Viviana Zelizer at Columbia University: Debates on a New Agenda for Economic Sociology

Reporte de Pilar Opazo desde NYC.

During last week, Viviana Zelizer visited the Sociology Department at Columbia University as part of a colloquium series called “Distinguished Visiting Scholars.” As many of you may already know, Columbia University is Viviana’s alma mater, so her visit was full of lively stories of her time being a graduate student and memories of personal conversations with faculty members at Columbia, such as the sociologist Chuck Tilly, who greatly inspired her work. Through a sequence of three insightful presentations, Zelizer explained her latest theoretical developments on the concepts of “relational work” and “circuits of commerce.” She pointed out that the notion of “embeddedness” has reached momentum in the new economic sociology theorizing. While considering how pathbreaking Granovetter’s piece is, it still maintains a division of labor between value and values, the economy and society. Consistent with Harrison White and David Stark’s accounts, Zelizer called for the need to search for new paradigms in economic sociology that help us see the social and economic spheres as necessarily intertwined. In her words, “this is a great time for a discussion of the economy. The recent crisis posited new challenges and the need for alternative explanations.” (Zelizer, public lecture March 7th, 2011).  

One of the key constructs of Zelizer’s theoretical proposal is what she calls “good matches” or “connected lives.” In contrast with previous predominant approaches in economic sociology, “good matches” emphasizes the fact that for economic transactions to be successful the quality of a match between two individuals (or groups) matters. In fact, Zelizer claims, people work hard to sustain relationships in which both economic practices and intimate relations are at play. Achieving a “good match” between these two fields thus involves the effort of participants to make it work, i.e., complex negotiations that maintain, promote or challenge the relationship. During her visit to Chile, on November 2010, Zelizer provided a careful explanation of her past and current work, which is well-documented in this interview. My attempt here is to complement this information. Hence, instead of writing about Zelizer’s work per se, I have chosen to write about the responses to Zelizer’s theoretical proposal, that is, the discussions that emerged between Zelizer and the faculty members of Columbia University, all experts in economic sociology. Next, I summarize what I considered to be the most insightful conversations and comments (I have slightly edited the interactions between Zelizer and faculty members of Columbia University so as to make each comment and question be understood on its own)

Interactions between Zelizer and faculty members at Columbia University

Peter Bearman: [Question] In connection to your thesis of “good matches”, are there any ways to map out what kinds of matches are “good matches” and the scope of those “good matches”? What struck me of your theoretical proposal is that what seems to be marking the ability of participants to create a “good match” is that they have a symmetrical capacity to interact economically in shaping the relationship. On the other hand, when there is asymmetry in the relationship, it seems that the thesis of “good matches” does not work. Is this the case? If this is so, do you think that there might be a way to find ex-ante a set of principles from which we could imply which social assignments would make a relational work successful? In other words, are there any ways to define a priori which social ties would be “good matches”? Let me give you an example. In my study of doormen (Bearman 2005), these individuals can hold to their identity to negotiate tips with residents. As long as they are able to segregate their identity as doormen in order to exploit the relationship, the “good match” remains viable.

Viviana Zelizer: [Answer] I understand that my term “good matches” may lead to normative understandings of social ties. However, by “good matches” I do not necessarily mean morally good exchanges, they can also be normatively wrong. This is why I use the terminology of “connected lives” as a synonym to “good matches”. What I’m trying to get at with my notion of “good matches” is that, in any economic transaction, people use certain kind of media and that they operate within shared understandings. These understandings can either be normatively “right” or “wrong.” Although I find it very interesting, it is difficult for me to think of principles that could be defined a priori to identify what would be “good matches” or “bad matches”. My method of analysis is mainly through archival or historical research. As a result, my work does not look at the relationships ex-ante, but rather it focuses on ex-post accounts of unfolding social relationships. What I aim is precisely to understand the particular characteristics of meaning based on these respective accounts.

David Stark: [Question] I am also particularly interested in your notion of “good” or “bad” matches. It seems that “good matches” allow coordination to happen. I see coordination as achieving understanding. In this sense, coordination can happen not only through misunderstandings but also because of misunderstandings across different “orders of worth.” Following this line of reasoning, successful matches need not be negotiated among parties. If we think of “good matches” as provisional settlements, we don’t necessarily need to assume that parties agree to make transactions work (…) too much effort may be needed to make things equal.

Viviana Zelizer:[Answer] I agree. My notion of “good matches” is about shared understandings of what is going on in the relationship, even though there are disputed meanings of what is going on. Good matches are never settled. Conflicts of what is considered “meaningful” are always present. For example, remittances that immigrants send to their families do encompass bargaining and competing mechanisms among the participants in the relationship. In this sense, the idea of shared meanings does not imply that people agree or have harmonious meanings, but that they understand what the transaction means.

Diane Vaughan: [Question] To what extent does your model of “circuits of commerce” could be applied to organizations? You outline for properties of these circuits of commerce — participants, economic transactions, media and shared meanings. Can organizations be conceived as part of your fourth ingredient, i.e., “shared meanings”?

Viviana Zelizer: [Answer] I mean something specific about shared meanings, which is different from organizations. Just to be clear, by shared meanings I mean the very basic understanding of what the economic transfer is about. I understand that organizations need to be brought more into my theoretical model (…) For instance, family businesses, as organizations, are a very interesting case for studying how things are negotiated and worked out in the economic sphere and intimate relationships. This case of study, for example, focuses on constellations of people (networks) and not only dyads. This is something that I would like very much to explore further in my work.

Josh Withford: [Comment] I am intrigued by the connection between brokerage and your notion of “relational work”. This refers to the question of what is people doing when they are doing relational work. Brokerage is the ability to connect otherwise disconnected parties, for instance, making circuits separated, keeping them as legitimate by connecting and disconnecting ties and by controlling their meaning. In relational work, it seems that different mechanisms get conflated: value can be created or destructed. Relational work is about defining the relationships, it entails mutual expectations. If I made predictions and the other does not do what I think she would do, we get into trouble. The problem is that relationships are multi-vocal, therefore, it is not about ones (coupling) and ceros (decoupling), but a about recognizing that not all ceros are alike.

Bruce Kogut: [Comment] I think that brokerage is a very interesting thing to explore for understanding meaning in markets. Especially, if we consider brokers as “pariahs.” Let’s take for example the brokerage involved in economic circuits of prostitution or pornography. Could someone go to raise money for these markets? Gambling could be another case — it is able to attract serious money but it is certainly not considered a “pretty business.” Each of these “circuits of commerce” has different connections — legitimate or illegitimate — to its environment, and therefore their connections exist in different markets of meaning.

Herbert Gans : [Question] I wanted to ask if you are using Sudhir Venkatesh’s thoughts on the underground economy for your own work.

Viviana Zelizer: [Answer] I don’t know Sudhir personally, but we are very familiar with each other’s work. I think that he has wonderful material regarding the interaction between the economy and intimate relationships that could certainly be used for purposes of my theoretical framework.

Finally, I wanted to share with you two syllabi on economic sociology recently created and taught by Viviana Zelizer at Princeton University. I think of them as a great resource for our own work: Social ties, Culture and Economic Processes – Fall 2011 & Gender and Economic Activity – Spring 2010.

[Este post no está escrito en español dado que estoy trabajando con un voice-recognition software. Saludos, Pilar Opazo]

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  • Juan Felipe Espinosa  On March 15, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Hi Pilar,

    Thanks for this interesting interaction and the syllabi on Social ties and economic processes.

  • joseossandon  On March 16, 2011 at 7:22 am

    Sin duda es muy interesante la discusión que describes Pilar. Quizás sería interesante leer algo más de lo que opinas tú. Y de hecho tengo una pregunta, por supuesto no hay problema si respondes en inglés o si no tienes una respuesta. Según lo que cuentas, queda la impresión de que actualmente hay un acuerdo entre formas de hacer sociología económica que hasta hace un tiempo eran poco compatible, en la medida que se asume que las redes se constituyen también por historias y orders of worth, y toda relación económica marca barreras simbólicas. Sin embargo, puede aun ser importante pensar en las diferencias: por la respuesta a Vaughan, da la impresión de que Zelizer marca que sus “circuitos” son diferentes a las “organización” (que es también el tipo de institución que estudia Stark). De la misma manera, estos circuitos deberían ser distintos a las redes, donde se ha aplicado el concepto de “brokerage”. Entonces, vale la pena preguntarse más específicamente: que diferencia a los circuitos de Zelizer de una organización y de una red?, y si vale la pena asimilar la noción de “trabajo relacional” con la de “brokerage”?


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