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Economic Lives

Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy

Viviana A. Zelizer
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 496
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  • Book Info
    Economic Lives
    Book Description:

    Over the past three decades, economic sociology has been revealing how culture shapes economic life even while economic facts affect social relationships. This work has transformed the field into a flourishing and increasingly influential discipline. No one has played a greater role in this development than Viviana Zelizer, one of the world's leading sociologists.Economic Livessynthesizes and extends her most important work to date, demonstrating the full breadth and range of her field-defining contributions in a single volume for the first time.

    Economic Livesshows how shared cultural understandings and interpersonal relations shape everyday economic activities. Far from being simple responses to narrow individual incentives and preferences, economic actions emerge, persist, and are transformed by our relations to others. Distilling three decades of research, the book offers a distinctive vision of economic activity that brings out the hidden meanings and social actions behind the supposedly impersonal worlds of production, consumption, and asset transfer.Economic Livesranges broadly from life insurance marketing, corporate ethics, household budgets, and migrant remittances to caring labor, workplace romance, baby markets, and payments for sex. These examples demonstrate an alternative approach to explaining how we manage economic activity--as well as a different way of understanding why conventional economic theory has proved incapable of predicting or responding to recent economic crises.

    Providing an important perspective on the recent past and possible futures of a growing field,Economic Livespromises to be widely read and discussed.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3625-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The Lives behind Economic Lives
    (pp. 1-12)

    When I started my academic journey during the 1970s, I never imagined that I would arrive at the center of a field called economic sociology. This collection of papers from across that journey—so far!—traces the intersection of three initially separate paths: the development of one scholar’s theoretical and empirical concerns; the transformation of a once-marginal intellectual field into a flourishing enterprise; and the opening of new conversations between two established but long-alienated disciplines: economics and sociology. This triple perspective has a deep disadvantage and a strong advantage. On the negative side, it suggests a false claim that I...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 13-18)

      Pricing life raises daunting questions: How can we establish monetary equivalents for human existence? Should we? Are all lives worth the same, or are some more valuable than others? Who decides? Is giving money to compensate for death proper recognition of a serious loss, or is it a morally corrupting practice? Is accepting payment evidence of a recipient’s greediness or a legitimate way to seek justice? Who is entitled to receive money for the death of others? Which others?

      After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Kenneth Feinberg, appointed by Congress as special master of the Victim Compensation Fund,...

    • 1 Human Values and the Market: The Case of Life Insurance and Death in Nineteenth-Century America
      (pp. 19-39)

      For Durkheim and Simmel, one of the most significant alterations in the moral values of modern society has been the sacralization of the human being, his emergence as the “holy of holies” (Wallwork 1972, 145; Simmel 1900). In hisPhilosophie des Geldes(1900), Simmel traces the transition from a belief system that condoned the monetary evaluation of life to the Judeo-Christian conception of the absolute value of man, a conception that sets life above financial considerations. The early utilitarian criterion was reflected in social arrangements, such as slavery, marriage by purchase, and thewergeldor blood money. The rise of...

    • 2 The Price and Value of Children: The Case of Children’s Insurance in the United States
      (pp. 40-60)

      On March 14, 1895, theBoston Evening Transcriptstated: “No manly man and no womanly woman should be ready to say that their infants have pecuniary value.” The paper was attacking the widespread contemporary practice of insuring children. For three cents a week, for instance, a one-year-old child could be insured for $10, a ten-year-old for $33. To this day, the concept of making money out of the life or death of a child seems mercenary and morally repugnant to most people. Yet a major national survey sponsored by the American Council of Life Insurance in 1976 reveals that 57...

    • 3 From Baby Farms to Baby M
      (pp. 61-71)

      The Baby M deal would astonish any nineteenth-century baby trader. Not because of inflation in baby prices and not even because of Baby M’s unusual mode of conception. The amazing fact, from a nineteenth-century perspective, is that Baby M has such eager and paying customers. For in the 1870s, there was no such market for babies. The only profitable undertaking was, as theNew York Timesdescribed it in 1873, the “business of getting rid of other people’s [unwelcome] babies.” For about $10, baby farmers took in these generally illegitimate children. With babies’ high rates of mortality, the turnover was...

    • 4 The Priceless Child Revisited
      (pp. 72-88)

      American novelist Frederic Tuten recalls scenes from his New York childhood during World War II:

      She was a thin woman without much fantasy. In her dress, I mean. Black from head to toe, in the Sicilian manner. She was a Sicilian, in fact, and she was my grandmother. She spoke little, and to my humiliation—I wanted to be like the other American kids in the Bronx—in Sicilian. And then, too, we were at the tail end of the war with Italy. So that in the street and other public places I answered her in English to distance myself....


    • Introduction
      (pp. 89-92)

      When governments pump money into an economy to stave off recession, their economists ordinarily assume that as long as it reaches the same population of consumers, it little matters whether they package the payment as a wage rise, a tax credit, or a one-time grant of cash. Recipients’ practices, however implicit, generally show that they disagree. Where the money comes from, in what form, and how, strongly affects how people actually use it.

      A 2002 study of Wisconsin low-income households established, for example, that the families receiving checks for income tax refunds and earned income tax credits distinguished sharply between...

    • 5 The Social Meaning of Money: “Special Monies”
      (pp. 93-127)

      In Rossel Island, a small, traditional community in the southwestern Pacific, the gender of money was tangibly identified—separate lower-value coins were reserved exclusively for women. And in Yap, one of the Caroline Islands in the west Pacific, mussel shells strung on strings served as women’s money, while men monopolized the more desirable large stones (Baric 1964, 422-23; Sumner [1906] 1940, 140). In contrast to the money in these primitive societies, modern money seems starkly homogeneous and surely genderless. Yet, camouflaged by the physical anonymity of our dollar bills, modern money is also routinely differentiated, not just by varying quantities...

    • 6 Fine Tuning the Zelizer View
      (pp. 128-135)

      Neoclassical economics has come under increasing siege. In the past decade or so, critics from a wide spectrum of disciplines (sociology, political science, psychology, law, management studies, international relations, economics), and from both sides of the Atlantic, have grown bolder in their complaints against mainstream economic theorizing (varied examples include Ben-Ner and Putterman 1998; Bloch 1994; Callon 1998; Zelizer 1998; Smelser and Swedberg 1994; Steiner 1999). In their provocative paper in this issue, “Markets and Money in Social Theory: What Role for Economics?,” Fine and Lapavitsas (2000) join these critics with their own strongly argued alternative: Marxist political economy.


    • 7 Payments and Social Ties
      (pp. 136-149)

      Suppose for a moment that this is the year 2096. Let’s take a look at American families: although by now money often takes postelectronic forms unfamiliar to the twentieth-century, in the “traditional” home, “housewives” and “househusbands” receive monthly stipulated sums of money as salaries from their wage-earning spouses. Salaries are renegotiated yearly; fines are imposed for sloppy cleaning, incompetent cooking, careless child care, or indifferent lovemaking. Midyear raises or cash prizes are awarded for exceptional performance. An arbitration board solves domestic financial disputes. In other forms of households, spouses have separate accounts, distribute domestic and emotional tasks equally, and pay...

    • 8 Money, Power, and Sex
      (pp. 150-164)

      During the late 1990s, John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, Sabin Streeter, and their collaborators were interviewing Americans about their work. Following the model of Studs Terkel, their book,Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs, reports how people in a wide range of occupations feel about what they do for a living. Among them is stripper Sara Maxwell. At twenty-two, Maxwell moved to San Francisco after graduating from a small Virginia college and strip-danced for men at a club called Lusty Lady. The most lucrative part of her work involved erotic performances without physical contact in a private booth occupied by one...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 165-170)

      When divorcing couples negotiate their troubles in court, intimate economies go public. Legal reckoning of a household’s work and finances turns routine transactions into openly contested exchanges. Consider the divorce case ofdeCastro v. deCastro, 616 N.E.2d 52 (Mass. 1993). At issue was the wife’s claim to an equitable share of the couple’s marital property. Jean, a schoolteacher, and Edson, a corporate employee, had married in 1963. Jean left her job to raise the couple’s three children, while Edson launched a successful business venture, fully subsidized by the couple’s joint savings. In 1980, Edson letf Jean for another woman but...

    • 9 Do Markets Poison Intimacy?
      (pp. 171-180)

      In March 2005, a remarkable case stirred the courts and press of Florida before becoming a national cause célèbre. After years of struggle out of the limelight, Theresa Schiavo’s husband and her close kin engaged in a furious public battle over whether to maintain the brain-damaged woman’s life support. At stake was not only her life, but also who had the right to decide what sort of care she should receive.

      Fifteen years earlier, Terry Schiavo had collapsed, never to regain consciousness. Before that, her parents, Mary and Bob Schindler, had helped the young couple financially with moving expenses and...

    • 10 The Purchase of Intimacy
      (pp. 181-212)

      InMaking Ends Meet(1997), their important study of how low-income and welfare single mothers survive financially, Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein make three observations of great consequence for this paper’s topic; first, that relationships to men played a significant part in the household finances of these mothers; second, that the women made strong distinctions among their various relationships to men who are or have been their sexual partners; and third, that they developed distinct systems of payment and obligations corresponding to these different relationships. In field observations and interviews of almost four hundred mothers, Edin and Lein identified a...

    • 11 Kids and Commerce
      (pp. 213-236)

      Here are four vignettes of children’s economic activities:

      1. Studying children’s vital labor contributions to their parents’ Chinese take-away family businesses in Britain, Miri Song reports how children carefully differentiated “helping out” from formal employment. Parents’ payments, for instance, were seldom treated as ordinary wages. As Anna, one of Song’s respondents, recalled:

      We never asked for more. ’Cause it was seen as a bonus, ’cause we worked anyway. And it was just like a little token gesture to buy yourself a record or something nice to read. (Song 1999, 85)

      2. Elizabeth Chin’s ethnographic account of ten-year-old, poor and working-class...

    • 12 Intimacy in Economic Organizations
      (pp. 237-268)

      When Paul Wolfowitz took over as head of the World Bank, he faced a delicate problem: Shaha Ali Riza, the woman with whom he had been maintaining an intimate relationship, was a World Bank official. For her to remain in place would sound conflict-of-interest alarms, but he could not simply fire her. So, following the informal advice of the bank’s ethics committee, Wolfowitz arranged his companion’s transfer to the U.S. State Department. The problem was the terms of the transfer that Wolfowitz negotiated.

      According to the World Bank Staff Association’s expression of “concern, dismay and outrage,” Riza’s transfer involved several...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 269-274)

      Searching for advice, a worried daughter posted her anxieties on a blog, asking:

      Can I get paid to take care of my mother who is elderly and needing full-time care? Up until recently, I had been working two full-time jobs but had to quit both jobs in order to care for my aging mother, who is disabled and unable to take care of herself since her release from the hospital. I am an only child, and not trying to make money off my mother’s situation. . . . Do you or your readers know if I can get paid to...

    • 13 Caring Everywhere
      (pp. 275-287)

      Here is how an Austrian woman reports her response to being paid by Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity, for taking care of her mother-in-law:

      You can only say that I simply felt as if I had been promoted. Society also saw it totally differently then. Suddenly it was, “Aha, you’re doing a job.” Although I didn’t do anything differently from before, it was suddenly seen as self-evident. But if you then say that you’re working for Caritas, people say to you, “Wow, you’re working now.” . . . As soon as you’re in employment and can say to the doctor...

    • 14 Risky Exchanges
      (pp. 288-302)

      In October 2006, icon pop singer Madonna attracted international headlines by adopting David Banda. David was a motherless one-year-old boy residing at the Home of Hope Orphan Care Centre in the isolated village of Mchinji, Malawi. The boy’s father, reportedly unable to support his child, expressed great pleasure that the boy should escape local poverty and receive such great care. At the same time, Madonna pledged about $3 million to help orphans in Malawi. Meanwhile, Malawian advocacy groups objected to what they apparently saw as Madonna’s impulse purchase. “It’s not like selling property,” protested Eye of the Child, a child...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 303-310)

      Why do immigrants, often at the expense of their own needs, set as a budgetary priority sending large chunks of their hard-earned money to relatives in their country of origin?

      When legal tender works so well to bridge across commodities, transactions, and people, and at time when the euro links ever-wider spaces, why in the world do people go to great lengths to create local monetary systems, with their own rules, membership, trading, and value?

      Why is it that in organizations such as the military or prisons, which in theory provide all members’ needs for survival, very active economies exist,...

    • 15 Circuits within Capitalism
      (pp. 311-343)

      In recent years, economic prophets have frequently warned us against global commodification and the loss of moral-emotional fiber it brings. From Robert Kuttner’sEverything for Sale(1997), Robert Lane’sThe Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies(2000), to Jeremy Rifkin’sThe Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life Is a Paid-For Experience(2000), social critics fret incessantly over what Rifkin calls the “clash of culture and commerce.” “When most relationships become commercial relationships,” Rifkin worries, “what is left for relationships of a noncommercial nature . . . when one’s life becomes little more than an...

    • 16 Circuits in Economic Life
      (pp. 344-354)

      Let me explain why economic sociologists should find circuits interesting. I began work on economic circuits about six years ago, but then left the topic aside while writingThe Purchase of Intimacy. That book did not deal with circuits explicitly, but it did raise the more general questions for which circuits provide a possible answer: through what configurations of interpersonal relations do people carry on valued economic activities, and how do they work?

      Not that I have a neat logico-deductive theory of circuits to propose in answer to that question. Within economic sociology, scholars adopt remarkably contrasting styles of work....


    • Introduction
      (pp. 355-362)

      During 1990–91, I participated in an exciting and pioneering seminar on economic sociology sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. Of the sixteen members regularly attending the seminar, I was the only woman. At the time, this was not unusual. Two decades later, the gender composition of the field has certainly changed, but only moderately. True, young women scholars are publishing exceptional work, teaching economic sociology, and also taking up leadership positions within the field’s organizations. Yet consider the following: among the thirty-four economic sociologists identified by Richard Swedberg in 1997 as “key people” in the field, only four were...

    • 17 Beyond the Polemics on the Market: Establishing a Theoretical and Empirical Agenda
      (pp. 363-382)

      The market is no longer a safe place to theorize. Its long-standing neutrality is being increasingly violated by scholars from various disciplines who refuse to treat the market as a purely economic institution. Among others, White (1981) asks “Where Do Markets Come From?”; Granovetter (1985) explores the social “embeddedness” of economic life; Barber (1977) demystifies the “absolutization” of the market; Agnew (1986) traces the emergence of a market culture in Britain and America; and inThe Rise of Market Culture, Reddy (1984) boldly argues that the market is nothing but a cultural construction. And while most economies remain hostile or...

    • 18 Pasts and Futures of Economic Sociology
      (pp. 383-397)

      Economic sociology has gone through astonishing changes in the past twenty-five years. From a simultaneous critique of, and complement to, neoclassical economics, it has become a rich, self-sustaining field. It has begun to generate or incorporate serious alternatives to neoclassical economics. These changes have deeply affected my own attitude toward, and relationship to, economic sociology.

      In fact, a funny thing happened to me on the way to economic sociology. For my entire career, I have worked on different economic processes, with books on how life insurance became acceptable, on the valuation of children, on interpersonal monetary practices, and more recently...

    • 19 Culture and Consumption
      (pp. 398-439)

      Strange as it may now seem, during the 1960s many American planners argued that shopping malls could provide solutions to suburban sprawl and urban anomie. Designer and developer Victor Gruen led the chorus, building some of the country’s largest and best-publicized suburban shopping centers. Moreover, he wrote eloquently about their virtues. Speaking especially of the Northland and Eastland centers his company built in the Detroit metropolitan area, Gruen crowed that they had created a new, intense kind of community:

      I remember the surprised faces of my clients when we drove out to a shopping center on a Sunday and found...

    • 20 Ethics in the Economy
      (pp. 440-458)

      In 2003, an ailing Boeing corporation brought back from retirement former president Harry Stonecipher to turn the company around. Amid a flurry of reforms, the now CEO Stonecipher installed a code of company ethics to publicize the firm’s new self-discipline. Only two years later, however, he fell afoul of his own reforms. One provision of the new ethics code stipulated that “employees will not engage in conduct or activity that may raise questions as to the company’s honesty, impartiality, or reputation or otherwise cause embarrassment to the company.”¹

      As newspapers around the United States reported, Stonecipher did embarrass Boeing. He...

  11. Published Works of Viviana A. Zelizer on Economic Sociology
    (pp. 459-464)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 465-478)