Beyond Nuance

As many of the contributors to this series will remember, the late Marvin Bressler used to amuse the Princeton grad students with such jokes as saying that all job talk questions were special cases of two general questions: “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 series of works that basically ask the first question of a strawman other (be they a garden variety economist, a behavioral economist, an embeddedness/networks economic sociologist, or whatever). A lot of this work ends up basically saying, when you dig into the details of social life you see how it’s all so much richer and more nuanced than it first appears. Much like thick description or history, this can be fascinating when applied by a talented researcher to an interesting case, but in less felicitous circumstances quickly degrades into one damn thing after another. Even under the best circumstances though it’s hard to see how the “is it really so simple” research question builds up to a distinct theoretical perspective rather than a sort of atheoretical empiricism with nihilism towards the idea of theory-building and general mechanisms.

For some people such theoretical nihilism is satisfactory, as the whole point is building a Philippic against the reductionist other. However, as Kieran argues, this isn’t relational work at its best and he draws attention to work by Zelizer herself, Almeling, and Quinn that plays up the institutional and organizational context in which relational work is performed. I fully agree that it is important to treat such contexts as structured ones, and not merely places where tacit understandings are made explicit and documented for the convenience of sociologists who later on dig through case law or other bureaucratic records. Understanding how such contexts shape relational work provides an opportunity for positive contribution by the school rather than just critique of others.

In addition to the institutional context which many of us already do a good job of taking seriously, I think we need to take seriously the idea that relational work can be categorized and schematized. This is the first step to identifying more or less consistent patterns and contingencies in how relational work is applied. That is, going from a (valuable) sensitizing concept to an articulated theory.

In the last few years Zelizer has taken the lead in this issue with the concept of circuits: who exchanges what with whom for what else. This is an important step, but for the most part it remains a sensitizing concept, encouraging us to identify and document circuits where they occur and identify patterns among them. Fortunately, one of our sister disciplines has a long tradition of work closely parallel to circuits and has developed some sophisticated theories for understanding these issues.

Anthropology has been seriously into issues that closely parallel relational work but we don’t cite them very much and are the poorer for it. Now, perhaps I am confessing nothing of more general interest than my own ignorance. Still, I have to confess that to the best of my recollection I never encountered this literature in any of my undergraduate or graduate coursework and until recently I was mostly ignorant of it and so I suspect that my experience is not entirely unique. Likewise I seldom see this work cited in relational work publications (here’s an exception). Fortunately a few things came together for me (a deliberately thin quantitative project provided me with a windfall finding about relational work in payola, a very well-written and much discussed ambitious and insightful book on the subject was published, and I started attending the relational models lab) and so I got interested in the anthro literature, much to my benefit.

Early versions of economic anthropology were much like relational work in that they were more a sensitizing concept or critique than an articulated positive theory with a typology of theoretical constructs and mechanisms for their interaction. So in his “Essay on the Gift” Mauss talks about all sorts of gift relationships but is mostly interested in sensitizing us to the contingent nature of market exchange. So while Mauss describes both peer and clientelist gifts he doesn’t really emphasize a schema distinguishing between them as the important thing is that gifts (of whatever variety) are not market exchange. In the 1950s anthro saw the development of a “spheres of exchange” model with publications like Bohannan’s work on the Tiv people. In this work, Bohannan describes three ordinal categories for objects, with exchange of objects within a category being much more acceptable than exchange across categories. So traditionally a Tiv could trade chickens for beans, slaves for brass rods, and brides for brides, but to trade brass rods for either beans or brides could be accomplished only with great difficulty and what we would call elaborate relational work. In Debt, Graeber surveys a wide range of similar cases and argues that such incommensurable exchanges are never really final, being possible only on an “it’s a purchase, not a rental” kind of basis in which the qualitatively inferior good can work to service debt but where the qualitatively superior principal can only be repaid in-kind.

The thing I find to have the most potential to move relational work forward is Alan Fiske’s relational models typology of communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.* You can and should follow the link to see what each of those terms covers, but for my purposes the really important point is that there is a typology. Moreover, the typology has a richly articulated set of contingencies and covariates and so it rises to the level of a theory rather than just a sensitizing concept. Of course we all here recognize the “market vs. else” dichotomy, but such a dichotomy accomplishes little more than facilitating a now tired critique of economics so as to pile up a mass of things beyond econ’s purview to serve as a sort of defensive fortifications against that discipline’s occasional imperialist adventurism. To build a positive theory of non-price-theory exchange requires not just treating it as the complement to the market, but disaggregating it into its constituent varieties and identifying systematic properties to these types. It is in this respect that we can move our own model forward by accepting the theoretical gifts of anthropology and reciprocating with citations.

* Note that in Debt Graeber has a closely parallel typology of “communism,” “hierarchy,” and [gift|market] “exchange.” As best as I can tell, Graeber and Fiske did not directly influence each other but rather they drew similar conclusions from a common research tradition.


Written by gabrielrossman

September 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Very nice post — thanks for writing it.


    Robert C.

    September 5, 2012 at 5:08 pm

  2. Gabriel, this is great stuff! I’m really glad you pointed to Fiske’s work. His typology also influenced Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, so it seems relevant to a pretty broad range of things.


    Steve Vaisey

    September 5, 2012 at 11:18 pm

  3. Thanks guys.

    As suggested by Steve’s reference to Haidt (as well as his own research interests), one of the cool things about Fiske’s work is it helps build a model of morality in exchange. For instance, see:

    DeVoe, Sanford E., & Sheena S. Iyengar 2010. Medium of Exchange Matters: What’s Fair for Goods Is Unfair for Money. Psychological Science 21: 159–162
    Fiske, Alan Page and Philip E. Tetlock. 1997. “Taboo Trade-Offs: Reactions to Transactions That Transgress the Spheres of Justice.” Political Psychology 18:255–297.
    Rai, T. S. & Fiske, A. P. 2011. “Moral Psychology is Relationship Regulation: Moral Motives for Unity, Hierarchy, Equality, and Proportionality.” Psychological Review 118:57-75.

    I should add that this is actually something I’m working on myself. I presented on this at the 2011 ASA and have been revising that piece for publication.



    September 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm

  4. […] also want to thank Fred Block, Kieran Healy, Josh Whitford, Gabriel Rossman and Viviana Zelizer for their important contributions to our discussions about relational work in […]


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