- The Purchase of Intimacy
Of all of the economic transactions that we accept without thought, obtaining the services of a babysitter is among the most startling. Parents transfer their most valuable financial asset (their home) and their most precious emotional asset (their child) to the care of – what? – a 12 year old. And then they typically pay this caregiver – what? – less than minimum wage. How many other workers are simultaneously given such authority and such poor recompense? When the employee is a sibling of the child to be watched, the economic transactions can become more emotionally fraught. If the watcher is to be rewarded, why not the watchee?
The purchase of intimacies is simultaneously marketized and sentimentalized. We routinely buy and sell private and intense services. Sometimes we believe that these transactions are essential and moral, and sometimes we respond with horror. Rejecting an absolutist view of the cultural-economic complex, Viviana Zelizer postulates a "connected lives" model in her always engaging The Purchase of Intimacy. By this term Zelizer suggests, in line with an increasingly influential approach to economic sociology, that monetary transactions are embedded in social relations. On occasion these social relations acquire an emotional power that creates debate and emotion within the public sphere; on other occasions they are taken-for-granted as right and proper or as wrong and base. Zelizer situates her argument in contrast to a pair of alternatives: the Hostile Worlds and the Nothing But perspectives. The former, despite its tone of chilly affect, is in love with love. It suggests, romantically, if implausibly, that cash and caresses should eternally be separate. Where love wanders, money must not pursue. The Nothing But perspective suggests that a simple and singular explanation exists for understanding the linkage between intimacy and markets: the explanation can be cultural, political or economic, but it remains "one size fits all." Zelizer wishes to add levels of complexity, asserting that the linkage between intimacy and financial exchange is always negotiated and fluid. The local conditions of interpretation and the arena of action matter.
One theme that runs through Zelizer's argument is the salience of legal institutions as sites of struggle over intimate relations. Perhaps [End Page 1353] she emphasizes the role of judicial decision-making overly much as interpretations always are shaped by the concerns of publics to which courts often respond directly or implicitly. Legal outcomes are surely important, but court cases represent the tip of a cultural iceberg. Any social system is dependent on assumed consensus, and, in its absence, on the ability to reach agreement without relying on formal systems of jurisprudence: what Robert Ellickson speaks of as Order Without Law: order outside the court. A salient trial may serve as an experimentum crucis – an institutional performance in which an issue is addressed directly and in which a resolution is demanded. Because of the requirement to produce a definitive outcome, cases provide revelatory moments and, so, these cases, like that of O.J. Simpson, provide juice for Zelizer's narrative.
After a richly textured analysis of the role of intimacy in American law as it has developed, slowly and fitfully, over the centuries, Zelizer examines three broad empirical domains: coupling, caring relations and household commerce: how is money to be divided among partners when love is lost or death knocks; how heroic acts of caring by intimates be financially compensated; and who is owed what within the economic organization of a household unit. The challenge in any study that does not hold to a "nothing but…" approach is that it embraces uncertainty and complexity, jettisoning the parsimony of a single, powerful causation. Each case depends on its local circumstances. As a result, every form of intimate transaction serves as a potential topic for its own monograph – divorce, estates and allowance are each ripe for extended treatment.
Perhaps the central theme of The Purchase of Intimacy is Zelizer's persuasive argument that it is "not (just) the money, stupid." At various points in the narrative, she returns to the debate over remunerating...