can fields be sexy? (part I)


Or for the sake of accuracy, I should say: can sexuality (or the sexual “market”) be a field? On a recent paper by John Levi Martin and Matt George recently published in Sociological Theory, the authors take up the question of whether we can think of the social organization of sexual pairings as a field. Surprisingly this paper takes up many of the issues that have occupied us lately, including the social genesis of valuation, the social construction of markets, the tendency of Parsonian “normativism” to degenerate into its alleged opposite, pure non-normative “utilitarianism, which I would argue is not accident but built into the action theory since the beginning, and of course field theory. Extending the theory into the sexual realm also exposes some chinks in the field theoretic armor, which the authors handle with some (but not complete) success.

First, action theory. The authors make a pretty good case that sexuality is a sort of critical litmus test for any action theory that attempts to solve the problem of order by recourse to supraindividual value commitments. Parsons of course recognized this, but surprisingly offered little in the way of a sociological account of the collective organization of sexual desiring (that is the question of whether there is a “social logic” in the process of who ends up sexually pairing with whom at a given historical time and place). Early functionalists like Kingsley Davis were some of the first to propose such as sociological explanation, introducing the earlier “market oriented” models of sexuality whereby women trade in sexual attractiveness for men’s class standing and wealth. However for Davis this erotic ranking was exogenous to the system (some women were physically more beautiful than others and that’s that).

Second, markets. Earlier than Davis, Willard Waller in a 1937 paper (which Ron Breiger assigns in his classical theory course) had argued that such an exchange theoretic model of dating was plausible, but that instead of sexual value being exogenous to the system it was generated endogenously in the sexual market through the logic of supply and demand (thus sexual value fluctuated over time and space depending on the relative scarcity of men and women). Although in Waller’s system the value of women as sexual partners was more closely related to their previous history of success and desirability as mates while men’s success still depended in large to such exogenous (Bourdieu would say “heteronomous”) criteria as the kind of car that they drove, their access to money and the clothes that they wore. Finally Zetterberg, went out on a limb a proposed for the first time that erotic rank could be generated autonomously in the sexual sphere itself through some sort of specifically sexual desirability (this would be a sort of “transcendent” sexual value in Podolny’s term or “field-specific capital” in Bourdieu’s).

However, the problem with all of these early efforts is that they began with strong talk about providing a normative framework for the study of sexuality, but ended up talking about naked exchange of power for sex and unbridled dynamics of supply and demand. The authors note this apparent contradiction:

This paradox of beginning with strong talk about the importance of norms and ending up without any indicates the ambiguous nature of a sociological reliance on anomic market metaphors to explain the social regulation of action. Although the current work in economic sociology finds markets—real economic markets, even the stock market—to be social institutions, not incarnated economic abstractions (Lie 1997; classic examples are White (1981), Baker (1984), and Fligstein (2001)), the understanding of market behavior used to discuss sexuality tends to assume an abstract and perfect market (101).

The authors go on to show that taking the economic model seriously as a framework to analyze the social organization of sexuality either flounders on the usual Samuelsonian tautologies of having to infer utilities and costs from behavior (revealed preferences) or are forced (to avoid the circularity) to the Deus ex Machina approach of having to exogenously inject the basis of sexual value into the system (by recourse to “hard wired” preferences that are biologically inscribed).

However, any type of decomposition of an individual’s “sexual utility function” into two additive factors, one of which pertains to exclusively to sexual attractiveness and the other which covers factors that are not specifically erotic but that increase the probability of seleting that person as a partner (and thus “compensate” for lack of attractiveness like The Donald’s bank account), leads to an arbitrary number’s game, in which any sexual choice can be “explained” by recourse to any arbitrarily weighted combination of these two sources of utility, including one where the weight pertaining to the purely erotic component is always zero. The reason for this is that the analyst (when faced with a given observed sexual choice) is free to pull out of her hat some type of unobserved (but not specifically sexual) source of utility, and thus redefine a sexual choice as “not really” being driven by purely sexual considerations. What is more, when faced with “mismatches” (powerful men selecting less “attractive” women as partners) then the very same disutitlity can be redefined as utility (less attractive partners are more subservient and this produces utility).

Not only that, but (and this is the most damaging) the orthodox market model of sexual desiring cannot be a Veblenian market (where the sexual attractiveness of a person is function of the focal subject’s perception of the attractiveness of that person in the eyes of others), since this leads to intractable multiple equilibria and invalidates the whole analysis based on exogenous sources of utility:

In sum, whatever virtues the market approach has in constructing a ‘‘just-so story’’ for whatever is observed, these vanish in the situations where the attractiveness of any person for another is shaped by the opinions of third parties. What, then, is left? Most important is the assumption that if persons i and j successfully pair, then [the utility of i for j is equal to the utility of j for i]. In other words, each person’s utility is a sufficient measure of the ‘‘price’’ of the other. Indeed, were there a sexual market, this is what it would accomplish, for a market—as opposed to just any conjunction of individuals pursuing their ends—is a place where efficient prices are made. But as noted above, the sexual market produces no prices, and if it is any kind of market, the sexual market must be a barter market…regarding the more general case of symbolic interactions), which unfortunately possesses none of the qualities that most endear markets to social theorists (e.g., utility maximization) (120).

The bottom line? To the extent that we want a sociological theory of sexual desiring in which erotic desirability is “socially constructed” (not given exogenously by biology and assumed to be consensual among all actors prior to social interaction) then the market approach has to be abandoned.

Written by Omar

August 7, 2006 at 11:16 pm

Posted in omar, sociology

5 Responses

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  1. Interesting idea – challenges the notion that there is a market for everything (a la Tyler Cowen). I resist the idea not because I don’t think exchange occurs in sexuality, marriage, etc. but because I think markets are a specific kind of exchange that uses the price mechanism. As you note, if there is no price, how can it function as a market?

    Also, this post is sure to raise our prestige as the sexiest blog on the net.



    August 8, 2006 at 12:50 am

  2. Brayden, no price – no market? I am not sure what you are referring to here. In this case, various things such as companionship can be exchanged with status (or, see Becker’s work), in short, exchanges don’t require a monetary price. Am I missing something?



    August 8, 2006 at 1:40 am

  3. Well, as an object of sociological analysis I’d agree with you that markets come in a lot of different varieties. But the peculiar institution of the market, as theorized by economists of various stripes, is supposed to be driven by a price mechanism. In a Hayekian sense, the price IS the market mechanism. Without it, all you have is a muddled mess of individuals exchanging aimlessly.



    August 8, 2006 at 5:28 am

  4. I don’t know about that – it seems that bartering and exchanging can easily fit into ‘market’ confines as well – perhaps not as smooth a transaction, but, a transaction nonetheless.

    On a related note – there is lots of interesting work on the social aspects of pricing by Mark Zbararcki – see papers on his site –



    August 8, 2006 at 6:10 am

  5. […] can fields be sexy? (part I) […]


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