Money and Intimacy
Take the special case of money. Many social critics concede that peasant households, craft workshops, and fishing villages inevitably mingled economic activity and intimate relations, but somehow escaped the curse of hostile worlds. Elshtain and others reserve their fears and condemnations for monetized social relations, which they see as invading intimate spheres as markets expanded across the globe. Surely the quintessential impersonal medium, goes the reasoning, draws people into thin, fragile, calculating relations with others.
By now, however, the idea that money acts as a universalizing, standardizing medium has taken hard blows. Social scientists, social critics, and ordinary economic actors all recognize as a practical matter—if not necessarily as a matter of principle—that food stamps, subway tokens, local currencies, and commercial paper all qualify somehow as varieties of money but circulate within restricted circuits rather than merging into a single homogeneous medium. Within the zone of money, separate spheres and hostile worlds ideas figure even more prominently than elsewhere in economic analysis.
A closely related idea dies hard: that money and intimacy represent contradictory principles whose intersection generates conflict, confusion, and corruption. Thus people debate passionately the propriety of compensated egg donations, sale of blood and human organs, purchase of child care or elder care, and wages for housewives.
The surprising thing about such debates is their usual failure to recognize how regularly intimate social transactions coexist with monetary transactions: parents pay nannies or child-care workers to tend their children, adoptive parents pay money to obtain babies, divorced spouses pay or receive alimony and child support payments, and parents give their children allowances, subsidize their college educations, help them with their first mortgage, and offer them substantial bequests in their wills. Friends and relatives send gifts of money as wedding presents, and friends loan each other money. Meanwhile, immigrants support their families back home with regular transmission of remittances.
Collectively, such intimate transactions are not trivial. They have large macroeconomic consequences, for example, in generating large flows of cash from rich countries to poor countries and in transmitting wealth from one generation to the next. As intergenerational transmission of wealth illustrates, moreover, intimate transactions also create or sustain large-scale inequalities by class, race, ethnicity, and even gender. For participants, the secret is to match the right sort of monetary payment with the social transaction at hand. That matching depends strongly on the definition of more general ties among the parties. Indeed, the meanings and consequences of ostensibly similar monetary transfers such as allowances, remittances, fees, bribes, tips, repayments, charity, and occasional gifts emerge only from identification of the social ties in question. All these payments, and more, commonly occur in the company of intimate transactions, take their meanings from the longer-term social ties within which those transactions occur, and vary in consequences as a function of those longer-term ties—the limiting and exceptional case being the tie defined as no more than momentary.
My arguments concerning money, then, constitute no more than a special case of this book’s general argument. I argue, first, that people engage routinely in the process of differentiating meaningful social relations, including their most intimate ties. They undertake relational work. Among other markers, they use different payment systems—media—to create, define, affirm, challenge, or overturn such distinctions. When people struggle over payments, of course they often quarrel over the amount of money due, but it is impressive how often they argue over the form of payment and its appropriateness for the relation in question. They argue, for example, over distinctions among payments as compensation, entitlements, or gifts. When you handed me that hundred-dollar bill, were you paying me for my services, giving me my weekly allowance, or displaying your generosity?
Second, I argue that such distinctions apply to intimate social relations. People regularly differentiate forms of monetary transfers in correspondence with their definitions of the sort of relationship that obtains between the parties. They adopt symbols, rituals, practices, and physically distinguishable forms of money to mark distinct social relations. Precisely because of the trust and risk involved, relational work becomes even more delicate and consequential when intimacy comes into play. Although hostile worlds doctrines lead to the expectation that monetary transactions will corrupt such relations and eventually transform them into impersonal mutual exploitation, close studies of such relations invariably yield a contrary conclusion: across a wide range of intimate relations, people manage to integrate monetary transfers into larger webs of mutual obligations without destroying the social ties involved. Money cohabits regularly with intimacy, and even sustains it.
So are hostile worlds pure inventions? Examined carefully, hostile worlds arguments cannot simply be dismissed as fantasies. In their strong advocacy of separate spheres, people are surely doing some kind of significant work. As we will see in detail later, in fact, people regularly invoke hostile worlds doctrines when they are trying to establish or maintain boundaries between intimate relations that might easily be confused, for example, when a father employs a daughter in his firm, or when a lawyer handles his old friend’s divorce. In such circumstances, participants often employ hostile worlds practices, using forms of speech, body language, clothing, uniforms, and spatial locations to signify whether the relationship between this man and this woman is boss-secretary, husband-wife, patron-prostitute, lover-mistress, father-daughter, customer-waitress, or something else. They thus prevent confusion with the “wrong” relationship. One of this book’s main aims is to examine when, where, how, why, and with what effects people involved in intimate relationships invoke the ideas and practices that segregate ostensibly hostile worlds from each other.