Wednesday, February 11, 2015


I thought that the Zelizer article was extremely interesting. I think when we consider economics and intimacy an important concept to consider is utility. Utility is in itself, an interesting concept within economics because it essentially tries to place a numerical value on happiness, a concept that is radically different for every human being. When we think about intimacy, an important aspect of it is the real or potential happiness (or utility) we receive from it. Both money and intimacy can provide utility but the amount of utility each provides varies from person to person and from instance to instance. I think that money does have the potential to poison intimacy but so do many things. I see intimate relationships as exchanges of utility just as economic relationships are exchanges of utility, though I think they have different motivations. Conflict and corruption can easily arise from the intermingling of these spheres because of the strong emotions we assign to both of them and the cultural rules that define how we can carry out intimate relationships and economic exchanges. These negatives can just as easily be avoided too, it all depends on the values and stakes of the parties involved.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Clouded morality from markets

In the Zelizer piece, the most recognizable thing is that morality (intimacy) is misconstrued by the market itself and therefore clouding morality of the individual or group. This paragraph is a perfect example: "The Schiavo case eventually became a national legal and political struggle over the “right to life.” Long before that, however, the parties were fighting over who had the right to provide care, the right to decide the type of care, and the right to receive compensation for that care." The paragraph shows that now morality (intimacy) is all based on a market style system which who or what has a right to this or that and why and if compensation is needed (most notably money being the compensation) which can be viewed as there is now a market in the private sphere as well or in more general terms, a market in morality itself.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Density of Objects

Wiener's article highlights the political and social value of objects and how these objects can create hierarchy and meaning within a society. I think that this is an extremely interesting phenomena to consider especially with regard to social structure and inequality. In particular, it is interesting how disengagement of an object such as the kula shells from economic activity may be a sign that it is of great economic or cultural value.  Also by its disengagement its value may increase since it is then recognized as an important or powerful artifact and an object that the owner does not wish to part from. I enjoyed how the author compared and contrasted this type socioeconomic activity in various contexts, ranging from modern art collectors to mats of the Samoan islands.
Interestingly, money in our society exhibits a slightly similar function when an individual disengages it from economic activity. By saving money we can increase its value through interest or by repeatedly saving amounts of money over a period of time.  In may aspects this is completely different from Wiener's examples of material objects because banks use deposited money from investments where as material objects of value are only possessed/used by the owner. Additionally, money lacks the cultural density and individuality Wiener describes and the reasons for saving money are more economic than political/cultural. However, in both cases we see a an example of saved value and potential, increased, delayed returns - the owner saves an object or money with the hope or knowledge it will bring greater or extended utility in the future.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Do markets poison intimacy?

Zelizer's main idea in her article is that the intimacy space and the economic space are not separated as society tends to think but that they are mingled and there are constant exchanges and interactions between them. Furthermore she argues that these interactions doesn’t affects either one negatively. Even though I agree that the separation as how she describes it is a myth, I don’t agree with the author when she says that there are no negative effects or consequences.

The idea (and the practice) of markets contaminating the intimacy space doesn’t just means that there are negotiations and exchanges between a couple or between parents and children. It also means that there is a process of commodification of things that were not commodities before. The economy has invaded all spheres, including the love one, and  there is a belief in the principle of promoting and cultivating relationships that  produce us benefits and discarding those that bother us even if they are family.

A commodity doesn't  have the same characteristics of a human being, that much is obvious, but what happens to human relationships if almost every aspect of social life is converted into commodities? 

Weiner's Gift Problem

Weiner mentions the gift exchange phenomenon of "primitive' societies and uses a hierarchical continuum to explain the moral and symbolic density of the various objects that are gifted. She then introduces the idea of "theft, physical decay and opportunistic exchange strategies" as being problematic for the system of moral gift exchange. That led me to wonder how the people in these societies were even capable of determining the moral weight of what they were giving one another. Was there no notion that people might be lying about who had owned the gift. Weiner uses the example that certain country's crown jewels are more valuable than others because of their histories, but the history of, say, the British Crown Jewels only makes them very famous and important because the Royal family were important and many people know the history. How could the history of gift objects be maintained and known by all when they were all trading these objects with one another? That question also makes me wonder if this type of gift-based economy was doomed to end whenever a society started to expand, because the moral exchanges would have no meaning when more vast distances were involved.

On Zelizer and Weiner

             I really enjoyed Zelizer’s article Do Markets Poison Intimacy? because I feel as though that is a question that much of the American public muddles through, with mixed results.  This article reminds me of Graeber’s book in that it talks of how people have sort of intermingled morality and the economy, or in this article inter-personal relations and the economy.  The individual case examples Zelizer uses, with most occurring during an average college student’s lifetime, highlight the precarious circumstances that love/family/friendship find themselves in when mixed with economic motivation.  The article walks the reader through these examples but eventually leads one to the conclusion that people consistently and constantly navigate intimacy and economic activity without corruption—and they have to.  Though this article refutes claims that money only poisons caring relationships as opposed to strengthening them as well, I still am curious the role money does then have in relationships.  If it can exist in a healthy, loving relationship—then what is it’s role?  It mentioned economic relationships between family, friends, and lovers—and of course each one would be different—but this article for me opens up further questions.  With these relationships always changing in society I imagine it would be near impossible to record, analyze, and publish results before they became obsolete.  I really enjoyed this article, and even already it’s made me start to examine the role of economy in my relationships in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

Weiner’s article I found to be very interesting.  Starting with an account of her career she leads the reader into a discussion of the dominant ideas and theories within anthropology.  She points out that they are not unaffected by their time period during the Enlightenment and she delves into a discussion of the objects that “seemingly stand outside the reciprocity model”. (Weiner, 394).  This article reminded me of the times when I went the museum as a child, and not understanding something historical or cultural significance, wondered why it was in a museum at all.  But eventually as I got older I was able to piece their importance together and realize their value.  The way Weiner related Trobriand Island, African, and Pacific trade to the idea of densities of objects is very thought provoking.  It makes me wonder what objects have these high cultural values in the United States? As well as connects to Zelizer’s article with the question of how do these dense objects fit in with intimacy and relationships?

More and Less of Value

Zelizer’s article is interesting to consider trying to redefine exchange outside of social mores like avarice and infidelity. I found Feinberg’s 9/11 donations as attempting to fulfill this need by money, but interesting to hear request for public recognition as sufficient outside monetary value. If human death does not satisfy by gains for material comfort, how does public remembrance relieve some of this loss?

Weiner’s conclusion argues that analysis alone is not enough in indigenous cultures of Samoan mats and Massim shells, but must account for other areas of social object symbolism. Different models of exchange that signify prestige of owner can explain withholding specific objects from trade,Yet I wonder how these indigenous societies extend recognizing areas of pride differently than prestige?

These articles seems to illuminate needs which become overemphasized in Zelizer’s consumerist or carnal greed and Weiner’s under-recognized retention of prestige carrying objects. These social values in certain material culture represent more than what is physically lost, but resolve into internal gains that are etically different. If external satisfaction by material exchange differs in relation to internal meaning of sustenance, does any definition of economic exchange adequately bridge these tensions?

Wealth gap a result of keeping-while-giving?

In her lecture "Cultural Difference and the Density of Objects," Annette Weiner expands upon Malinowski's classic studies of the kula exchange economy of the Trobriand Islanders and observes that certain "dense" kula shells would be reserved from circulation by high-ranking members of the system. As she observes,
"Even if the [dense] possession is not displayed by its owner, the fact of its presence confirms the establishment of hierarchical difference in social and political identities. Participants are as aware of what is not being exchanged, as much as they attend to what is being exchanged" (p395).
Weiner then shows how the relationship between political status and material culture with regards to the kula shells -- which she calls "keeping-while-giving" corresponds with similar relationships in Western capitalist society, such as with art.

Moving this forward onto a broader view of Western economics, I wonder how that can inform the way we think about the wealthy 1%, banks, inheritance, and other related issues. Wealth is not only invested in the art that Weiner mentions but through other wealth-storage mechanisms like bank accounts. Money is removed from the economy through these actions, and as the wealth accumulates for the higher classes it becomes inaccessible for most participants in the economy. "Keeping-while-giving" in this context also encompasses inheritances. Might this be at least part of the origin of wealth gaps generally?

Weiner, Annette B. 1993. "Cultural Difference and the Density of Objects." American Ethnologist 21(1) 391-403.

Negotiating the Economic Spaces of the Personal

(Photo credit: Steven Depolo 2013)          
     I found Weiner’s ideas to be compelling, in part because she began by identifying the Western bias of exchange theory, noting how it is important to accept the influence of Enlightenment ideologies on shaping the theoretical premises for what constitutes definitions of "primitive", "exchange", or "gifts."[1] She approaches the subject of exchange with an attention to complexity, which always works for me! This results in another important layer of analysis, a frame for us to consider the cultural density of objects within the context of exchange and how the symbolic density of objects circulate and/or gain value in a society. In this conception, she proposes an expanded dynamic to previous thoughts about giving--something she calls the “keeping-while-giving” paradox. This is the “value created by trying to keep certain possessions out of exchange in the face of obligations to engage in exchange.”[2] This theory adds complexity to our understanding of non-Western exchange systems. Her assertion is that when seen in this way, this type of economy has more similarities to capitalism than might have been considered before.[3]  This would be a good point to discuss further.  
     Weiner suggests a commonality would be strategies for resisting exchange to retain objects of value--a very interesting concept. If we do a cultural comparison for these strategies, she believes it will add to an understanding of how giving and keeping inform and validate each other.  I wonder if we in capitalist America can reflect on how we consider exchange in this way—what do we resist and for what--and how to we decide about such things?  I see this as complimentary to Zelizer’s ideas about how economic transactions do, in the end, involve a great deal of organizing and evaluating of interpersonal relationships.[4] 

[1] Weiner, A.B. (n.d.) Cultural difference and the density of objects, AES Distinguished Lecture, p 393.
[2] Ibid, p 395.

[3] Ibid, p 401
[4] Zelizer, V. (2006). Do markets poison intimacy? American Sociological Association, Vol. 5, Issue 2, p. 37