Beyond Binaries And Boundaries In ‘Social Reproduction’

Introduction by
Max Andrucki, Caitlin Henry, Will Mckeithen, and Sarah Stinard-kiel

Guest editors Max Andrucki, Caitlin Henry, Will Mckeithen, and Sarah Stinard-kiel present a forum that attempts to call for a “sideways” approach to more-than-capitalist life in the making (Gibson-Graham, 1996)—one that queerly challenges the ontological underpinnings of these binaries themselves by moving across and beyond easy categorization. The papers in this forum will thereby trouble three overarching binaries that are explicitly or implicitly reproduced through social reproduction literature: labor and care, the human and the non-human, and the heteronormative sex/gender binary.


n Milwaukee, Wisconsin a 20-year-old fast food worker of color walks off her job at McDonald’s to demand a $15 hourly wage and the right to organize. In Nunavut, Canada a mine shuts down while its fly-in-fly-out Inuit workers set out on ATVs to hunt caribou. In Barcelona a young gay man remembers to take his daily dose of PrEP, the little blue pill prescribed to prevent HIV-infection, then makes a coffee for his partner. These everyday moments situate deep histories and structural forces making and remaking the contours and conditions of life. These are the everyday moments of social reproduction.

At the most fundamental level, social reproduction is about how we live. (Mitchell, Marston, and Katz, 2004).

A series of multivalent forces unleashed by successive rounds of capital accumulation are reconfiguring life at its most fundamental level—migration, state restructuring, climate change, technological innovation, gentrification, neo-populism, and beyond. Relationships, bodies, and whole worlds are in flux. As the geographies of living and ‘life itself’ continue to shift, it is urgent that we excavate the theoretical assumptions, lived contradictions, and political potentials of the knowledge project known as ‘social reproduction.’

Feminist thinkers crafted out of Marx’s notion of social reproduction an epistemic intervention to make visible the ways in which women’s and other subaltern bodies’ unpaid caring and affective labor inputs subtend capitalist production (eg James & Dalla Costa, 1972; McDowell, 1983; Glenn, 1985; Davis, 1993; Federici, 2004). They also demonstrated how paid forms of caring labor are integrated into circuits of transnational, often precarious, non-market life (eg Enloe, 1990; Wright, 2006; Pratt, 2012; Meehan & Strauss, 2015). This body of scholarship has challenged the binary of work and life upheld by neoclassical economics as well as traditional Marxism and a limited (and sexist as well as racist) focus on trade, waged labor, and the factory floor. Feminists have expanded this empirical realm of inquiry to understand capitalism’s conditions of possibility—the other labors and laborers that reproduce capitalist life as a social (and not just purely economic) formation. These conditions of possibility, uneven across space and time, constitute what Mitchell, Marston, and Katz call “life’s work” (2004).

As both intellectual project and everyday praxis, social reproduction has proved epistemologically and politically transformative. Yet, we wonder whether this dominant approach to life’s work risks reifying the very separation of productive and reproductive labor it calls into question. We ask whether theories that privilege the dialectical relation of social reproduction to the production of value (in the form of capital, labor power, and its reproduction) invisibilize other relations and recite capitalist categories of life. This forum is thus an attempt to call for a “sideways” approach to more-than-capitalist life in the making (Gibson-Graham, 1996)—one that queerly challenges the ontological underpinnings of these binaries themselves by moving across and beyond easy categorization. The papers in this forum will thereby trouble three overarching binaries that are explicitly or implicitly reproduced through social reproduction literature: labor and care, the human and the non-human, and the heteronormative sex/gender binary.

The forum begins with contributions that investigate how new forms of radical queer collectivity emerge alongside the increasing incorporation of LGBTQ families and reproductivities into Western liberalisms. The authors ask what it might mean to “queer” social reproduction: to trouble the gender of social reproduction and to take all queer forms of home and community-making seriously as central to life. While there has been no shortage of hand-wringing over gays and lesbians losing their political and cultural “edge,” Nathaniel Lewis situates the rise of queer liberalism (as well as radical resilience) within its historical and geographic context. Max Andrucki centers gay men’s politics and the voluntary sector to ask how a queer understanding of social reproduction might reframe the everyday making of urban life. Cesare Di Feliciantonio explores the dawning age of PrEP, its dependence upon uneven access to state-sponsored healthcare, and its implications for theorizing sexual liberation. Heidi Nast looks at the deep histories of (post)industrial capitalism, asking what the rise of Market and Machine have meant for the Maternal and how we can conceptualize the queerness of (non)reproductivity. Eleni A. Bourantani traces the way male caregivers in England are revalorizing social reproductive labor in their everyday lives.

The second set of contributions picks up on Bourtantani’s discussion of labor, focusing on how women’s, migrants’ and people of color’s workplace and political organizing is increasingly structured around issues of social reproduction. These authors seek to disrupt the presumed distinctions between spaces of paid and unpaid labor, between capitalist and non-capitalist production, and between individual and collective care. Hannah Schling, in her study of worker dormitories in post-Socialist Czech republic, explores how worktime, non-work time, and idleness complicate matters of social reproduction, while Sarah Stinard-Kiel questions how activist efforts at collectivized care recapitulate divisions of self/other and calls for a deeper politics of solidarity in life’s work. Caitlin Henry and Yui Hashimoto highlight the ways fast food workers and nurses, both practicing forms of commodified social reproductive work, are not just organizing for better wages but also fighting for broad-based social justice. Carrie Freshour extends this discussion of organized labor in her ethnography of Black and Latina women poultry workers in the US South, exploring the gendered, racialized, and sociospatial contradictions of discipline and resistance within capitalist life. These contributions highlight the ongoing need to both locate and trouble the distinction between paid and unpaid labor as well as the role activism can play in politicizing and transforming that distinction.

The final set of contributions explore how shifts in capitalism’s ‘production of nature’ herald novel configurations in not only ‘life’s work’ but also the bodies, natures, and materialities that comprise and exceed capitalism. These authors make clear how nonhuman natures, human health, animal ‘companion species,’ and natural resources do not sit on any neat side of the labor/care, reproduction/production, home/work, or human/nonhuman binaries—requiring a wholesale rethinking of ‘the social’ within social reproduction. Ecological relations of the more-than-human become insinuated into the seemingly human realms of work and care. These ecologies may be microscopic, as in Will McKeithen and Skye Naslund’s exploration of debilitated workers, helminthic therapy, and biological control or Chelsea Leiper’s study of gut microbes and their novel commodification. They also may span entire bioregions, as in Tara Cater’s study of Inuit miners, managerialist timekeepers, and lively caribou. Lastly, Paul Jackson troubles the binary between safe/sick that often reinforces the privatization of social reproduction and the de/legitimation of some subjects as worthy of collective care over others; he offers propositions for a new way forward. In each of these essays, the social becomes all that which associates (Latour, 2007).

Though the forum has been organized around these three binaries and their attendant interventions, these contributions overlap and significantly inform each other. The authors explore and expand on attempts to underline the productivity of social reproduction as a theoretical frame. While some interventions work by both extending and troubling existing and longstanding binaries within social reproduction, others elucidate gaps in the existing literature and point to (socially) productive ways forward. In so doing they all trace the fluidity of relationships between states, markets, families, natures, racialized bodies, and all life that exceeds these categories. Thus, we encourage the reader to approach these essays with the same orientation that we bring to social reproduction—sideways.


Davis A (1993) Outcast mothers and surrogates: racism and reproductive politics in the nineties, In: Kauffman LS (ed) American Feminist Thought at Century’s End: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Enloe C (1990) Bananas, Beaches & Bases: Making feminist sense of international politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Federici S (2004) Caliban and the Witch. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
Glenn EN (1985) Racial ethnic women’s labor: the intersection of race, gender and class oppression. Review of Radical Political Economics 17(3):86-108.
James S & Dalla Costa M (1972) The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. In: Sex, Race and Class: The Perspective of Winning [2012]. (43-59) Oakland, CA: PM Press.
Latour B (2007) Reassembling the Social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Marston S, Mitchell K & Katz C (2003) Introduction: Life’s work: an Introduction, review and critique. Antipode 35.3
McDowell L (1983) Towards an understanding of the gender division of urban space. Environment and planning D: Society and Space 1(1): 59-72.
Pratt G (2012) Families Apart: Migrant Mothers and the Conflicts of Labor and Love. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wright M (2006) Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism. New York: Routledge.

essays in this forum

Worms And Workers: Placing The More-Than-Human And The Biological In Social Reproduction

We ask how Marxist feminist approaches to social reproduction do and do not account for the more-than-human. What happens, we ask, when the social reproduction of capital-labor relations becomes the lively, wriggling, legally liminal hookworm burrowed in our intestine? Where do hookworms (or for that matter the immune system or soil) fit within current social reproduction thinking?


Will McKeithen Will McKeithen and Skye Naslund

Making Fly-In-Fly-Out (Fifo) Work: Multiple Temporalities And Social Reproduction In Rankin Inlet, Nunavut

In this paper, I will critique this separation between wage work at FIFO mine sites and subsistence activities by exploring the multiple temporalities that exist for FIFO workers, their families, and communities focusing on three local temporalities: industrial time, shared social times, and caribou/more-than-human time.


Tara Cater


To queer social reproduction be to retreat into isolation or a promised future of achieving normal, but rather to push for collectivizing caring for one another and all forms of life’s work. Hence the usefulness of the framework of social reproduction, a perspective of everyday life that takes labor as a starting point (i.e., who does the work of keeping people alive) and grounds analysis within questions of political economy.


Paul Jackson

“Re-Wilding” The Body In The Anthropocene And Our Ecological Lives’ Work

New concepts of health suggest that we can build ourselves a healthy, “wild” bodily ecosystem despite the acknowledged environmental crises of the Anthropocene at larger scales, eliciting a sense of techno-optimism at the scale of the body’s ecosystem. This article explores the implications of our ecological lives’ work across scales and argues for a political ecology of health analysis, including a move beyond human/non-human and nature/society binaries in the “social” of the social reproduction of health and healthy bodies.


Chelsea Leiper

(Re)Production: Everyday Life In The Workers’ Dormitory

There are two things in particular to be highlighted here. Firstly, that the dormitory in itself presents a profoundly binary-troubling space, containing a multiplicity of ‘home-work’ relations which produce the laboring subject as more and less disposable. Secondly, in offering only partial reproduction of labor power, the dormitory operates as a key infrastructure in the production of disposable laboring subjects.


Hannah Schling

“Ain't No Life For A Mother!” Racial Capitalism And The Crisis Of Social Reproduction

I trace workers’ experiences of crisis and contestation both within the poultry plant and in their everyday lives through a brief historical analysis of the industry from the standpoint of labor up to the contemporary moment. This research is based on primary and secondary historical material alongside 20 months of ethnographic research with Black and Latina women poultry workers and two grassroots social justice organizations both inside and outside one of northeast Georgia’s largest poultry processing plants.


Carrie Freshour

Unionizing For The Necessity Of Social Reproduction

Not only are nurses unionizing and bargaining for better working and patient care conditions, but they are also situating themselves as defenders of healthy communities, allying the profession with myriad social justice movements. Both groups of workers are organizing to improve their working conditions as well as their living conditions, and, because of their structural position as social reproductive workers, both struggles can be usefully understood as provocations against a broader devaluation of social reproduction.


Yui Hashimoto and Caitlin Henry

Charity? Ally-Ship? Solidarity? Exploring Racial Tensions In Collectivized Caregiving

While I do believe providing any kind of childcare is a bare minimum to sustaining social movements and creating lasting radical change, it’s clear from this research that just showing up is not enough. What is necessary to create truly revolutionary counter-institutions, is to rethink how deeply caregiver, child, and childcare provider are implicated in each other’s lives and struggles.


Sarah Stinard-Kiel

Queer Social Reproduction: Co-Opted, Hollowed Out, And Resilient

The following research vignettes of three different urban landscapes reveal empowerment through new forms of social reproduction in some segments of queer communities, but also a lack of support and growing vulnerabilities in others. I describe here three forms of queer social reproduction—co-opted reproduction, hollowed-out reproduction, and resilient reproduction—that characterize what the current ‘post-AIDS, post-rights’ era for queer communities (Lewis et al. 2015).


Nathaniel M Lewis

Queering The Maternal?: Unhinging Supremacist Geographies Of The Machine, Markets, And Recreational Pleasure

This paper identifies two geographically uneven economic developments that have worked to sideline the biological (child-bearing) and social maternal: the industrial machine (the Machine) and commodity markets.


Heidi J. Nast

The Political Economy Of Gay Sex Under Homonormativity: Bareback, Prep And Welfare Provision

This short intervention builds upon research work I have been conducting in several European cities around (HIV-positive) gay migration as well as my personal experience with (bareback) sex, HIV-prevention, PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, i.e. the taking of a prescription drug to prevent HIV-infection), the rise of homonormativity and many other relevant topics most gay men of my age have routinely faced in Western Europe.


Cesare Di Feliciantonio

Queering Social Reproduction, Or, How Queers Save The City

In this essay I want to think about queering social reproduction through conceptualizing specifically gay men’s social reproduction as ongoing collective labor that is essential to the constitution not just of gayborhoods but of urban spaces in general, particularly through the way it might unsettle binaries of public and private that constrain our thinking around not just intimacy (Berlant & Warner, 1998) but caring labor.


Max Andrucki

Queering Social Reproduction: UK Male Primary Carers Reconfiguring Care And Work

More than twenty years ago, Nancy Fraser (1994) suggested that if men combine work and childcare in the way women do in their daily lives, there could be radical change towards greater gender equality in the world of paid and unpaid work.


Eleni Bourantani