In the broadest terms, people create connected lives by differentiating their multiple social ties from each other, marking boundaries between those different ties by means of everyday practices, sustaining those ties through joint activities (including economic activities), but constantly negotiating the exact content of important social ties. In order to understand these complicated processes, we must begin with three facts that we all experience as human beings but have trouble talking about.
First, we construct the most coherent set of social worlds we can by negotiating and adopting meaningful ties to other people, but differentiating sharply among the rights, obligations, transactions, and meanings that belong to different ties. Second, we mark differences between ties with distinctive names, symbols, practices, and media of exchange; despite some similarities in emotional intensities and significance to our lives, we establish sharp distinctions among our personal ties to physicians, parents, friends, siblings, children, spouses, lovers, and close collaborators. Third, economic activities of production, consumption, distribution, and asset transfers play significant parts in most such relations. Interpersonal relations within households provide the obvious example: no household lasts long without extensive economic interaction among its members.
A fourth fact is less obvious, but no less important. In any particular social setting—not only households, but also workplaces, schools, churches, and clubs—multiple ties of different kinds coexist and often extend across the setting’s boundary into other settings. Ties themselves vary from intimate to impersonal and from durable to fleeting. But almost all social settings contain mixtures of ties that differ in these regards. Participants in intimate relations often signal their connections to others indirectly, in two ways. They do so by insisting on the special characteristics oftheir relations, for example, mother-daughter bonds or relationships with one’s gynecologist. They also adopt economic practices—forms of payment, routines for shared work, joint participation in shopping, and so on—that conform to their understandings of the relationships at hand. These four facts add up to a picture of connected lives.
My analysis of intersections between intimacy and economic transactions stems from a more general view of interpersonal relations. As I see it, all ongoing social relations (intimate or not) include at least a minimum of shared meanings, operating rules, and boundaries separating one relation from another. As a matter of common sense, for instance, people within a given culture recognize differences in shared meanings, operating rules, and boundaries between the relations of store clerk and customer and those of nurse and patient. In most such relations, institutional supports, widely shared definitions, and coaching by third parties reduce uncertainty and negotiation concerning meanings, rules, and boundaries; few people, for example, have much trouble working out how to behave as student and teacher.
Nevertheless, when relations resemble others that have significantly different consequences for the parties, people put extra effort into distinguishing the relations, marking their boundaries, and negotiating agreements on their definitions. As we will see later, even if they engage in sexual intercourse, courting couples commonly take great care to establish that their relationship is not that of prostitute and client. More precisely, to the extent that two relations are easily confused, weighty in their consequences for participants, and/ or significantly different in their implications for third parties, participants and third parties devote exceptional effort to marking what the relationship is and is not; distinctions among birth children, adopted children, foster children, and children taken in for day care, for instance, come to matter greatly for adult-child relations, not to mention relations to the children’s other kin.
Why, then, does it make any difference how economic activity intersects with interpersonal relations? Including economic transactions in social relations generally magnifies the effort that people invest in defining and disciplining their relations. It does so because the coordination of consumption, distribution, production, and asset transfers with their consequences now become integral to the relations. When spouses and lovers succeed in sustaining each other’s lives, they don’t do it with love alone, but with concrete contributions to their joint material welfare. Still, people vary significantly in how widely and easily they maintain intimate relations. As a result of a number of circumstances past and present—including childhood socialization, cultural location, status differences between the parties, and current availability of other intimate relations—people vary dramatically in the extent to which and the means by which they seek to expand or contract the degree of intimacy prevailing in relations that are not already deeply intimate.
Another major point follows directly. People devote significant effort to negotiating meanings of social relations and marking their boundaries. They do so especially when those relations involve both intimacy and economic transactions. They engage in relational work of two important kinds. First, they create differentiated ties that distinguish the relations at hand from others with which they might become confused, with deleterious consequences for one party, both parties, or third parties. Second, they sustain, repair, and renegotiate those ties as new opportunities, threats, and problems arise. Relational work includes the establishment of differentiated social ties, their maintenance, their reshaping, their distinction from other relations, and sometimes their termination. Differentiated ties form in all arenas of social life, including schools, armies, churches, corporations, and voluntary associations. Patron-client relations operate within firms, for example, just as friendship networks often organize a great deal of inequality within schools. Because hostile worlds and nothing-but formulations have most often caused confusion in the analysis of intimate transactions, I concentrate here on issues raised by caring, friendship, sexuality, or parent-child relations.