Sociologist studies mixing money and relationships

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have put victims' families in the awkward position of asking themselves how they should be compensated financially for the loss of a relative. Having to assign a cash amount to a human relationship may seem like a rare occurrence, but it comes up in our daily lives more than we realize, pointed out Viviana Zelizer, the Lloyd Cotsen '50 Professor of Sociology.

Viviana Zelizer said so many facets of our lives involve both money and intimacy that the intermingling should not make us uncomfortable -- although it often does.


Whether we are paying for child care or buying an engagement ring, intimate relationships and cash are often intermingled. And for most people, it's a puzzling combination to think about, said Zelizer. "Typically we're very uncomfortable with the mingling. We think it's going to corrupt," she said.

And yet what Zelizer has found in her research is that there are so many facets of our lives that involve both money and intimacy that, in fact, we don't need to be so fearful of the combination. "Once you observe the practices, it's clear that the assumption that the sheer coexistence of money and intimacy will produce disorder or corruption is simply not true," Zelizer explained. "The question I'm asking is, 'Why do we have this feeling that it corrupts when it usually doesn't?'"

Three related questions

Zelizer has been exploring the relationship between economic processes and social ties for the last 20 years. She began examining that interaction with her 1979 book "Morals and Markets," which dealt with the development of life insurance. She looked at the changing dynamic of childhood in American society in "Pricing the Priceless Child" (1985) and the way that social and cultural values influence money in "The Social Meaning of Money" (1994).

Zelizer, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1988, became interested in the issues surrounding finances and relationships after moving to the United States from Buenos Aires in 1967 in what she describes as "a series of adventures with unanticipated consequences. And I became fascinated with three related questions: How do people manage uncertainties? How is it that so much human action ends up producing effects different from those that people intended? And how, nevertheless, do people seem to live relatively orderly lives? Economic processes raise all three questions."

'The Purchase of Intimacy'

Her current book project, tentatively titled "The Purchase of Intimacy," examines child care as one example of an arena fraught with the conflicting feelings that arise out of the meeting of money and relationships. Our discomfort with paying someone to care for our children, for example, has contributed to the current low pay given to child-care workers, she said. "And accepting low pay is somehow an indication of greater devotion," Zelizer added.

Zelizer scours legal journals so she can track how courts are handling cases that deal with these delicate issues, such as whether a fiancée who breaks her engagement has to return not only the ring, but also gifts exchanged with her fiancé. A case currently in court is trying to cope with the question of who is the rightful heir of a woman who died in the World Trade Center -- her estranged husband or her mother, with whom she was living. Zelizer is monitoring how courts handle those kinds of tough calls.

She discusses that case and others arising from the Sept. 11 attacks with the students in her "Money, Work and Social Life" class, which explores the ways in which one's economic interactions can be as social as interactions in, say, one's religious life. Zelizer loves teaching sociology because exposing students to the discipline can change how they look at their everyday lives.

"I have students who are now lawyers and physicians, and they observe things in their professional lives that they would take for granted and not notice (if they didn't study sociology)," said Zelizer, who has been teaching since 1976.

"I had a student who went into advertising and was given an account on children's toys, and she was very aware of issues of gender and class that the others had no clue about. They really start seeing things differently, and that's very rewarding. Hopefully if you understand how the world works, you can make it better, at least in small ways."

[an error occurred while processing this directive]