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


Written by fredthesociologist

September 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks for continuing this illuminating discussion. This is just the sort of thing we needed, 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.”

    I’m curious about this. Are you (not just Viviana, but the whole “relational work” project) saying that when John and Alex go on a vacation together, knowing whether or not they are friends or lovers, will allow us to make predictions about their economic transactions (including what currency they’ll use!). Or that if we know they are both men? Or if we know that John is 50 and Alex is 25?

    And/or are you saying that if we know John paid for the flight and the hotel and Alex is buying all the drugs and drinks, then the contents of “the relational package” will tell us why they divided it up that way?

    That is, do these factors introduce knowable variation? I mean, common sense (and a whole battery of prejudices) would lead us to imagine all sorts of sordid things about the economic relationship between John and Alex as we get to know various things about them. But can we really imagine a rigorous way of describing the packages so that this “crucial variation in relational packages” can be theorized?

    Keep in mind that social policy already takes an interest in whether or not John and Alex are married or merely lovers for, say, tax purposes. Are we now going to worry about how people relate to each other at an even more invasive level (there seems to be no limit to the granularity of description that relational work can be subjected to), supported, as always, by the good work done by sociologists.

    One of my main worries about this line of thinking is that it openly construes personal relationships as a kind of labor (work), linking them explicitly to economic activities. I don’t really like to think about even my job as “work”, but I can accept (or have at least accepted) the state’s and broader society’s interest in holding me (literally) “accountable” for it as such. I don’t want to subject the rest of my “package”, if you will, to similar scrutiny by book-keepers, which is why I think that I, and the rest of the population that is going to be governed by policies that are informed by social science, has an interest in pushing back against this scientific re-description of social relations as the product of “relational work”.

    As I’ve said a few times before, I don’t mind talking about those relations, or even people writing about them (novels). I just get a bad feeling when we call it “theory”, “science”, etc.



    September 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

  2. Thanks! This is much clearer, more specific, and very helpful. I cutted and pasted this and two previous into a Word document and placed it in the folder root>School>Advanced Theory. I will follow up on the literature from Viviana Zelizer, Nina Bandelj, Fred Wherry, Josh Whitford, Simone Polillo. et al.


    Michael E. Marotta

    September 6, 2012 at 7:29 pm

  3. Thanks Thomas and Michael for your responses. Thomas, you make several crucial
    observations. If you check out my paper “How I Became a Relational Sociologist and
    What Does that Mean?” you will find answers to several of your concerns, including
    why we use the term ‘work’. I’ll respond briefly here:

    1. Yes, having information about the type of relationship allows you to make
    certain predictions concerning the form and meaning of participants’ transactions
    and even the appropriate media. However, and this is crucial, the relational work
    perspective is interested in the constant negotiation and change that takes place as
    people get involved in those transactions: it emphasize the creativity of
    interpersonal relations. Monetary media and economic practices thus emerge as
    eminently flexible adaptations to multiple social ties.
    2. You are correct in saying that social policy carries its own version of which
    are appropriate transactions and media for certain categories of
    people/relationships. So does the law. If you check out chapter 2 of my Purchase of
    Intimacy you will find an extensive discussion of legal relational work.
    3. You worry about the impact of sociological analysis as depleting the humanity
    of social relations and even worse assisting invasive policing of those relations.
    Don’t. Our analysis not only serves to understand better our economic activities and
    social ties, but in some cases may serve to increase the fairness of transactions
    and payment systems.

    Viviana Zelizer



    September 7, 2012 at 6:38 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 the past two weeks. […]


  5. Thanks for the response, Viviana. I’ll have a look at the texts you mention. One quick point: You tell me not to worry about whether RW research will assist in the invasive policing of human relations. But in the same breath, you say that “in some cases [RW research] may serve to increase the fairness of transactions
    and payment systems.” But that is almost exactly what I’m worried about.

    If I believed that social science has historically only helped to *increase* the fairness of tax laws, welfare programs, education policies, etc. then I guess I wouldn’t complain. But history (I don’t think this is controversial) reveals that science-based social policy, even with the best of intentions (at least among social scientists), has not always had equitable effects on the populations that are policed. Indeed, a case can be made that the primary effect has not been on the fairness of those relations but simply to make populations more “governable”. These populations have not just been policed from the science-eye view, that is; they have actually been constructed under the guidance of scientific research that has opened various intimate spheres of human life, so as to make them, precisely, subjects of policy.

    You have to admit that, viewed from a certain angle, set in a certain light, there is something creepy about “trying to understand” the economics of John and Alex’s vacation in terms of their age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. *and* to take a detailed, empirical interest in the “constant negotiation and change that takes place”, in the “the creativity of [their] interpersonal relations”. We allow poets and novelists to be creepy in this way. In fact, in a certain sense, we demand it of them. But I’m not comfortable with the idea of bringing the full apparatus of inquiry to bear on it.

    That’s why I mentioned Henry Miller, earlier. Suppose John and Alex are lovers. Is it not entirely possible that the “creativity of their interpersonal relations”, their “negotiation and change”, will take place, in part, in the bedroom? That means our “understanding” would have to go there on pain of leaving out something important (unless scientific inquiry is going to become dependent on some arbitrary standard of “common decency”). Eventually, driven by policy pressures, science may yet go there. Somebody has to make the case that it doesn’t belong there.

    Do note that I’m trying to catch RW on the horns of a dilemma: the scientific rigor of the project depends on its political invasiveness. It must choose between ignorance about its object, on the one hand, and violating its privacy, on the other.



    September 8, 2012 at 7:28 am

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