Soundbite: Intimate Revelations


From mandatory sexual harassment training to crackdowns on prostitution, Americans spend an awful lot of time erecting barriers between business and pleasure. The assumption, reflected in our legal system and countless advice columns, goes something like this: Business vulgarizes intimacy, and intimacy corrupts business.

Princeton's Viviana A. Zelizer doesn't buy it. Zelizer is a leading figure in economic sociology, a field that tries to explain economic institutions from a sociological perspective. In The Purchase of Intimacy, she argues that economic exchange is a crucial part of our quest to create, define, and maintain intimate relationships--and that if money can't buy love, it can at least help sustain it.

Assistant Editor Kerry Howley spoke with Zelizer in September.

Q: Why the horror over mixing love and money?

A: ??????? It's a kind of magic spell to keep away the evils of the wrong relationship. You say: "I'm not a whore; I'm your date," "I'm not a hired maid; I'm a mother to your kid," "You're not my lover; you're my lawyer." You're protecting these valued relationships from others that seem bad. But this blinds people to the actual economic activity that goes on. Somebody is paying for the date.?

Q: Is there a general discomfort with money at play?

A: ??????? The standard argument is that when you have intimacy in the economic realm, necessarily you will have corruption. What I'm saying is, yes, sometimes, but not always--and in fact by worrying so much about not mixing, you reach unfair mixes. Once we stop worrying about mixing economic activity and intimacy, we can start worrying about working toward the right mixes.

Q: Is there a danger of workplaces becoming too sterile?

A: ??????? That's a tough one. It was the fantasy of the early studies of bureaucracies to say, OK, the world of bureaucracy is completely impersonal; that's the only way we can have efficiency--you obey the rules, you don't have intimacy. They were wrong. People are people, and even in the most bureaucratic workplaces you have gossip and friendship. Those intimate connections increase interactions and increase efficiency, because you are comfortable trading information.

Q: So is it all reducible to the dismal science?

A: ??????? The household is not like a small corporation. You don't pay a wife a wage the same way you pay an employee. But at the same time, households wouldn't survive without economic activity. Look at Hurricane Katrina. All these households clearly are challenged not because they lost love but because they lost their most basic economic supports.