Talking about Relational work with Viviana Zelizer
Nina and Fred: How did you develop the concept of relational work?
Viviana: Before answering, let me say how glad I am to read this ongoing blog discussion. About your question: I certainly did not start out as a relational analyst, but rather as a cultural social historian. In fact, it took some time until I was officially designated an economic sociologist! And even then, I concentrated on specific investigations, ranging from life insurance to the value of children and the meaning of money. Teaching economic sociology for the first time in 1998 forced me to think hard about some of the field’s crucial puzzles. Specialists in the field had pioneered brilliant efforts to show how and why standard economic models were imperfect explanations of real-life economic activity.
But I felt constrained by certain features of mainstream economic sociology’s theoretical approaches plus the field’s concentration on firms and corporations as research sites. I questioned what exactly constituted the economic activity described as “embedded” in social relations and structures? If they are not simply equalizing resources, maximizing advantage, or reducing risk, what exactly are people doing when they engage in the economic activities of production, consumption, distribution, and transfer of assets? Why and how did shared meanings, so marginalized by economic sociology’s emphatically structural models, matter? Over the years, a relational approach gradually emerged as part of the effort to answer such questions.
More specifically, I developed the concept of relational work as one possible approach to analyze the continuously negotiated and meaningful interpersonal relations constituting economic activity. I did so in spirited collaboration with Chuck Tilly, an early enthusiast of the concept. Let me add that Fred Block’s generous initiative of assembling the Davis conference (see his Tuesday blog from last week) prompted me to write an extended paper for that meeting which forced me to clarify further the ideas developed in Purchase of Intimacy.
Nina and Fred: What exactly does relational work mean and how do you study it? In what ways do you claim it differs from other analyses of relations in economic activity? Is adding culture its main contribution?
Viviana: By relational work, I mean the creative effort people make establishing, maintaining, negotiating, transforming, and terminating interpersonal relations. Relational work goes on continuously, shaping boundaries that differentiate relations that might become confused with deleterious consequences for one party, both parties, or third parties.
Let’s be clear. Relational work does not simply assert that relations exist: that would not be a surprising discovery! Nor does it simply “add-culture-and-mix” into current explanations of economic activity. Instead it identifies specific processes that take place within consumption, production, distribution, and asset transfer. More concretely, it focuses on four elements common to all economic activity:
1) distinctive social ties: connections among individuals or groups involved in the economic activity.
2) a set of economic transactions: interactions and social practices conveying goods and services (e.g. compensation, gift, loan, bribe, theft).
3) media for those transactions: representations of rights to goods and services, often in the form of concrete tokens, ranging from state-issued legal tender or electronic monies, to more restricted forms such as credits in baby-sitting pools, casino chips, or food stamps. Media can also include such items as time, in-kind goods, or favors.
4) negotiated meanings: participants’ understandings concerning the meanings of relations, transactions, and media including their moral valuation, combined with constant negotiation, modification, and contestation of those meanings.
Variable connections among such elements constitute what I call relational packages. These consist of combinations among a) distinctive interpersonal ties, b) economic transactions, c) media, and d) negotiated meanings. Here’s an example: the relationship between X and Y might fit into the category of friends or the category of lovers each with its own meanings, economic transactions, and media, determining for example who pays, how, when, for what, how much, how often, for how long, and with which currency. The identity or social category of transactors (e.g. gender, race, age) introduces further crucial variation in relational packages.
Relational work consists in creating viable matches among those meaningful relations, transactions, and media. For a concrete application of the concept, my Politics & Society paper, “How I Became a Relational Economic Sociologist and What Does That Mean?” offers an alternative understanding of monetary differentiation contrasting it with the mental accounting individualistic framework (on this, see Fred Wherry’s comments two days ago).
Nina and Fred: Does relational work apply primarily to intimate relations and exclusively to micro-level analyses?
Viviana: Emphatically not. While in my own research, I have concentrated on intimate transactions and interpersonal interaction, the approach extends much further. Certainly, as last week’s postings by our 2 Freds over predatory lending or Josh Whitford’s paper in the Politics & Society issue show, relational work helps us analyze transactions outside of households or other intimate settings.
It also applies to economic activity at the macro-level, including relational work by organizations, nations, and legal systems. See for example exemplary investigations by Nina Bandelj of foreign direct investment as well as forthcoming books by Dani-Lainer Vos on economic connections between diaspora groups and homeland communities and Simone Polillo on financial innovation in Italy and the US.
Let me add how hopeful I am about the future of economic sociology. I read the work of young scholars with great admiration for their imagination and theoretical scope. And not just those who are applying the concept of relational work, although many are doing so in ways that greatly improve my analysis.
Viviana Zelizer, Sociology, Princeton
Nina Bandelj, Sociology, UC Irvine
Fred Wherry, Sociology, Columbia