Awkward Relations

In her work over the past decade or so, Viviana Zelizer has developed the concept of “relational work” as a way of encapsulating and generalizing some of the lessons of her influential studies of people’s economic lives. Ths goal, as she describes it, is to understand how people connect, or are connected by, four elements in economic life: social ties between people or groups; sets of economic transactions across those ties; various media of exchange used in these transactions; and the social, often moralized meanings associated with particular bundles of these media, transactions, and ties. Relational work “consists in creating viable matches” between these elements. Thus, an economic sociology of relational work seeks to describe, understand, and explain the various ways people bring these elements together.

Recently a group of scholars have begun to explore whether an economic sociology built with these concepts might succeed Granovetter’s “embeddedness” framework. The language of embeddedness in its many forms has dominated research in the field for the past quarter-century. The questions are whether economic sociology needs a new orienting idea, and whether “relational work” is it. My view, developed in a bit more detail in a working paper that I’m in the process of revising, is—maybe. Depending on how it is taken up, “Relational work” could become a productive framework for research (as “embeddedness” was in its early stages) or a catchall catchphrase (as “embeddedness” has now become). Pushing things down the first channel depends mostly on taking seriously aspects of Zelizer’s work that are generally left underdeveloped, in particular the place of self-interest in her account.

Considered in contrast to some standard views in economics, the Granovetterian approach emphasized the importance of social structure as against the actions of atomized, self-interested individuals. The rhetoric of appeals to “embeddedness” involved pointing out ways in which social relations were more concrete or had more depth than you could get from thinner, neoclassical conceptions of agents and their situations. As with the sauce on your steak, so with the concepts in your theory: rich and substantial is better than thin and watery. Within economic sociology, “relational work” contrasts itself with the structural view just in the same way—only this time, it is the structural side of things that is thin and the more cultural view of social relations that is satisfyingly substantial. This is a nested contrast of the sort Andy Abbott describes in his analysis of how basic disciplinary dichotomies reproduce themselves over and over as move through time or—as in this case—as they unfold within fields and subfields.

Rather than opposing Structure and Culture, the contrast between embeddedness and relational work might be thought of as drawing a contrast between Structure and Process, instead. Even here, the gap between the two approaches might not be so wide had the embeddedness approach (and network analysis generally) not routinely emphasized an imagery of “concrete” social relations in the 1970s and 1980s. This gave the strong impression that the network program saw culture as slated either for direct reduction to patterns of “real” social relations, or for elimination altogether, along with “generalized morality”. Zelizer, on the other hand, reacted against the imagery of “concrete” social ties by arguing that in her view the social ties that matter “are not the thin, flat relations of network analysis but the rich relations of ethnography”. It has taken some time for network analysis to come around to a stronger conception of culture. The prospect of reducing social action to a pure theory of structure has by now faded away, even as the scope and volume of network analysis has expanded enormously. The renewed emphasis on the meaning of social relations has become more noticeable over this period. The shifts in tone and content between the first and second editions of Identity and Control are instructive here. Zelizer’s own scholarship led the way.

Researchers using the “relational work” approach tend to focus on two problems: the initial effort to institute or define a viable exchange relation; and the ongoing effort between linked parties to keep that relationship going one way or another. What has become increasingly clear is the need for a theory of how conflict or disagreement over these matters arises—up to and including the question of the viability of the exchange relation itself—and how it is resolved by the people involved. Earlier work in this vein focused on just showing that “thick” social relations and various kinds of money really did mix together in many settings, as a matter of fact. In following up on this insight, a subsequent wave of researchers examined topic areas where there were seemingly strong or irreconcilable antinomies between money and gifts, or money and love, or money and domesticity, or money and just about anything that matters to people besides money. They set about showing these divisions were managed by people in some kind of unexpectedly effective way.

This work added a more explicity organizational and institutional structure to the analysis. For instance, personally meaningful “relational work” found in moralized exchanges may originated with and be sustained by some organization with an interest in seeing the exchange go through. So, blood banks and organ procurement organizations created a rich cultural account of blood and organ donations as a kind of moralized exchange. Similarly, as Rene Almeling shows, agencies brokering egg and sperm donations manage their exchanges in ways that involve “relational work”, encouraging participants to think about the exchange in highly moralized terms, with the moral content strongly inflected by prevailing notions of gender, which themselves have a strong moral component. Or again, in Sarah Quinn’s work, the emergence of a secondary market in life insurance policies is interpreted differently depending on the institutional location of actors, and the history of their association with similar products. Zelizer’s own research moved in this direction, too. The Purchase of Intimacy is built around studies of open interpersonal conflict carried on not by some informal means, but in the courtroom.

This organizational and institutional aspect of a broadly Zelizerian economic sociology is sometimes overlooked. Commentators want instead to characterize it in straightforwardly cultural terms as (a) concerned principally with “social meaning”, but not more structural aspects of exchange, and (b) mostly about exchanges that are somewhat distant from the “real” economy, whether intimate, domestic, or exotic. This is an error for some familiar reasons—e.g., these exchanges are quite real and often economically vital, even if they are not directly measured in official statistics; the degree of exoticism is a matter of perspective; and research in this vein has also dealt with more conventional economic topics.

But restricting one’s view of relational work in this way a mistake for two other reasons, neither of which have been emphasized enough. First, over the past thirty years there have been changes in the formal, informal and quasi-formal provision of intimate, personal, and domestic labor and services of all kinds. Shifts in the volume and structure of “care work” in all its forms—whether those being cared for are children, the sick, able-bodied adults, or the elderly—is directly connected to large-scale changes in the healthcare system, labor markets, and the welfare state. It is not possible to understand what is happening in this sphere without a good theory of how relational practices connect with official classifications and institutions within the labor market, and more generally with social classifications of kinds of people. Relational practices, in short, require a better treatment of self-interest and a good theory of social power. There is a great potential for a relational economic sociology to connect with research in this area. Some of it is already happening. This is not just a matter of researchers pushing into some new field of study, but also a consequence of how economic life itself—the “real” economy—has changed since the birth of the New Economic Sociology in the 1980s. Second, and relatedly, there are the macro-level changes in the political economy of capitalism (as distinct from shifts in the occupational structure and the labor market), particularly financialization and all that it has brought with it. The proliferation of insurance, credit, and risk management markets of all kinds over the past two or three decades makes Zelizer seem unexpectedly prescient in her decision to study life insurance as a paradigmatic case of the construction of a moralized market.

The embeddedness approach emerged out of an argument focused on the problem of order—specifically, the role of local social relations in controlling malfeasance or cheating through the generation of mutual obligations and trust. It is a Hobbesian picture. The imagery of embeddedness is of suspension and constraint—actors are stuck in or pinned down by social ties that stop them from being too selfish. What has attracted economic sociologists to the “relational work” approach, in reaction to this, is the sense that it offers agents a bit more leeway to act, a little more room for them to develop identities and cultivate “rich” or “meaningful” social relations, not just arrangements that might prevent them from cheating. Yet a clear corollarly of this insight remains underdeveloped. Although it may not seem like on the surface, the concept of relational work immediately puts individuals’ agency, strategies, and self-interest back at the center of the analysis, together with the need to account for their success or failure in establishing their own particular view of the meaning of those relations. We know the Zelizerian view rejects the idea that social life is nothing but self-interested action, narrowly construed. And we know that social relations are meaningful, identities are multi-faceted, exchange is moralized, and so on. But consider the implications of core Zelizerian ideas about economic action: people are “smarter than money”; they often struggle with one another about how to categorize the relationships they are in; they seek to link forms of payment to bundles of obligations and rights, which secure resources for them; they establish circuits of exchange that may mobilize and protect these resources; and they constantly work out what the relationship they are in is about and why they are in it. In all of this they “incessantly negotiate the precise matching of meaning, media, and transactions”. They negotiate, from particular positions of strength or weakness, and with more or less success. Zelizer uses the term repeatedly and quite deliberately, but discussions of her work often fail to follow up on its implication.

Far from rejecting the idea of strategic action, these ideas imply that people create, mark, and maintain meaningful exchange relationships in order to do something, at least as best as they can under the circumstances. And this means students of “relational work” cannot rest content with demonstrations that people “make exchanges meaningful” in some bland sense. Zelizer’s relational view does not say, “Take some uncomfortable or taboo exchange; add ‘meaning’; then lie down and wait for your analytical tension to resolve while marveling at richness of economic life”. Instead it encompasses cases where there is conflict about who gets to define the tie, where one party has the means to make the terms stick, and where social meaning is a means of getting your way. Now that its foundations have laid, scholars interested in relational work should begin dealing with these awkward relations.


Written by Kieran

August 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thank you, Kieran, for this eloquent post and zeroing in on an often misunderstood purpose of relational work analyses. Absolutely, it is not just about adding meaning to exchanges. Readers may be interested in knowing that Viviana Zelizer developed the concept in conversations with Chuck Tilly, who used relational work in his book Why? Tilly finds the notion of relational work useful in understanding “how, why, and in what different ways people supply reasons for the things they do, that others do, that happen to them, or that happen to other people . . . concentrat[ing] on the social process of giving reasons at the person-to-person scale.” Further, says Tilly, “whatever else happens in the giving of reasons, givers and receivers are negotiating definitions of their equality or inequality.” Tilly elucidates that the power element derives from the reciprocal nature of interactions in which relational work is ongoing. Therefore, an element of power is part and parcel of relational work, even if not apparent in blunt physical force but conveyed through subtle linguistic expressions that give away the asymmetry between the participants in relational work, and, I stipulate, play a crucial role in how successful people are at negotiating their – more or less – awkward relations.



    August 31, 2012 at 12:38 pm

  2. “[A]n economic sociology of relational work seeks to describe, understand, and explain the various ways people bring [social ties between people or groups; sets of economic transactions across those ties; various media of exchange used in these transactions; and the social, often moralized meanings associated with particular bundles of these media, transactions, and ties] together.”

    I appreciate the effort to avoid a reduction of this goal to the pursuit ‘demonstrations that people “make exchanges meaningful’ in some bland sense”, but I don’t see much hope. First, those four elements seem pretty arbitrarily selected from the broader notion of “people’s economic lives”. After all, once we include all these element, there is little to distinguish “economic life” from life as such, at least in a society that, like ours, is inseparable from its economy. What an understanding of “relational work” seems to require is an understanding of “human existence” as such. I’d certainly like to see how economic sociology might use “relational work” as a way of demarcating a specific domain of “exchanges” that are distinctly “economic” and another domain that falls clearly outside its purview.

    This is not a problem, to say the least, in neo-classical theory, nor, I would argue, in analyses that try to understand how economic exchanges are “embedded” in social relations. There is a clear sense of focus. What I don’t see, in particular, is how this concept of “relational work” can distinguish an object of analysis from the themes already dealt with in the long tradition of letters, especially the modern novel.

    So, for example, writing in 1917, Ezra Pound said that “the bulk of Henry James’ novels is precisely an analysis of, and thence a protest against, all sort of petty tyrannies and petty coercions, at close range … knit into and made part of his analysis of the habits of mind of three nations at least.” Does such work not precisely “deal” with “cases where there is conflict about who gets to define the tie, where one party has the means to make the terms stick, and where social meaning is a means of getting your way”?

    Does economic sociology, if it pursues this broad agenda of relational work, not risk reproducing (less ably) insights already well-understand by ordinary, literate members of society, i.e., readers of serious novels. Does it not make a “scientific” puzzle out of something that people already deal with and understand perfectly well?

    The only point of such an exercise, a cynic (like me) might suspect, is to inform ever more coercive, tyrannical and petty social policies, and to underwrite, ideologically, the administrative despotism Tocqueville warned against.



    September 1, 2012 at 5:21 pm

  3. What he said. I have been mulling this over for three days now. I do not see how “relational work” differentiates a specific kind of interaction between or among any two or more people, at least in our society. (What little I know from undergraduate anthropology tempts me to generalize.) People have relationships. I fail to see the surprise.

    I just put in a library hold request online. No one else was involved. That is non-relational (perhaps, unless I reify The Library). Once I meet the librarian, we have two people relating to each other. What else could happen?

    Observing the uncoordinated and contradictory policies of our sociology department, one of my classmates quipped, “You can see why conflict theory is so popular here.” Relational work seems to come packaged to identify and analyze power and negotiations for it, and also the assertion and recognition of status. You can look at people that way. Sometimes it is helpful to understanding, as we do have conflicts.

    But we also help each other without intention of reciprocity, we greet and thank each other routinely. We open doors for each other, pick things up off the floor when they are dropped, even chase them in the wind to extend a courtesy without other context. Freudian psychology understands human relations through sexuality. That can be helpful, too, as we are sexual creatures. My new age friends see spirituality everywhere. At the checkout, many people count their change. My numismatist friends check the dates and mint marks and wonder why no one else does.

    From structuralism and functionalism to conflict and then perception management and ethnomethodology and world systems and all the rest, sociologists created models to help us understand ourselves in context with others. Do we? Is it any clearer now than it was 100 years ago? Has society improved as a result of any of this? I do have my own positive answers, but they are not the ones I learned in class.


    Michael Marotta

    September 3, 2012 at 11:25 am

  4. […] Block, Nina, Kieran and Fred Wherry have already outlined some basic stakes to the claim that an economic sociology […]


  5. Maybe it’s just me, but much of this seems mostly “concept fencing.” Kieran, can you give us an example where “relational work” really provides a better explanation of a social phenomenon than, say, embeddedness? How does it generate novel hypotheses?



    September 5, 2012 at 7:08 am

  6. […] “But, is it really so simple?” or “But, is it really so complicated?” In Kieran’s contribution to this forum he notes that relational work scholarship runs the risk of devolving into an endless […]


  7. […] also want to thank Fred Block, Kieran Healy, Josh Whitford, Gabriel Rossman and Viviana Zelizer for their important contributions to our […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: