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Posts Tagged ‘fallacy of adumbration

the fallacy of adumbration in relational work

Fred Wherry, Sociology, Columbia University

As the debate advances on what relational work is and how it may be applied to studying economic phenomena, it is helpful to revisit what Robert K. Merton called the fallacy of adumbration: if a new concept is indeed novel, its critics will claim that it simply can’t be true; and if it is true, it was already foreshadowed (vaguely) or handled (thoroughly) by pre-existing concepts. Yet “until the concept… [is] coined and refined, the common character and significance of these phenomena remain obscure” (Portes 2001: 184).

Let’s take a look at one of many empirically testable propositions in Zelizer’s article in the Politics and Society volume. She compares mental accounting with her approach to earmarking money. The former hones in on individuals; but the latter, the relationships and relational work in which these individuals are engaged: “To compare both perspectives, take the case of Christmas savings club…. Mental accounting proponents… explain depositors’ apparent irrationality as evidence of how individuals use institutions for self-control or as precommitment devices, in this case protecting themselves from using those funds for other purposes. Yet the history of Christmas savings clubs suggests that these accounts also guarded funds away from specific others” (p. 160). Specific types of relationships may be tied to specific categories of expenditure, so it is the management of these relationships rather than an inherent self-control problem that may be operative. Relational work directs our attention to these empirically identifiable mechanisms that would have, otherwise, remained obscure.

In her conversation with the mental accounting, Zelizer’s relational work promises an empirical advance that can both complement and supplant existing explanations of economic decision-making. The agenda is to identity how a relational work perspective directs us to understudied mechanisms and unrecognized outcomes for specific classes of phenomena. The concept is, yes, new and true—its propositions, testable.

Written by fredthesociologist

September 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm