Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy

Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy

Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy

Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy


Over the past three decades, economic sociology has been revealing how culture shapes economic life even while economic facts affect social relationships. This work has transformed the field into a flourishing and increasingly influential discipline. No one has played a greater role in this development than Viviana Zelizer, one of the world's leading sociologists. Economic Lives synthesizes and extends her most important work to date, demonstrating the full breadth and range of her field-defining contributions in a single volume for the first time.

Economic Lives shows how shared cultural understandings and interpersonal relations shape everyday economic activities. Far from being simple responses to narrow individual incentives and preferences, economic actions emerge, persist, and are transformed by our relations to others. Distilling three decades of research, the book offers a distinctive vision of economic activity that brings out the hidden meanings and social actions behind the supposedly impersonal worlds of production, consumption, and asset transfer. Economic Lives ranges broadly from life insurance marketing, corporate ethics, household budgets, and migrant remittances to caring labor, workplace romance, baby markets, and payments for sex. These examples demonstrate an alternative approach to explaining how we manage economic activity--as well as a different way of understanding why conventional economic theory has proved incapable of predicting or responding to recent economic crises.

Providing an important perspective on the recent past and possible futures of a growing field, Economic Lives promises to be widely read and discussed.


What explains our everyday economic actions? How and why do we spend, misspend, save, invest, or gamble away our monies? Do women and men treat money differently? Why is it, for instance, that women are more likely to allocate the household’s money to children, as compared to men’s allocation of similar resources? What accounts for the fact that even among the most loving couples, partners often conceal or misrepresent their earnings or expenditures?

All of us regularly confront a whole range of such puzzling economic dilemmas. Many of them involve our most intimate ties: should we help our adult child with his or her finances, and if so, for how much and how long? How and for whom should we spend the tax rebate or income tax refund? When should we write our wills? How can we manage the care of an aging parent without losing our jobs? What do we owe our uninsured mother-inlaw who needs expensive medical treatment? Does the sibling who cares for our parent have a greater right to that parent’s inheritance?

Our responses are not always consistent. Why, for instance, do people often react with disgust or discomfort at efforts to set a monetary value on human life, yet embrace life insurance and multiple other legal arrangements for compensating with cash the injury or loss of life? For less daunting quandaries, think of routine gift-giving dilemmas: when, for instance, are gifts of cash appropriate and when are they tacky? When does offering a gift certificate offend the recipient?

The search is on for superior explanations of these and many other features of our economic lives. Impatient with standard accounts of economic action as inexorably driven by calculating self-interest, in the past few decades scholars from a range of disciplines have proposed sparkling new understandings of economic activity. Turning away from abstract theories and plunging into the messiness of actual economic practices, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others are slowly but surely revolutionizing how we understand life’s commerce. From different perspectives, these scholars expose a rigid concept of “homo economicus” as a rusty, old-fashioned notion ready for retirement. Even some economists, while fully embracing rational choice models, have broadened their vision to provide often surprising and instructive explanations for the economics of everyday life.

The serious political implications of the challenge to standard economics became clear in 2008. The financial debacle that jolted the world painfully dramatized the need for new macroeconomic paradigms. The crisis not only . . .

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