A Note on Intimacy in Economic Sociology
Within the social sciences, sociologists and anthropologists have taken the major responsibility for describing and explaining intimate relations. My analyses will frequently refer to anthropological studies, but will draw especially on sociology. This appendix provides a brief overview of relevant discussions in economic sociology for those who have a special interest in the field.
Sociologists have long wavered between hostile worlds and noth – ing-but accounts of economic processes. The hostile worlds view rested on the separate spheres idea: a sharp division between economy and society, with the one embodying impersonal rationality and the other intimate sentimentality. Such theorists as Talcott Parsons saw society as providing the normative and social context for markets, but assumed economic and personal spheres were highly differentiated from each other and operated on the basis of contradictory principles. While attempting to specify the articulation of family and market, Parsons drew on conventional polarities: “the prototypical institution of the modern economy is the market, but inside the family anything too much like market relationships, especially competitive ones, are, if not totally excluded, very significantly limited” (Parsons 1978: 15).
As economic sociology grew into a self-defined specialty, it implicitly accepted such divisions between a market sphere and a noneconomic sphere. However, economic sociologists began to consider the social structure that underlies what they continued to regard as a semiautonomous economic sphere. This led people into a variety of nothing-but explanations. Although studies of consumption and household economies have often adopted cultural and political reductionism, within self-defined economic sociology, economic reductionism has been most common. Nothing-but economic arguments often come into play when economic sociologists interpret a wide variety of social processes in ways that resemble the neoclassical paradigm of individual choice within constraints. In such views, religion, warfare, sport, and various forms of intimacy look much like market operations.
More recently, economic sociologists have worked hard to move beyond hostile worlds and nothing-but economic reductionism. They do so by treating economic processes and behavioral assump – tions—such as markets, rationality, or self-interest—as products of underlying social processes. As Harrison White puts it, market activity is “intensely social—as social as kinship networks or feudal armies” (White 1988: 232; see also White 2001). Yet, current economic sociology has not yet fully relinquished its hostile worlds tradition. The field repeatedly focuses on firms and corporations—al – legedly “true markets”—while relegating other forms of economic activity (such as gift transfers, informal economies, households, and consumption) to a nonmarket world.
Scholars developing alternative views nevertheless provide more radical departures from standard treatments of intimate economies; first, by expanding the definition of work; second, by shifting the emphasis to recognition of differentiated social ties; third, by looking at the actual content of transactions among economic actors, and fourth, by locating cultural content within those very transactions instead of treating culture as external constraint. They map the crossroads of interpersonal relations and economic activity. Chris Tilly and Charles Tilly, for instance, define work in ways that directly challenge the separate spheres/hostile worlds split vision: “Work,” they emphatically declare, “includes any human effort adding use value to goods and services. Only a prejudice bred by Western capitalism and its industrial labor markets fixes on strenuous effort expended for money payment outside the home as ‘real work,’ relegating other efforts to amusement, crime, and mere housekeeping” (Tilly and Tilly 1998: 22). Work’s many worlds, therefore, include employment for wages but also unpaid domestic labor, barter, petty commodity production, and volunteer work.
Paul DiMaggio and Hugh Louch’s analysis (1998) of consumer behavior illustrates the second shift toward recognizing differentiated social ties. As they survey preexisting noncommercial ties between buyers and sellers in consumer transactions involving the purchase of cars and homes, as well as legal and home repair services, DiMaggio and Louch find a remarkably high incidence of what they call within-network exchanges. A substantial number of such transactions take place not through impersonal markets but among kin, friends, or acquaintances. Noting that this pattern applies primarily to risky one-shot transactions involving high uncertainty about quality and performance, they conclude that consumers will be more likely to rely on such noncommercial ties when they are unsure about the outcome.
Looking at the actual content of transactions among economic actors, Nicole Woolsey Biggart observes the operation of intimate ties within direct selling organizations. Companies such as Amway, Tupperware, or Mary Kay Cosmetics, far from introducing narrow professionalized relations, rely on intimate social networks for merchandising their products. Close relatives—spouses, mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins, or nephews—sponsor each other into the organization. Moreover, direct selling is perceived as strengthening marriage and family bonds. Because blue-collar women, Biggart observes, often define direct selling “as a sideline and not a ‘real job,’ they can have the happy combination of making money and being an ‘at home’ mother.” She reports a revealing statement by a Tupperware dealer:
I was driving my son and four friends to a birthday party, and I heard them talking in the back about their moms working.
And one of the kids says, “Say, does your mommy work?” And he goes, “No.” That’s what I want. I don’t want them to think I work. They don’t even think that I have a job because I’m not gone from eight to five. (Biggart 1989: 82)
As they describe their reality, ironically, participants themselves recreate the ideas and practices of separate spheres and hostile worlds.
What about cultural content? My own earlier analyses of monetary transfers located cultural content within social ties rather than seeing culture as external to those ties. For example, the crucial distinctions among gifts, compensation, and entitlements show how people differentiate forms of payments in correspondence with their definitions of the sort of relationship that exists between the parties. They adopt symbols, rituals, practices, and physically distinguishable forms of money to mark distinct social relations and forms of monetary transfers (Zelizer 1994).
Economic sociologists studying intersections of economic interchange and intimate ties, in short, long hesitated between hostile worlds and nothing-but formulations. They never arrived at a satisfactory adjudication among such views because the social reality in question requires not a choice between the two, but their transcendence. Recognition of differentiated ties, each involving distinctive forms of economic transaction, offers an exit from the impasse. The connected lives conception promotes superior explanations.