Monday, February 10, 2014

A review of 'The Social Meaning of Money' by Viviana Zelizer

This review appears on Amazon here. I hate writing a bad review (I gave it 3 stars) but there you go - I have to say it as I see it. Do go click the 'like' button if you approve, or indeed the 'unlike' if you think I'm being unfair to Viviana.

Rather repetitive, the book is conceptually and theoretically under-developed and is only partially saved by some interesting observations.

The key issue with this book's argument is that Zelizer's fails to explain her central terms or develop the relationship between them. She uses the words money, monies, currency and currencies interchangeably. The central action she describes is 'earmarking' but she doesn't make clear how this is related to the idea of money other than a vague notion that earmarking creates currencies. The book fails to develop a solid conceptual underpinning. Instead, it examines the effect of earmarking on various relationships surrounding money; employer and employee, charity and the needy, the state and benefits claimants, etc. In doing so, Zelizer tends to circle the social meaning of money rather than penetrate it.

However her work does contain some interesting observations. Evidence of earmarking is drawn form various American sources from 1870 and 1930; etiquette magazines describe how cash gifts should be given and whether or not they should be accepted, the reports of various committees on the allocation of charitable funds to the poor give insight into the how the issue of transfer either in-kind or with direct cash was dealt with across the time period, and the effect of the growth in the science of 'home economics' and its dissemination through various books and journals is examined for its adoption in the domestic sphere and its consequences. All interesting stuff, but ultimately I felt the analysis fell short. For example, Zelizer fails to consider the dynamics of the publishing industry and question the relationship of the etiquette magazines to their readership - was their advice truly reflective of social mores, or did they have an incentive to create a picture of complex socio-economic relations to which they could provide a solution?

The book suffers from repetition. Zelizer observes the same relationships from only marginally different perspectives that seem somewhat arbitrarily chosen. Because of this, her points appear laboured rather than nuanced. If I were to be very harsh I'd say that the book started as a thoroughly decent journal article which was extended to meet a publishing deadline. The opening and closing chapters have the feeling of being tagged on. Ultimately, the book falls between two audiences. It isn't rigorous enough and doesn't contain enough source material (they are extensive footnotes, although no bibliography and no source expenditure/gift lists or inventories) to satisfy an academic audience, and yet the style is not personal or anecdotal enough to appeal to a wider more general audience. This is a shame. Zelizer has obviously made some important observations on money but I couldn't connect with them in this book. I hope her later 'The Purchase of Intimacy' which is on my shelf unread, proves more fruitful.

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