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social reproduction

  The interdependent reproduction both of the social relations within which, and the material and discursive means through which, social life is premised, sustained and transformed over space and time (see development; economic geography; society). Engagement within sustainable circuits of social reproduction is a critical prerequisite for, and a condition of existence of, social life. Questions of the existence and significance of any distinction — as well as of the substantive and interpretative relationships — between biological and social reproduction have been debated within feminist geography (e.g. Butler, 1998).

The processes and circumstances of social reproduction are of critical significance in understanding both the making of geographies and histories, and the possibilities for and constraints upon their transformation. The analysis of such geographies cannot be (but all too often is) abstracted from the conditions and practices of social reproduction, which is ongoing and in constant flux and movement. Thus, as a condition of the continued existence of social life, social reproduction, shapes the path dependency of what, in economic geography for instance, are but fleeting moments of production, consumption and exchange, the nature of which is shaped by their place in what is always a dynamic and more (or less) conflict-ridden process of social reproduction which varies over space and time.

Social reproduction is both a material and a social process: material in that the consumption, exchange and production of value is central to it; social in that it is dependent upon the maintenance and minimally disruptive transformation of social relations which give direction and purpose to the dynamics of material life. This duality is recognized (rather narrowly and with an all-too-easy invitation to slip into materially deterministic interpretations) in Marxist accounts of the tendency of the dynamics of productive forces to challenge the continued legitimacy of social relations.

But social reproduction involves not only the reproduction of the relations and forces of production involved in the production and consumption of value but the sustenance and development of (from a modernist perspective) hegemonic dominance (see hegemony) and ideologies which frame ways of thinking about the world or (from a perspective of postmodernism) of the practices of power/knowledge which both construct identity and so define value through discursive practice and thereby serve to challenge the prior significance of social relations in discourse.

Discursive formations may become dominant — and thereby stable, for a time and a space — in a struggle with alternative discourses and so may then be thought of as regimes of truth (Foucault, 1980). But here truth is defined in terms of the discourse itself: a dominance of power/knowledge rather than social or material veracity or prior logic, which, in this view, are themselves merely part of the discourse. In such ways, societies and processes of social reproduction are conceived in terms of socially constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed discourse (see postmodernism) which define identity and so shape social relations.

Clearly the question of the social becomes highly problematic in such a conception of social reproduction. Does it have any meaning other than power/knowledge — or rather is power/knowledge merely another term for (socially constructed) social relations? And does the social have any historical geography or is it always immediate and forgetful? If (socially constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed) social relations amount to something more than power/knowledge, then remembering becomes a powerful social force — a form of power/knowledge in itself, and identity is constructed out of more than discourse. But discourse is itself a social and material process hardly left untouched by the practical circumstances of social reproduction. The struggle between discourses is not merely discursive and regimes of truth are sustained in part by a discursive legitimacy derived from the materiality and sociality of social reproduction.

Thus the maintenance of social reproduction depends on a practice of social relations (Godelier, 1986) which become widely accepted without the expenditure of a great deal of materially expensive and discursively disruptive force, and/or a transformation of social relations without material breakdown. Breakdown may result from the debilitating effects of the excessive amount of force or violence involved in enabling transformation or may, as was the case in the decade or more after the collapse of state socialism in eastern Europe and, more especially, in the former Soviet Union, result from the profound social pathologies generated by the sudden reorientation of social relations. More generally, breakdown may result from processes of underdevelopment and exclusion from circuits of social reproduction exemplified over the past two decades or so by the widespread and devastating famines in various regions of Africa.

In one sense at least, social reproduction is irredeemably non-reductive: it \'refers to how societies “keep going” over time\' (Giddens, 1997, p. 6), and (crucially) in and through space. If social reproduction is to be sustained, the activities of consumption, production and the transactions which link them together must be combined in continuous, if ever-changing, circuits of social reproduction involving the consumption, production and exchange of values (see figure).

But these circuits are dependent not merely upon material flows of value but upon a discursive acceptance of the nature and direction of such flows. So, although in material terms, social reproduction involves the continued production and consumption of value or worth, the practical meaning of value is itself socially constructed through the social experience of its consumption and production and in the transactions and exchanges involved in its circulation through the material sustenance of social life.

{img src=show_image.php?name=bkhumgeofig87.gif }

social reproduction A circuit of social reproduction

Social reproduction may be

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } static, involving the sustenance of social relations and the production of quantities of value sufficient for subsistence. Production must be capable of meeting the needs of consumption, so enabling the reproduction of the labour involved in production, and the replacement of other inputs (like tools, for example) used up in the process of production; {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } expanded, involving the sustenance and/or transformation of social relations in the face of the production of a material surplus and its use in the quantitative expansion of the practices of social reproduction. The surplus may be used to expand the circuit quantitatively and/or geographically, to improve quality and techniques of production and/or to enter new spheres of production, in the development of new productive activities or, more generally, to extend the provision of public goods and infrastructure or the production and distribution of social welfare; and {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } complex, involving increasingly unconstrained choice through the critical assessment and displacement of dominant meanings and norms to reveal and make possible new, possibly even autonomous, systems of consumption, exchange and production.In order to make a living, people must be able to engage with a system of social reproduction in order to gain access to the use values — \'things which serve to satisfy needs of one kind or another\' (Marx, 1976, p. 283; see Marxian economics). One measure of the value of use values is their effectiveness in providing and continuing to provide the material means of social reproduction. Access to such use values involves the establishment of processes of production and consumption coordinated by exchange. So, without access to circuits of social reproduction, human life cannot be sustained whilst the failure of such circuits — a failure often induced by social action rather than by some apparently autonomous conjunctural circumstances but rarely, if ever, without unintended consequences — imperils the reproduction of material life.

The collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s provides an example of the complexity of social reproduction and the causes of its breakdown as revealed in the consequences of its failure — material, political and discursive — and in the resultant breakdown of a regime of truth. Again, however, the use of the word \'and\' here slides over the question of whether material and discursive failure are additive, whether they are two quite different perspectives on the world or whether they are mutually constitutive and, if so, how. The tortuous process of rebuilding those societies into the new millennium also reveals the difficulty of reconstructing new circuits of social reproduction and new regimes of truth as well as the continued significance of the social (as revealed, for example in all the manifestations of social pathology within these societies) in the path dependency of identity formation, social reproduction and social understanding. This tortuous process of change confirms the complexity of the relations between materiality, sociality and discourse in directing and sustaining social and material life and the variable ways in which they may combine in social reproduction. What it does not reveal — as the inadequacy of the multitude of alternative discourses and practices implemented within the region demonstrate — is the nature of the relations between them, relations which are themselves continuously moving and in socially constructed flux. (RL)

References Butler, J. 1998: Merely cultural? New Left Review 227: 33-44. Foucault, M. 1980/1977: Power/knowledge. Brighton: Harvester Press. Giddens, A. 1997: Sociology, 3rd edn. Cambridge: Polity Press. Godelier, M. 1986/1984: The mental and the material. London: Verso. Gunn, C. and Gunn, H.D. 1991: Reclaiming capital: democratic initiatives and community development. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. Lee, R. 1989: Social relations and the geography of material life. In D. Gregory and R. Walford, eds Horizons in human geography, ch. 2.4. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin\'s Press. Marx, K. 1976: Capital, vol. I. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Suggested Reading Daniels, S. and Lee, R., eds, 1996: Exploring human geography. London: Arnold, part 1. Gunn and Gunn (1991), chs 1 and 2. Lee (1989). McDowell, L. 1995: Understanding diversity: the problem of/for \'theory\'. In R.J. Johnston, P.J. Taylor and M.J. Watts, eds, Geographies of global change. Remapping the world in the late twentieth century, ch. 17. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Rose, G. 1993: Feminism and geography. Oxford: Polity Press.



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