Sociology 304

Notes for February 11, 1999

Notes on Production and Reproduction


A. Introduction

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 reproduction.

    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 of society.

    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 and strengthened.

    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 Distinction. 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 societies.

    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 issues.

    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.

    References 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 for February 11, 1999. Last edited on February 14, 1999.

    Back to Sociology 304 - Winter, 1999