Critical Inquiry and Social Reproduction by Hillary Caldwell

Like the “Shifting Perspectives: Optics for Revealing Change and Reworking Space” section (Section 10) of The People, Place, and Space Reader, which presents various lenses into the spatiality of social change, the selections in this reading list share a similar concern. These readings hone in on demonstrating methods of inquiry that are perceptive to social reproduction as it relates to global capitalist development. Scholars and activists concerned with the injustices inherent to and exacerbated by capitalism often seek and argue for social change in terms of production. This seems especially true for Marxist critics, whose common interests include the people, places, and processes entailed in the production, distribution and consumption of commodities; the political economic and social dynamics of profit-driven production, and organized efforts to contest and/or replace capitalism as the dominant mode of production.

Social reproduction is one such lens, albeit dialectically related to and often overlapping with that of production, through we can study and critique capitalist development. According to geographer Cindi Katz (2001c), social reproduction encompasses the resources and activities that sustain and reproduce the people and places needed for production; it occurs on a daily and generational basis, through political economic, cultural, and material relations, in messy and structured ways. As Katz has argued, capitalism is necessarily dependent upon and irresponsible to the realm of social reproduction, and this relationship has intensified and has been transformed over the past forty years through global economic restructuring (Katz 2001c).

Broadly speaking, responsibility for social reproduction has been offloaded recklessly from national governments and capital onto families and individuals, allowing capital to move about more freely; and, conditions that are necessary for social reproduction and previously were considered public or social in nature are being uploaded into the productive economy through privatization and commodification. If the front lines of capitalist growth and destruction are at home, in the places and practices of social reproduction, what does this mean for anti- and post- capitalist politics? What kinds of social change are needed, possible, already underway? Despite the growing range and severity of social reproductive struggles and their increasing centrality to the new economy, they are not often treated as key or connected sites of social change (see also Federici 2012). This may be due to the general failure of feminist and anti-racist insights to significantly impact mainstream (masculine, white) critical theory. Relatedly, as Katz has suggested, it may have to do with the compulsory, intimate, and variegated nature of these struggles, which makes them difficult to cohere, conceptually and methodologically (Katz 2001c). Whatever the case, the selections presented here are meant to be helpful in seeing, thinking and acting through and beyond these challenges.

First and foremost, these essays, studies, and projects attend to places and practices of social reproduction that are often taken for granted, or treated inadequately by production-oriented work, which can be conceptually weak with regard to lived experience and social reproductive concerns. They bring to light various processes, including disinvestment in, and privatization, commodification, and securitization of, social reproductive environments, and disinvestment in the social wage and the commodification of social reproductive labor, as detailed in the work below. These examples re-present issues that are frequently discussed in abstraction or seen exclusively through the binary of cooptation/resistance, by concentrating on their everyday, material, and ethical aspects (Elwood 2006; Miraftab 2009). They uncover critical potential in the multitude of ways in which people are personally struggling, negotiating, and organizing to defend, access, and transform homes and communities. Conceptual innovations that connect different places and processes, like Katz’s (2001b) “counter-topographies” and Fine and Ruglis’ (2009) “circuits of dispossession,” are especially helpful. Taken together, these selections give insight into how social reproduction is being changed by, and is changing, global capitalist development.

In addition to their theoretical value, these works are notable for their development and use of feminist, anti-racist, and materialist methodologies (see also Parker 2011; Peake and Rieker 2013). Techniques from anthropology, geography, psychology, education, and planning are not applied out of convention, but rather used in critical, reflexive, and often interdisciplinary and participatory ways. Insights are shared in deliberately ethical and affective- indeed caring and hopeful- ways (Gibson-Graham 2008; hooks 2003; Medoff 1994; Smith 2009), and can be used to inform community building and planning practices, activist goals and strategies, policy advocacy, and academic theory. These methods of inquiry into social reproduction go beyond critique of the problem and the movement, and illustrate how to reveal, re-envision, and re-work alternatives that are being lived everyday.

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