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  • An Interpretive Analytics to Move Caring Labor Off the Straight Path
  • Suzanne Bergeron (bio)

The marginalization of caring labor from mainstream thought has been a key concern for feminists studying and working in the field of economic development. An extensive literature dating back to the 1980s has theorized and documented the ways that neoliberal structural adjustment programs have displaced the costs of social reproduction onto women in the global South, making them the “shock absorbers” of economic crisis.1 Feminists have also generated numerous accounts of how globalization has drawn millions of women into paid labor and created a “double day” for many. Yet for all the talk in development institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations about needing to make progress on gender equity, economic development policies have, until very recently, remained fairly impervious to these feminist concerns regarding social reproduction and caring labor.2 In the past few years, however, a shift has occurred in which unpaid caring labor has moved out from the margins of development analysis and policy-making, even in originally hesitant institutions such as the World Bank. Drawing heavily upon work by feminist economists, the problem of women’s care burden and the possibility of solving this problem through development policy are now explicitly highlighted in World Bank research reports, including its flagship gender document, Engendering Development.3

While some attention to social reproduction probably marks an improvement over past practices that all but obscured it, one troubling aspect to this recent shift is that caring labor is framed in the most heteronormative of terms. The linked assumptions that inform dominant economic representations of care work include the following: all adults belong to one of two genders and conform to a dominant gender script; every adult forms a sexual and reproductive bond with a member of the opposite gender and forms a household with that person; and all households in which care work is performed are understood as being constructed around a heterosexual couple [End Page 55] of this kind.4 As I will discuss later in this paper, even when female-headed households are mentioned in research and policy documents on caring labor, they are viewed only as the problematic outcome of failed heterosexual relationships. With these assumptions in place, the “problem” of caring labor becomes the traditional gender normative household in which women have primary responsibility for domestic work, while the “solution” is to create more equal sharing of tasks between women and men. Consequently, social reproduction that takes place within a whole range of other arrangements—same sex partnerships, people who don’t conform to gender norms in their domestic life, and single parent households—is pushed to the margins of analysis.

The heteronormative tenor of this emerging development discourse on caregiving is without question the result of a complex confluence of forces. In this paper I examine one element, the feminist economic theories that provide a conceptual basis for gender and economic development policy. Here, I focus specifically on household bargaining models, which have been declared by many as the sine qua non of feminist economic analysis due to their supposed value neutrality, scientific rigor, and consequent persuasiveness in mainstream circles.5 While economic theories do not determine development practice, they have significant influence due to their reputation within the Bank as the most scientific social knowledge in the development toolkit.6 In this regard, feminist economic household bargaining models have made an impact on programs focused on care work at development institutions such as the World Bank. As one gender research staffer told me, gender equity arguments only gain traction at the Bank if they are rigorous, and feminist household bargaining models have passed that test. Thus the concepts and languages of these models often serve as the conceptual base for understandings of care work in development circles.

Another reason for focusing on feminist economics is that while others have interrogated the heteronormativity that exists within the broader discourse of development,7 there has been no study of the role that feminist economic theory might play in stabilizing or destabilizing these discourses and practices. Yet feminist economic models, despite their underlying political goal of improving the lives...


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