Social reproduction as social infrastructure (Soundings 76, Winter 2020)

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Publication date: January 12, 2020

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Sarah Marie Hall

The term social infrastructure is increasingly being discussed in academic literature, policy reports and public forums. We might even go so far as to say it is the latest buzzword. Feminist economists understand social infrastructures as encompassing all aspects of social reproduction, but these ideas are routinely sidelined in wider debates. This article provides a critical reading of key trends in the ways the term social infrastructure is currently being defined and deployed: namely, as being equivalent to social spaces and spaces of sociability, such as community centres, parks and libraries, rather than being understood in terms of labour, gender and social reproduction. Part of the reason for this is the association between social reproduction and the home, which leads to a dismissal of reproductive work in communities at large. In writing about infrastructures more generally, it is not uncommon for gendered labour, care and reproduction to go completely ignored, or at least to only be discussed in relation to physical infrastructure. This simultaneous erasure and co-optation of feminist ideas has the effect of diminishing, diluting and marginalising the role of social reproduction as the foundation of our economy and society. It is therefore also a form of depoliticisation. In the article’s conclusion, the case is made for recognising and reclaiming social reproduction as social infrastructure: an infra-structural approach could help alleviate long-standing tensions in definitions of social reproduction as both process and practice, and as operating on multiple scales.

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