Posts Tagged ‘theory of action

Relational Work and Embeddedness

Nina Bandelj, Sociology, UC Irvine

The fact that relations matter is a trademark contribution of economic sociology. What added value does this focus on relational work bring? As I argued in a Politics and Society article, attention to how people form, negotiate, repair or dissolve economic relations develops relationality in economic life as a process rather than structure, and effectively conjoins it with meaning-making. Zelizer reframes relationality as social interaction between economic actors that has to be accomplished – as relational work – rather than merely as systems of social relations congealed into networks. This is one crucial difference with the network embeddedness research. The other is in their opposing views of the relationship between the economic and the social. From the network embeddedness perspective, the economy and society remain two separate spheres; the economy is autonomous and society provides a context for it. Quite to the contrary, relational work, as Zelizer clearly demonstrates, rests on the opposition to the separate spheres arguments, is grounded in connected lives, and interactionally sustains the mutual constitution and elaboration of the economic and the social spheres. Obviously, should the analyst understand embeddedness from a Polanyian perspective, and argue that this term actually describes the co-constitution of economy, polity and society, this would be quite compatible with relational work. Because they share basic assumptions about the relationship between economy and society, the concept of relational work could be fruitfully employed to uncover the microlevel dynamics of economic interactions that the macrofocused institutional embeddedness perspective has yet to tackle.

Further, focus on relational work allows an analyst of economic transactions to spell out how power, meaning, and affect all influence economic outcomes. This is because any relation involves potential asymmetries, because parties have to interpret the position of others, and because interactions invariably conger emotions. This would avoid the prevalent tendency of economic sociologists to privilege in their analyses one social force—be it networks, culture, or power—over the other. Meaning-making, relationality, and its potential asymmetries should all be considered integral to economic processes and analyzed jointly as such. The focus on relational work allows this.

Finally, attention to relational work helps bring the emotional underpinnings of economic exchange to the fore. This is beneficial not only because the role of emotions in economic life has yet to receive more attention in economic sociology but also because it helps us scrutinize the theory of action that underlies economic sociological inquiry. Given the processual nature of incessant negotiation of interpersonal relations enmeshed in affect and sense-making, the theory of action that views partners to an economic exchange as rational actors with clear goals and preferences intent on maximizing utility is limiting. Rather, the concept of relational work aligns well with the practical actor theory, which, as DiMaggio wrote in “Nadel’s Paradox Revisited” (1993), “views rationality as only one, and rarely the principal, orientation to action, and takes much behavior to be highly conventional, . . . according importance . . . more to the purely cognitive . . . and affective dimensions.” Accomplishing relational work is a reciprocal process; any misalignment in expectations and differences in interpretations between the participants exacerbates uncertainty and ambiguity. These are the kind of conditions where action is more open ended, and creative/non-teleological, rather than teleological, and (boundedly) rational. Therefore, the focus on relational work departs from rational action and suggests that the pragmatist tradition and practical actor models are more useful for theorizing and empirically capturing economic interactions.

Written by ninabandelj

August 29, 2012 at 8:26 pm