At a Women’s World conference in Korea two years ago some community artists laid out a large piece of canvas on smooth ground, along with pencils, markers, and paints for passersby to express themselves. The resulting piece of collective art was tapestry-like, with a layered intricacy exceeding that of most renegade graffiti.
My camera framed one particular rectangle within it that featured a heart outlined in red paint, the word “love” printed in red crayon, and the word FREE painted in large pink capitals. Two smaller hearts, in pink and sky blue, are evident, a mysterious letter R, some numbers, patches of dark blue, several yellow swirls, and other background scribbles. Something complicated but compelling is pictured here.
This photograph introduces my comments on Viviana Zelizer’s recent book, The Purchase of Intimacy, a masterpiece of qualitative reasoning about quantitative things. Much of economic sociology bears the imprint of the University of Chicago’s most Rational Economic Man. Viviana cleans the slate and turns the tables, explaining how this man’s picture of exchange oversimplifies our lives. We all use money to buy things. But our uses can have different meanings and, as a result, different consequences.
Standard economics relies heavily on a polarity called “for love OR money.” Individuals are assumed altruistic within families but selfish within markets. “Work” is defined as an activity performed only in return for money. The bright conceptual line creates an illusion of separate territories. Look closer, however, and the boundaries begin to fade.
The Purchase of Intimacy offers important examples of transactions that involve both love and money. It reveals a complex interface between market and non-market activities. Like the new behavioral economics influenced by the work of Dan Kahneman and other psychologists, it demonstrates the impact of contexts and frames on individual decisions.
I value Viviana’s critique of the “hostile worlds” hypothesis. While my research often takes a more quantitative turn, I too argue that many transactions lie somewhere on a continuum characterized by surprising combination of calculation and affection. I emphasize the impact of emotional connection on the quality of paid care services and also develop estimates of the economic value of unpaid care services.
Yet I am less optimistic (or perhaps just less cheerful) than Viviana about the ways in which this continuum, this spectrum, is evolving. As markets expand, so too does our ability to interpret and mediate them. But market expansion often has dislocating effects on those who lack sovereignty within it—not just children, the elderly, the sick or disabled, but all those who lack adequate independent access to human and financial capital.
You can read the full version of this article in Word format. Or you can read a PDF version published in Accounts, the Economic Sociology Newsletter in Spring 2007 (along with comments from other scholars on Viviana Zelizer and a response from her). You can view or download a powerpoint presentation that illustrates this article here.