costs of production, but tend to ignore many of the
costs of social reproduction.
In contrast, Folbre centres her analysis on social reproduction,
the total costs of this, and how these costs are distributed.
She questions whether society puts adequate resources into social
reproduction, discusses how decisions are made concerning this,
and examines some of the individual and collective ways in which
individuals, households, and society deal with these decisions.
B. Meaning of Social Reproduction
Reproduction is used in a number of ways in sociology. In each
of the uses, it means the replacement of people or structures
with a new set similar to the original, such that the social system
can continue. A basic definition of reproduction is "producing
again" or "making a copy." Reproduction in the
Oxford English Dictionary is the "Action or process
of forming, creating, or bringing into existence again."
While reproduction may mean copying what existed in the past,
this is unlikely to occur in any exact manner for societies as
a whole. There are always changed environmental, social, and economic
conditions, along with new technologies and processes. Over time,
there are new individuals who have different characteristics;
these individuals relate to others in new and different ways.
Consider, for example, integration of newcomers to a country as
a two way process, involving adaptation of the newcomers to the
country, but also meaning changes in social structure as these
newcomers integrate. Where reproduction of social processes, structures,
institutions, and social relationships is involved, reproduction
of the society can even be problematic. There are also economic
and political processes involved, and reproduction of society
- especially in the contemporary era - likely involves considerable
change in the structures, institutions, and social relationships
1. Biological Reproduction. Reproduction can refer to the
specifically biological processes of reproduction - conception
to childbirth. This is biological reproduction and involves
issues related to reproductive behaviour - patterns of sexual
relationships, family structures, biological abilities or inabilities
(fecundity and sterility), contraceptive practices, abortion,
infanticide, and the health of mothers, children and families.
Reproductive technologies and practices are important in this
context. While this is a most basic part of social reproduction,
much more is implied by the latter term.
2. Generational Reproduction. Reproduction may refer specifically
to the ways in which the human population is replaced each generation.
That is, each individual, family or group is mortal and must replace
itself with new human beings. In this case, reproduction refers
to biological reproduction (the process of bearing children) along
with raising, training, and educating children - what sociologists
refer to as the socialization process. This may be referred to
as generational reproduction.
Further along and at the other end of the age spectrum, generational
reproduction can also be considered to involve support for disabled
people and individuals who are past working age. Pensions, savings,
retirement income, along with care for the elderly, the disabled,
and other dependents can all be included. The extent to which
such support is available, and the manner in which support is
organized is related to the larger social and economic structures.
In contemporary society, especially important for the elderly
and the disabled is the nature of the health care system.
3. Daily Reproduction. Reproduction is sometimes examined
on a short term basis, to include the daily, weekly, or annual
process of survival and maintenance of life. These processes could
include the daily family or household based activities such as
sleeping and eating to maintain health and daily life. This can
be referred to as the process of daily reproduction. That
is, each individual is involved in sets of daily activities that
maintain the individual in conditions of physical and mental health
that allow the individual to carry on with normal activities again
the next day.
4. Reproduction of Social Structures and Relations. Another
sense of the term refers to the reproduction of the whole society,
and the social structures and social relationships
that characterize that society. In contemporary social theory,
this is associated with critical theory (Habermas' reproduction
of system and life world) or structuration theory (Giddens'
"structuration refers to the reproduction of social relations
across time and space in various locales." See Ira Cohen
in Giddens and Turner, p. 297).
The social relationships that are reproduced might be cooperative
and helping or they might be conflictual, oppressive, and exploitative.
A key aspect of social structure is that the patterns of social
relationships - social action and interaction - recreate the same
or similar social structures and relationships over time and across
space. For example, the employer-employee relationship of Marxian
theory reproduces itself economically as employers extract surplus
value from workers, leaving the workers impoverished, thereby
making it necessary for the workers to re-enter the exploitative
relationship during the next period. In contrast, members of a
cooperatively structured family or household relate to each other
in a manner such that cooperation, give and take, and altruism
become expected. Each time these actions take place, this furthers
the expectation that they will continue to take place again in
future periods, and these positive social interactions create
the means by which the cooperative family structure is maintained
5. Simple and Expanded Reproduction. Marx also used referred
to simple reproduction and extended or expanded reproduction.
These were used by Marx in economic models that showed how capitalism
maintains itself (simple reproduction) or expands itself through
capital accumulation (expanded reproduction). Reproduction may
also be used in an economic sense in terms of reproducing the
capital structures and the infrastructure that are
necessary to carry on economic activity over time.
When Folbre refers to social reproduction, she seems to
be primarily concerned with reproduction in the first three senses.
That is, she is examining the costs of children, so this is certainly
biological. But Folbre is not only concerned with who takes
on the responsibility of actually bearing children, she is also
concerned with the costs of raising, socializing, and educating
the children. In addition, she sometimes discusses the costs of
caring for other dependents (p. 1). These are the daily and
generational parts of reproduction. Folbre may also be addressing
some of the issues in item 4, in that she is examining the structures
of constraint, norms, preferences, and institutions, all of which
are reproduced from one period to another. However, in Who
Pays for the Kids? Folbre does not appear to be concerned
specifically with the Marxian or economic use of reproduction
as noted in item 5.
C. Production and Reproduction
Note that Folbre contrasts production as such with social
reproduction. Production generally refers to the production
of goods and services as commodities (or possibly as public
goods such as roads or telecommunications infrastructure) in the
economy. At the national level, this is measured by the
Gross National Product (GNP), the total quantity of goods and
services produced in a country, a measure that can be determined
reasonably accurately. In contrast, social reproduction refers
to the tasks, along with the goods and services, necessary to
ensure that social reproduction takes place. Unlike production
in the economy, much of social reproduction takes place in the
household in the form of the time and energy spent taking
care of oneself or others. Some of the social reproduction also
takes place in public institutions such as schools and
hospitals or in volunteer agencies and non-governmental organizations
(e.g. sporting and recreational clubs for children, churches,
United Way agencies).
Services provided in the household and many other services directed
toward direct care of people are difficult to measure, either
conceptually or in practice. In the case of the public sector
or volunteer organizations, the exact meaning and measurement
of production, output, or productivity may be difficult to determine.
Part of Folbre's argument is that even though these latter activities
can be considered to be economic in nature, they are not usually
measured or taken into account within political economy. Her historical
argument is that these have often been neglected during the process
of modernization and economic development. Certainly most are
not included in estimates of the country's GNP.
At the same time, this distinction between production and social
reproduction may be misplaced. Susan McDaniel argues that the
distinction "may be artificial and male-biased." (McDaniel
in Trovato and Grindstaff, p. 284). This distinction may tend
to perpetuate the idea that females should be primarily responsible
for reproduction and may hide the fact that reproduction is "purposive
and meaningful social activity, like production, changes in which
can give rise to societal changes" (McDaniel in Trovato and
Grindstaff, p. 285). This is certainly not Folbre's intention
though, and the thrust of her argument is to include social
reproduction as a meaningful social activity that is recognized
by all and the costs of which are more equitably borne by all.
Origins of the Distinction between Production and Reproduction.
One reason why the division between
social reproduction and production exists is that societal development
has created such a division. In more traditional forms of social
organization, such a distinction may not have existed. Production
and reproduction might have been centred in a rural area or village,
among households and collectivities that carried out many or all
of the tasks associated with survival. In such a society, there
may have been a division of labour by age, sex, or by social stratum,
but there may have been little separation between the tasks of
production and reproduction.
With the development of modern, urban, industrial, capitalist
forms of social organization, the public and private sectors increasingly
became separated, with much of the production of goods and services
taking place in the public economy outside the household. In contrast,
many of the tasks associated with social reproduction continued
to be carried out privately, in the household. As modernization
proceeded, this division continued to develop. Developments in
socialist countries followed a similar path, perhaps with more
of the tasks associated with social reproduction taking place
in the public sphere than has been the case in capitalist industrial
The study of economics and sociology initially concentrated on
what was carried out in the public sphere, as nineteenth century
social scientists defined much of what was carried out in the
household as natural and not really part of society. In contemporary
society, this division between public and private has taken on
new forms, with some parts of social reproduction moving into
the public sphere (e.g. education and health care). At the same
time, families and households continue to have responsibility
for many aspects of social reproduction. Social science has also
changed, with authors such as Folbre developing an social and
economic analysis that takes into account both private and public
Summary. When discussing social reproduction, Folbre
appears to be primarily concerned with the bearing, raising,
socialization and education of children as well as care for
other dependents in the population (disabled, sick, elderly).
Production refers the organization of production of goods
and services through the market or through the public sector.
One of the arguments of Who Pays for the Kids? is (i) that
social analysis should consider both of these, and (ii) social
organization should change to ensure that social reproduction
is adequately structured and organized, and (iii) that the costs
associated with social reproduction are equitably distributed
among members of society.
Giddens, Anthony and Jonathan Turner, editors, Social Theory Today, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1987.
Lipsey, Richard G., Paul N. Courant, and Douglas D. Purvis, Microeconomics, eighth Canadian edition, New York, HarperCollins, 1994.
Trovato, Frank and Carl Grindstaff, editors, Perspectives on
Canada's Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues,
Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Notes from class of February 24, 1998. Last edited on February 22, 1998.
Back to Sociology 304 home page.