Saturday, May 5, 2007

Viviana Zelizer's "The Purchase of Intimacy"

Viviana A. Zelizer is Lloyd Cotsen ‘50 Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and author of The Purchase of Intimacy (Princeton University Press, 2005).

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her book and reported the following:
Here is the mid section from p. 99 of The Purchase of Intimacy:

Boundaries between intimate relationships have some remarkable characteristics. Although participants, observers, and third parties commonly mark such distinctions with moral discourse and moral practice, rarely are the defining interactions on one side of a boundary or the other universally acceptable or unacceptable in themselves; they depend on context. Sexual intercourse, for example, becomes an enforceable obligation for spouses, an option for lovers, and a forbidden transgression for lawyer-client pairs. Similarly, expensive gifts become obligations in some relations, options in others, and forbidden transgressions in still others. The matching of relation, transaction, and medium matters crucially. Such boundaries also include temporal limits, so that questions arise concerning what relation a couple occupied at the time of a certain transaction: were they then a married couple, engaged to be married, unmarried lovers, spouses of other persons, business partners, lawyer and client, patron and prostitute, or acquaintances on a date? All these relations have fairly clear beginnings and endings. Between those temporal limits, participants, observers, third parties, and boards of discipline work to match relations, transactions, and media. When it involves intimacy, relational work takes plenty of effort.

The book pursues this kind of interplay through three areas: coupling, paid care, and household economies, asking how people mingle their intimate relations and economic practices in everyday life and what happens when some of these issues go to court. I use a range of materials, including court cases, reports on compensation for 9/11 victims, Web sites on financial management, and advice books.

Page 99 may look like common sense but it contradicts widespread ideas concerning the mutual contamination of intimacy and rationality. People worry that mixing economics and intimacy will corrupt both spheres. Think of the concerns with prenuptial agreements, loaning money to friends, or workplace romances. If you mix the cold world of economic activity with the warm world of friendship, marriage, or parent-child relations, many people think, you will turn it into a calculating market. It also works in the opposite direction. People worry that if workers get too chummy on the job, they will spend more time with each other than with their work. Intimacy interferes with efficiency. So, people warn, mix intimate relations with economic activity at your own peril.

My book challenges all these taboos. The Purchase of Intimacy shows that the world does not divide into two segregated spheres of intimacy and economics. All of us routinely mix our most intimate relations with economic activities. In fact, we owe economic support to our children, our spouses, our parents, and often our friends. The separation of spheres is a myth.

Sexual intimacy is only one example. That’s why my book gives a lot of attention to how couples and families behave. But the whole point is that different kinds of intimacy call for different economic arrangements. In quite distinct ways, without any sexual contact whatsoever, people often establish intimate relations with their doctors, their lawyers, their priests, their nannies, or their best friends. Each one of these relations has its own special meaning and involves its own distinct economy.

All of us are living one version or the other of the purchase of intimacy every day; from paying for a dinner out with a new romantic partner, to discussing our household budget with our spouse, negotiating an allowance with our child, deciding on what sort of care we want and can afford for our elderly parents.
Read more about The Purchase of Intimacy at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue