Finding the Value of Money | Interview with Dr. Viviana Zelizer

We met with Dr. Viviana Zelizer to discuss the role of money in our society, interactions between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, and much more. Enjoy!

Finding the Value of Money | Interview with Dr. Viviana Zelizer
"What happens when money enters the domain of life and pricing life?" As I did in my early dissertation first book.” – Dr. Viviana Zelizer

Princeton University Professor of Sociology, Viviana Zelizer compares sociology with other fields such as anthropology and history, as well as her research methods compared to the methods of other influential sociologists. Dr. Zelizer shares her work in the sociology of money, the changing value of life, and the evolving role of money in our society. Dr. Zelizer’s latest research focuses on the interaction between students of vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds at her own university. Follow along as award-winning economic sociologist and Lloyd Cotsen ’50 Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, Viviana Zelizer talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Sociologist Dr. Viviana Zelizer

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:17.0Sociology versus Anthropology

Jed Macsosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. And today, we have with us, Viviana Zelizer, who is at Princeton University in the Sociology Department. Now, we’ve interviewed people in a lot of the different humanities, so the first question I have is, what makes sociology different from, let’s say, anthropology, and what are some of the things that set it apart?

Viviana Zelizer: Well, there are a lot of parallels between both fields in the sense that they’re both trying to understand social life, and in that sense, a contrast with psychology, which of course they’re interested in social life, but the focus is on the individual. Individual development, individual cognition, and both sociologists and anthropologists are more interested in the social relations, even though there are many splendid scholars in both of those fields that may specialise in cognitive aspects of social relationships. And I would say that in the past, the boundaries between sociology and anthropology were stronger in the sense that anthropologists would study primitive communities and other kinds of groups and less contemporary capitalist societies. But in the past years, anthropologists have done splendid ethnographies and studies of contemporary societies.

I have been interested in the work of early anthropologists because I’ve been very interested in the sociology of money, and earlier anthropologists and many brilliant anthropologists have studied the differentiations of monies in primitive societies, meaning that they had different forms of money for different kinds of relations or activities. And the supposition was for a long time that in contemporary capitalist societies, money was money, a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. So all those differences, primitive differences had disappeared. And what I have been showing in my work early since the... Especially a book on the social meaning of money, is how we still mark very powerful distinctions among categories of money, what I call the earmarking of money.

So then in many households, the wife’s money has been differentiated from the husband’s money, from the child’s money, so we may not have maybe physical differentiations, although those also exist, but we make other differentiations. And many anthropologists also began studying these differentiations in capitalist societies. So again, we joined more the fields, I would say, in these latter decades than before.

0:03:28.9Using documentary analysis

Jed: That’s fascinating. Well, it definitely seems like money has been one of the contributions you’ve made studying the sociology of money. How does your contribution and the things that have made you very influential in sociology fit in with some of the people that you see as also being very influential in sociology?

Obviously, we interviewed Omar Lizardo , and he’s used a lot of big data, for example, in Spain, to look at different sociology factors. But how does your research fit in with some of the other great sociologists of our modern era?

Viviana: It’s a great question. Omar Lizardo is a brilliant, younger generation sociologists who’ve done work in culture and in many domains, I much admire him. And I used a different methodology because I was trained as a social historian, and I was trained as a sociologist, but I had this friend that trained me in the methods of social history, I have used documentary analysis, meaning I have used archival sources. So in a way, why am I different from a regular historian, which is another kind of boundary, and again, the boundaries there are flexible, but I am more interested in exploring a general question like, "What happens when money enters the domain of life and pricing life?" As I did in my early dissertation first book, and I used the historical documents to try to identify or find answers to that question.

…as I tell my students, the key is having an interesting question, and then you find which method adapts better to answering that question.” – Dr. Viviana Zelizer

For example, in a book on the changing value of children, I was interested again and the question is, "How can we put a price on children’s life?" And one of the topics that I studied was the changing market for adoption and foster care of children. So that for example, at the turn of the 20th century, it’s the first time that you have the emergence of a baby market. Before, people, when they adopt... Well, adoption took a while, but when they took in foster kids, it was mostly older kids who could work and it was very hard to place a baby. But turn of the century, I started to do again archival... I used many different kinds of sources, from legal cases, but also I used even novels, I used government documents, but I do what is called a qualitative examination of those documents rather than count them, so it’s a different approach. And, again, as I tell my students, the key is having an interesting question, and then you find which method adapts better to answering that question.

Jed: That’s great advice, because sometimes when you have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail, and if you have big data, you just feel like you have to analyse it, and that can become a trap.

Viviana: And you know what I mean? I’m not like saying... Big data is great stuff, however, you have to know for which questions you wanna use the big data, and I watch with admiration the new methodologies emerging, but again, when I have a graduate student that is deciding on the methodologies, I tell them what will answer your question better.

0:07:31.1The future

Jed: It’s good advice, really good. Well, what do you think the future lies for studying the interaction of humans with their money as we go to PayPal and Venmo and Bitcoin? Do you look forward at all looking into the future or do you... Because you’re more of a historical document person who analyses that stuff, is it all of your work in the past?

Viviana: No, I actually am very interested in the future, and I’m delighted because there’s a series of young scholars who are in fact producing fascinating work on the new monies that are emerging. There’s two domains, one is the actual new monies that are emerging, like the cryptocurrencies and these new Venmo as a system of payment, all these exciting new methods of payment, but there’s also ways of looking how new relationships that are emerging are shaped by money, even the topic of influencers, and young kids who are influencers, how are they paid, and how do the parents manage that money? All these new questions that are emerging, I do find.

And in fact, my latest project has been for several years now in collaboration with a former student who’s actually a demographer, Lauren Gaydosh, we’ve been studying undergraduates management of cross-class relations. We have interviewed students at Princeton, how do they manage cross-class relations in terms of their economic transactions? How colleges, and especially at Ivy League colleges offer a kind of laboratory in cross-class relations, because you may have a student from a very upper class family, very affluent, maybe rooming in their first year with somebody who is on full financial aid. So how do you negotiate the expenses and all those?

This study has meant that for the first time in my academic life at this late stage, I have had... First time that I interviewed live respondents. All my respondents were... They’re documents, right? So it’s been very, very exciting and at the same time very challenging to report on the words of students that I met. I’ve been always very respectful of my dead respondents in these documents from the early 20th century, but it’s different to...

Jed: I’m sure it is. Well, we’re dying to know.

Viviana: Yeah.

Jed: What have you found out about the...

Viviana: Well, we find out that students engage in what we call relational work, which means trying to find ways to match these relationships and roommates and in ways that they are not disrupted by the fact that their finances are different. We have a small publication in the Princeton Alumni Weekly of early 219, but maybe I’ll return and tell you more when we have more answers, but it’s part of what is happening in many schools, obviously, not just Ivy League schools.

0:11:33.2Sign off

Jed: Fascinating. Well, thank you so much for sharing a little bit about your research, a little bit about how your field has evolved, and the boundaries, the very flexible boundaries between some of the other humanities that we’ve featured on this show. So thank you so much for taking the time with us today, Viviana. It was truly a pleasure to get to meet you.

Viviana: Thank you. My pleasure, too.