Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Hester Eisenstein

Committee Members

Sujatha Fernandes

Rupal Oza

Ruth Milkman

Subject Categories

Asian Studies | Family, Life Course, and Society | Gender and Sexuality | Place and Environment | Work, Economy and Organizations


Gender, Informal Economy, Social Reproduction, International Development, NGOs, India


This dissertation critically questions the use of women’s labor in international development and global capitalism by examining women’s participation in the informal economy, a significant source of work for women in the Global South. Based on ten months of fieldwork in Ahmedabad, India, this study considers women’s experiences with informality when they participate in home-based work, the production of goods for the market in one’s own home. I ask how women’s place-based activities redefine their roles and positions across three spheres of social life: the family, the economy, and civil society (through their participation in a non-governmental organization, or NGO). I argue that the material consequences of neoliberal capitalism for workers can only be fully understood by also accounting for ideological and symbolic relations of power, which is possible with the analytical framework provided by social reproduction theory. Working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a membership-based organization for women in the informal economy in India, I conducted a survey of one hundred home-based garment workers, follow-up interviews with thirty of the workers and spatial analysis of their homes, content analysis of SEWA documentation and media, and interviews with five SEWA directors and four local academics and activists.

This dissertation presents four main findings. First, the temporal and spatial aspects of home-based work create a worker who is always available, even when caring, and easily disposed of in the subcontracting system. Second, the characterization of informal workers as entrepreneurs, exemplified by the micro-entrepreneurial woman, contradicts actual experiences with informality. Third, women express agency in their choices and practices, yet, these actions are informed within a set of socio-cultural and economic boundaries, reproducing feminine domesticity. However, in my final empirical chapter, I argue that women envision resistance to the reproduction of power through their aspirations that their children find secure work in the formal economy. Notably, for their daughters, women emphasize the importance of mobility and leaving the home to “come forward in life,” and so transgress boundaries of feminine domesticity. These aspirations point to women’s understanding of their social position in this economic system, an acknowledgement that was left unsaid earlier in the interviews.

Analyzing women’s place-based activities reveals the role of their social reproduction labor across the institutions of the family, economy, and civil society. Women employ practices and discourses that reproduce, redefine, and at times resist these power dynamics. It is necessary to acknowledge the interdependence of production and social reproduction when considering the growing presence of informality in the contemporary economic landscape and the continuing use of women’s labor to support international development. Lastly, this dissertation highlights the necessity for transnational sociological knowledge, since individuals and communities of the Global South have faced precarity in social life long before the term entered Western discourse