Separate Spheres? Hostile Worlds?
Social critics and scholars have divided among three clusters of answers to these questions. A first group, the most numerous, have long proposed the twin ideas of “separate spheres and hostile worlds”: distinct arenas for economic activity and intimate relations,
Risky Dual Relationships for Practicing Psychologists
Adapted from Evans and Hearn 1997: 55-57.
with inevitable contamination and disorder resulting when the two spheres come into contact with each other. A second, smaller group has answered “nothing-but”: far from constituting an encounter between two contradictory principles, the mingling of economic activity and intimacy, properly seen, is nothing but another version of normal market activity, nothing but a form of cultural expression, or nothing but an exercise of power. A far smaller third cluster—to which I belong—has replied that both of the first two
positions are wrong, that people who blend intimacy and economic activity are actively engaged in constructing and negotiating “Connected Lives.”
How does the first view work? An old, influential tradition asserts the existence of separate spheres and hostile worlds. In this account, a sharp divide exists between intimate social relations and economic transactions. On one side, we discover a sphere of sentiment and solidarity; on the other, a sphere of calculation and efficiency. Left to itself, goes the doctrine, each works more or less automatically and well. But the two spheres remain hostile to each other. Contact between them produces moral contamination. Monetization of personal care, to take an important example we will revisit later on, corrupts that care into self-interested sale of services. The doctrine of hostile worlds rests (sometimes invisibly) on the doctrine of separate spheres. Intimacy only thrives, accordingly, if people erect effective barriers around it. Thus emerges a view of the separate spheres as dangerously hostile worlds, properly segregated domains whose sanitary management requires well-maintained boundaries. Parties to intimate relations often speak the language of hostile worlds and separate spheres, insisting that the introduction of economic calculations into intimate relations would corrupt them. Critics and analysts often follow their lead.
In a normative version, the hostile worlds view places rigid moral boundaries between market and intimate domains. It condemns any intersection of money and intimacy as dangerously corrupting. Love and sex, Michael Walzer tells us, belong prominently among those “blocked exchanges”: spheres of life where monetary exchanges are “blocked, banned, resented, conventionally deplored” (Walzer 1983: 97). In the context of our “shared morality and sensibility,” he explains, “men and women marry for money, but this is not a ‘marriage of true minds.’ ” Sex is for sale, but the sale does not make for ‘a meaningful relationship’ ” (103). Or, as Fred Hirsch more pungently warns: “orgasm as a consumer’s right rather rules it out as an ethereal experience” (Hirsch 1976: 101). This view springs from widespread popular concerns. Murray Davis puts it thus:
Sex for money. .. muddles the distinction between our society’s sexual system and its economic system. Every transaction between prostitute and customer is an overlap point at which each social system exchanges characteristics: sex becomes commercialized while commerce becomes sexualized. Our society’s attempt to avoid this cross-system contamination helps explain why it forbids us to sell our bodies but not our time, energy, thought, and behavior—even though most people identify with the latter at least as much as with the former. (Davis 1983: 274 n.9)
In fact, the feared contamination runs in both directions: according to the hostile worlds view, intimacy can also contaminate rational economic behavior (see Saguy 2003; Salzinger 2003; Schultz 1998; Williams, Giuffre, and Dellinger 1999). Workplaces, as James Woods has shown, are typically constructed as asexual spheres where sexuality looms as “an external threat to an organization . . . something that must be regulated, prohibited, or otherwise held at the company gates” (Woods 1993: 33). What he calls the “asexual imperative” goes beyond protecting vulnerable workers, typically women, from sexual harassment. It supports organizational prohibitions against the use of sexuality to determine matters of workers’ hire, pay, promotion, or dismissal. One of the worst aspersions one can cast against a rising company official is that he or she slept their way to the top. (Equally damning is the accusation of having put a lover on the company payroll.) Corruption thus runs in both directions. Better to keep the separate spheres far apart.
Such worries about the incompatibility, incommensurability, or contradiction between intimate and impersonal relations are longstanding and persistent. Since the nineteenth century social analysts have repeatedly assumed that the social world organizes around competing, incompatible principles: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, ascription and achievement, sentiment and rationality, solidarity and self-interest. Their mixing, goes the theory, contaminates both; invasion of the sentimental world by instrumental rationality desiccates that world, while introduction of sentiment into rational transactions produces inefficiency, favoritism, cronyism, and other forms of corruption. Only markets cleansed of sentiment can generate true efficiency.
The theory gained force with reactions to nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. Although earlier theorists had often allowed for the coexistence of solidarity and self-interest, both advocates and critics of industrial capitalism adopted the assumption that industrial rationality was expelling solidarity, sentiment, and intimacy from markets, firms, and national economies (Hirschman 1977; Tilly 1984). Whether they deplored capitalism’s advance, celebrated it, or treated it as a necessary evil, they commonly agreed on an idea of contamination: sentiment within the economic sphere generates favoritism and inefficiency, while rationality within the sentimental sphere destroys solidarity. Thus strong segregation of the spheres served both of them. The nineteenth-century ideology of domesticity provided further, powerful justification for the separate spheres doctrine. Despite some feminists’ critiques, social theorists upheld separate spheres and hostile worlds views as essential for preserving the sacredness of the family. In this deeply gendered scheme, households, women, and children needed protection from the dangerously encroaching and aggressively masculine market (Boydston 1990; Cott 1977; Welter 1966).
The theory reappeared in camouflage as organizational analysts noticed new forms of capitalism emerging after World War II. Where firms, markets, friendships, families, governments, and associations had seemed to be differentiating ever more sharply as capitalism advanced, now new organizational forms called forth such terms as flexible production, hybrid firm, and network forms. Paul DiMaggio points out that:
for all their diversity, the firms to which researchers called attention shared several notable features: greater suppleness than their more traditionally bureaucratic counterparts, a greater willingness to trust employees and business partners, a preference for long-term “relational contracting” over short-term market exchange for many transactions, a commitment to ongoing technological improvement—and an apparent renunciation of central features of Weber’s model [of bureaucratization]. (DiMaggio 2001: 19)
Given dichotomous theories of sentiment and rationality, the new organizational forms presented an acute puzzle: wouldn’t such new ways of doing business eventually suffer inefficiency, cronyism, and corruption precisely because they breached boundaries between rationality and sentiment? For the most part, analysts of economic change clung to the idea of incompatible separate spheres.
Professional students of economic processes have commonly incorporated more sophisticated versions of the same doctrine into their analyses of globalization, commodification, and rationalization. They have thought that market expansion inexorably eroded intimate social ties and narrowed the number of settings in which intimacy could prosper, while increasing contrasts between such settings and the cold world of economic rationality. They have therefore often joined social critics in supposing that twenty-first-century globalization will undercut caring activity, deplete the richness of social life, and thus threaten social solidarity. Consider as one instance of this perspective Robert Kuttner’s provocative analysis of contemporary markets. “As the market vogue has gained force,” worries Kuttner in Everything for Sale, “realms that used to be tempered by extra-market norms and institutions are being marketized with accelerating force” (Kuttner 1997: 55). This “relentless encroachment of the market and its values” he claims, “turns the shallow picture of economic man into a self-fulfilling prophecy” (57).
As if to bid up Kuttner’s already extreme position, activist-critic Jeremy Rifkin argues that the world of “hypercapitalism,” with its instantaneous transfers of money and information, is accelerating and aggravating the substitution of market transactions for genuine human relationships. “When most relationships become commercial relationships,” he asks, “what is left for relationships of a noncommercial nature.. . ? [When] one’s life becomes little more than an ongoing series of commercial transactions held together by contracts and financial instruments, what happens to the kinds of traditional reciprocal relationships that are born of affection, love, and devotion?” (Rifkin 2000: 112). Rifkin’s implied answer: nothing is left but cold instrumental rationality.
Jean Bethke Elshtain agrees: while “it used to be that some things, whole areas of life, were not up for grabs as part of the world of buying and selling,” today, she laments, “nothing is holy, sacred, or off-limits in a world in which everything is for sale” (Elshtain 2000:47). Hostile worlds doctrines are alive and well in the twenty – first century. They continue to treat the widespread mingling of intimacy and economic transactions as a dangerous anomaly, one that calls forth protective measures against contamination in both directions.