We met with Dr. Viviana Zelizer to discuss the role of life insurance in her work as a sociologist, students finding their educational path, and much more. Enjoy!
Princeton University professor Viviana Zelizer shares her path to becoming one of the most influential sociologists in the world. Beginning as a student of law and eventually finding her passion in sociology, Dr. Zelizer’s work in studying the changing monetary and emotional value of a child’s life stems from her research in the life insurance industry. Dr. Zelizer also offers advice to students who are trying to find what they want to study.
See Dr. Zelizer’s Academic Influence profile
See additional leaders in sociology in our article
Top Influential Sociologists Today
Considering a degree in sociology? Visit Our Sociology Page, where you’ll find the best sociology colleges and universities, career information, interviews with top sociologists, influential scholars in the field of sociology, great books, a history of the discipline, online sociology degrees, and more.
But I called them, The Economically Useless But Emotionally Priceless Child. And the fact that children lost their value as workers and then acquired much more value as sentimental beings.” – Dr. Viviana Zelizer
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Dr. Zelizer who is a sociologist at Princeton University.
And I just wanna know how did you get into sociology and what kind of influenced you to go into that field?
Viviana Zelizer: Well, it’s a kind of international story with various steps, and I’ll try to simplify those steps, but I was a student in Argentina where you go straight from high school to university. I just don’t have the four years liberal arts. And I was kind of a dilettante, I just love to study so I did a year of law because my father was a lawyer and I thought I would follow in his footsteps. And I had graduated early from high school so when I was 17 and hit the civil law text, which is the law in Argentina, that was like a little much. And then at the same time, I was taking courses in a university, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, which is philosophy and letter, which is just kind of more liberal arts in the sense where I took economics, and I took sociology, and I immediately liked sociology.
However, I was, at the same time, had taken courses and then got recruited as a simultaneous interpreter in a team of interpreters in Buenos Aires because I was raised with... I was raised in a Spanish-speaking country with a French-speaking mother and had learned English in school so I was recruited as an interpreter in this team, and I was really the youngest in that team, but I loved it also, and then...
So that’s stage one of the international story, then I... For personal reasons, because I married an American, I came to the United States and I was just barely 21 when I arrived, and I did think that I would probably work in the UN and as a simultaneous interpreter. But then I discovered, no, I have to finish first my degree, so I did that, and then I got very inspiring teachers in sociology. And at that stage, I said, okay, interpreting and translating is good, but somebody is gonna translate me. [chuckle] So then I went to graduate school at Columbia, but even then, I was not totally determined to be a professor, it wasn’t that that was... I actually thought that I might work in the adult world [chuckle] maybe...
So and I had interviews in interesting places but in the story, what happened was that they asked me to teach a summer Introductory to Sociology course at Columbia, and I said, "Okay, why not?" And it was a seminar, and I was terrified, [chuckle] and I said, "Oh my God, why did I do this?" So I go to Columbia in the same room where I had taken my own classes and sit in a seminar, and it was like a movie, I fell in love with teaching that moment. [chuckle] When I left that class, I said this is amazing. And from then, I had done a dissertation, the story continued in the sense that my first job was at Rutgers. And again, I was enchanted with the teaching at the same time, which is a lesson, I think for many young academics that you can actually love teaching and do teaching and at the same time have a scholarly career. So you know, my dissertation was published as a... Very soon which... Well, you asked for the beginnings, those are the beginnings.
Karina: Wow, what an incredible story. And so what do you think you would have done if you hadn’t become a professor as a sociologist?
Viviana: Well, first, let me tell you one more step really is very basic to the development of my career. I go into Columbia and at that time, Columbia University has many other graduate programs, admitted many students, and you got... I got very good support the first year but then it happened... It was not rare, the second year, even though I had done very well, I got what was called an honorary fellowship, and I was very excited because I thought, honores, in Spanish. I said not only do I get a fellowship, I get an honorary fellowship. [chuckle] And I discovered very soon that honorary meant no money, so I had the distinction and I really... It was a challenge to know how I was gonna subsidize.
Karina: I’m sure.
Viviana: Well, we were a young couple, etcetera, and I did not have the funds to do that. So in any case, one of the things that came out, I got a four-year fellowship on the National Institute of Mental Health, it was... This was really fundamental to my career. It was a social history traineeship program, a new thing in which they had recruited some history students to train them in the social sciences.
So there were two sociology students and a bunch of history students that were trained in the social history methods. But one of the requirements to be part of this extraordinary fellowship which subsidized the rest of my graduate program, was that you had to write a dissertation in American social history which had not been my plan. [chuckle] And I actually thought of history in very conventional ways. But I discovered through extraordinary professors and social historians, a man called David Rothman , who actually passed away last year. I discovered how amazing this social history was. So in the end I did a dissertation that dealt with... And again, the story of the steps towards deciding what I was gonna do had to do a lot with my person, personal interest. But I did a dissertation in an odd topic on the response, how did the life insurance industry become so dominant in the United States? And there was enormous amount of cultural resistance to it.
If you think about it, it was an industry that was pricing life and death. So it starts in the 19th century, and there was enormous resistance, including by the middle class women who were the main beneficiaries of husband’s life insurance, because they thought it was like blood money that they were benefiting.
So in any case, I did what became a cultural history of life insurance, not because I was so passionate about life insurance, [chuckle] but it turned out after a lot of other investigations, it turned out to be a very strategic industry to understand what became a long-standing interest in how do we mingle? How do we mix money with life? With our intimate relationships? I wrote much later a book called The Purchase of Intimacy, which deals with how do we all mix our intimate relations from dating to marriage, to caring for what we’re seeing now the economic cost of caring for the elderly and children. And how do we mix that money with our feelings and our sentiments and our relationships?
Karina: Wow, that is so fascinating. And do you think that your original background in law that you started out with has kind of affected your career in sociology at all?
Viviana: Yeah. That’s a great question. Because at the point that I dropped law, I didn’t understand the really remarkable features of law as a window into social relationships. But the fact that I had been sensitized to it, made me return to it probably more comfortably. And in fact, I wrote another book called Pricing The Priceless Child, which looks at how the value of children in the United States changed at the turn of the 20th century, from what I call... It’s quoted, "Excited" by people who have not even read the book. [chuckle] But I called them, The Economically Useless but Emotionally Priceless Child. And the fact that children lost their value as workers and then acquired much more value as sentimental beings, or more explicit value. And I looked at legal sources that documented that transformation. For example, I looked at how courts compensated parents for the death of a young child in an accident, accident cases. There was a lot of early 20th century cars start running in cities, and so there’s a lot of accidents.
So they go to court and if there was an accident earlier at the turn of the... Earlier, late 19th century etcetera, the courts could value the lost economic value of the child, because prospective value if they worked, etcetera. But then child labor laws come, children are no longer working. So courts start measuring the emotional value of a child. The sentimental loss than it cost to a parent when a child is dead. But in any case, your question is very good because I would not... I probably would not have felt comfortable dealing with all these arcane cases if I had already a feeling. And I would say that some after this book on the Purchase of Intimacy, that also deals with the law of intimacy, some of my most fascinating conversations and discussions and presentations have been with legal scholars, feminist legal scholars.
Karina: Wow, that’s incredible. So it’s good to know that I still have value even if I don’t work. [laughter] But do you also have...
Viviana: Oh, you’re doing pretty good work. [laughter] You got it both.
Karina: Yeah. Do you also have a background in economics, because it seems like you focused a lot on that throughout your research.
Viviana: Again, a great question. Aside from the course that I took in Filosofía y Letras, in 1970? [chuckle] That was my only course in economics. But I have paid close attention to actually the wonderful developments in the world of economics as it moves from very standard neo classical approaches to fascinating to behavioral economics to feminist economics. And again, I have had conversations with economists about possibilities of bridges. But economics is a very strong field in itself, so building the bridges is not easy, but it’s a challenge since we’re trying to understand the world just in different ways.
Karina: Wow, that is so interesting. Yeah, we’ve talked to several economists on here, but it’s so interesting because you have such a different perspective from what we’ve heard from them.
And do you have any advice to people going to college, maybe they don’t know what they’re majoring in, or maybe they wanna major in sociology. Do you have any advice for them going forward trying to figure out what they might wanna do?
Viviana: Well, you see the difficulty is that for somebody starting in high school itself, you’re not exposed to all the disciplines. So the first thing I would say is that you have to be open regardless of the professional pressures and the new world in which everything, the people are more concerned with future work for real reasons. I think that the blessing, the adventure of an undergraduate liberal arts education, wherever in whatever school, Princeton is great, but any school will have talented faculty.
…it is possible to find something that you are passionate about and find practical ways of applying it so that you also have a livelihood.” – Dr. Viviana Zelizer
So the challenge is to expose yourself as much as you can, take advantage of taking different kinds of courses and things that you might not have thought of just as I discovered sociology through a course. And also, the key thing is for undergraduates and graduates, the challenge is to combine what famous economists, one called the passions and the interests. That it is possible to find something that you are passionate about and find practical ways of applying it so that you also have a livelihood. But never do something because, "Oh, this is the thing in Vogue now. If I do work on this, I’m gonna be... " Sometimes it works. [chuckle]
So I guess that my whole approach is trying to manage the best mix of these different worlds that sometimes to observers seems so incompatible.” – Dr. Viviana Zelizer
Life is messy, right? And exciting at the same time. But I think that the possibility of combining both is there. So look my whole argument in these books that deal with money and relationships is that we should not have views that these are what I call hostile worlds. And that we actually mix money and personal relationships, sometimes in terrible ways, but sometimes in ways that are uplifting. And we make donations with money to make the world better. And we help our children with money to make their world better. So I guess that my whole approach is trying to manage the best mix of these different worlds that sometimes to observers seems so incompatible.
Karina: Wow, well, that is so interesting. And I hope that the people who watch these videos get a chance to read your books, because I can tell that they are just so interesting. And thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really so cool hearing all you had to say and about your story. So thank you so much.
Viviana: Okay. Thank you for listening. Professors always like to be listened to.
Check out more intriguing conversations with experts, scholars, and living legends.
Or jump to our student resource library for tips on everything from studying to starting on your career path.