Twenty years after The Social Meaning of Money, a series of articles discussing its legacy.
… people employ money as a means of creating, transforming, and differentiating their social relations. Instead of a single, fungible money that reduces social relations to a thin common denominator, they show us the integration of differentiated monies into the whole range of interpersonal ties. As a consequence, people are constantly creating new monies, and they do so by segregating different streams of legal tender into funds for distinct activities and relations. For example, people regularly distinguish between relations that are short-term or long-term, intimate or impersonal, and broad or narrow in the range of shared activities they encompass. People also mark moral boundaries among categories of money: consider the variable meanings of “dirty” money, “easy” money, or “ blood” money. People often “launder” dubious earnings by making donations to charity or other morally cleansing destinations.
Viviana Zelizer, Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy (Princeton University Press: 2011), p.89.
[…] For instance, did the social workers’ bestowal of money involve the right to tell families how to spend? Or did charitable income, once it entered the households of the poor, become their property?
The poor, too, had their own systems for earmarking household monies, not just for good times, but for a whole range of expenses; rent money was not the same as food money, and insurance was kept apart from a church donation. Even personal monies were differentiated; a son’s personal-spending allowance was treated quite differently from his sister’s, or from their father’s saloon money or his carfare. When poor families could afford it, they often set money aside for fraternal organizations or other mutual-aid societies, or, in the case of immigrants, earmarked certain monies to be sent to their families abroad. […]
From Viviana Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money (BasicBooks: 1994), p.171.
Why the embeddedness-bashing? We can explain it in part as a predictable historical shift in paradigms. Embeddedness certainly has had its day, profoundly transforming our understandings of economic activity. We might therefore expect that the field is ripe for a conceptual shift. More substantively, however, for many of its critics embeddedness does not go far enough in debunking standard economic models. Skeptics complain that the concept typically assumes a social container within which economic processes, not fully conceived as socially constituted, operate. In this view, social relations, Krippner and Alvarez note, “affect the economy from the outside.”[…] Harrison White made that point forcefully in Markets from Networks: “Producers are not just embedded in a market, as the
sociologist Mark Granovetter (1985) would argue.” Instead, White notes, “they actually constitute the market‟s interface in, and as the set of, their perceptions and choices.” […] David Stark likewise challenges embeddedness’ lingering allegiance to what he calls “Parson’s Pact” by which sociologists agree to lay claim “on the social relations in which economies are embedded,” but not the economy itself. […]
To move forward, therefore, economic sociology must become even more transgressive by focusing on the meaningful and dynamic interpersonal transactions that make up all forms of economic activity. In this alternative view, negotiated interpersonal transactions, not the individual, become the starting point for social processes. Once we agree with the premise that economic transactions are fundamentally social interactions, the search is on for a better theory of social process to account for economic activity. A relational work approach moves towards such a theory. It posits that in all areas of economic life
people are creating, maintaining, symbolizing, and transforming meaningful social relations. As they do so, moreover, they are carrying on cultural symbolic work. The goal, therefore, is to study variability and change in those social relations.
From Viviana Zelizer, “How I Became A Relational Economic Sociologist, & What Does That Mean” (2011), available online.