B. G. Carruthers, W. N. Espeland

American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 41, Issue 10, 1384-1408 (Aug 98)

Abstract: Presents a systematic study of monetary meaning by designing a framework. Demonstration of the usefulness of the framework; What monetary meanings are dependent on; Dimensions of monetary meaning; How people treat money differently; Aspects of monetarization; Conclusion to the study.

Keywords: MONEY

Modern money creates, transforms, transports, and possesses meaning by virtue of how it is used. This article devises a framework for the systematic study of monetary meaning, ln particular, monetary meanings depend on the flow of money (both its proximate source and future direction) and on who promulgates or issues it. Meanings also derive from how money’s use and flow are restricted and on monetary, media. Monetarization quantifies social activities and introduces new equivalences and comparisons. The factors shaping meaning also underpin important types of monetary variation (homogeneous vs. differentiated money; anonymous vs. personal; material vs. immaterial).

Titus complained of the tax which Vespasian had imposed on the contents of the city urinals. Vespasian handed him a coin which had been part of the first day’ s proceeds: «Does it smell bad?» he asked. When Titus said «No,» he went on: «Yet it comes from urine.»

Suetonius (1957, pp. 290-291)


Cecil Graham. What is a cynic?

Lord Darlington. A man who knows the price of everything and the

value of nothing.

Cecil Graham. And a sentamentalist, my dear

Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and

doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.

Oscar Wilde (1980, p. 67)

On 25 July 1996, Ada Louise Huxtable, a noted architecture critic and historian, was honored by the Museum of the City ofNew York. That evening, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani presented Huxtable with the $24 award that is bestowed on people who have made important contributions to improving the quality of life for city residents. Named for the cash value of the goods that the Dutch offered to Native American inhabitants in exchange forManhattanIsland, previous recipients of this award included such wealthy and notable people as Brooke Astor, Felix Rohatyn, and Joseph Papp (see «Ada Louise Huxtable Receives Award,» 1996).

Clearly, the $24 that Huxtable received was, in Viviana Zelizer’s (1994, pp. 21-24) terms, «special money»—money that was richly symbolic in ways that marked it and made it incommensurate with other money. But just how and by whom was this distinctiveness accomplished? What accounts for the specialness of Huxtable’s money? And how, more generally, should we analyze the varied ways that monies become inscribed with meanings’? Is it possible or even desirable to devise more systematic strategies for understanding the meaning of money?

We will argue that the meaning of money, like other forms of meaning, is enacted in use and that our understanding of how these processes unfold can be improved by systematically attending to some general features of the pragmatics of money. Before we tackle broader questions about the meanings of money, let us begin by unpacking the meanings of Huxtable’s «special» $24.

One way that the symbolic significance of this money was signaled was the context in which it was presented. As the centerpiece of a public, ritualized event, the occasion marked the money. The food served, the clothing worn, the speeches made, and the photos taken all attested to the importance of what this particular money stood for. The participants and the witnesses to this exchange also mattered for its meaning. The prominent people in the audience added their luster, as did the cultural institution that initiated the award, the mayor who conveyed it, and the accomplished woman who received it.

But all this portent and weight was in stark and calculated contrast to the trivial sum that Huxtable received. Twenty-four dollars in Manhattan might buy you a decent breakfast at a downtown hotel, a few of hours of parking, or a cab ride from Wall Street to the Upper East Side, hardly a sum that would normally warrant the presence of the mayor of New York. We often think of the meaning of money as depending on what it can be exchanged for. Although we do not know if or how Huxtable spent this money, this sum signals to us that we should appreciate its symbolic value rather than its exchange value. Here, the amount matters not for what it can do for Huxtable but for what it says about her. And one of the things it does say about her is that she does not really need this money. If she or her projects needed money, its symbolic message would be compromised. In contrast, presenting $24 to someone like Mother Teresa would seem wildly inappropriate.

The significance of the prize money stemmed partly from a series of symbolic juxtapositions. The size of the award inverts one common pattern of equating price with value, where things of great value or significance are often represented by large sums of money. Some awards, like the Nobel Prize or the MacArthur Foundation «genius» grant that Huxtable received some years earlier, include sizable sums of money that reinforce the significance of the accomplishments being honored. This meager sum emphasizes the discrepancy between the amount of money that was awarded and the value of what was being honored—Huxtable’s accomplishments. This discrepancy, by highlighting the inappropriatness of $24 as an estimate of her civic contributions, problematizes the commensurative capacity of money that we take for granted in routine economic exchange. The name of this prize, and no doubt the accompanying speeches, draws attention to this intentional mismatch, making it playful and funny rather than something to be reproached. Thus, a small sum of money symbolizes, in ironic fashion, a large civic contribution.

Another way to symbolize important values is to define them as intrinsically valuable, as incommensurate. This logic rejects money as an appropriate way to express or reward certain values, and their meaning is marked by removal or separation from the realm of money. Other awards, such as the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Presidential Medal, explicitly do not provide any money to recipients; cash would seem an inappropriate expression, as if money’s profane associations would taint the sacredness of what is being honored. The creators of the $24 award rejected these alternative logics of valuing, instead adopting a form that makes explicit and plays off the disjunctures implicit in them. This «compromise» strategy pits contradictory symbolic logics against one another. In violating the assumptions underlying both, it evokes a rich semiotic space.

Of course, the meaning of Huxtable’s prize derived not only from the small sum she received but from its specific magnitude. It mattered that it was not $23 or $25 she received but exactly $24. The meaning of this money depended on its historical associations with an earlier exchange that became notorious for its gross undervaluation. This interpretation reinforces the value of Huxtable’s accomplishments by associating these with value of contemporaryManhattancompared with its «purchase» price. But one could imagine that this association would mean something different if the recipient or members of the audience were Native American.

The meaning of Huxtable’s prize money depended on its designation as an award, who was bestowing it, the occasion on which it was presented, to whom it was presented, its sum, and its historical associations; on assumptions about how these associations would be interpreted; and on the audience that witnessed this event and those who learned of it through various media. These aspects of its «context» made this money special, incommensurable with other monies. And although it is rare for money to be so elaborately marked, as Zelizar (1998) argues, people are ingenious at finding ways to transform the meanings of money in ways that render it personal, cultural, incommensurable, and moral.

Like all other social objects, money has meaning that depends on its use and context. Such uses are not, however, idiosyncratic. Nor is context ad hoc. Both are socially structured in patterned ways we can discern. In this article, we propose a set of categories and analytical distinctions that help us to interpret context and use. These should help us to think more systematically about the meaning,significance, and legitimacy of money.[1]

In a highly monetarized economy, money penetrates and participates in almost every economic exchange. Its social meanings pervasively influence the economic life of a society, and vice versa.[2] But money is so widespread, it has become almost invisible, a taken-for-granted, «natural,» and easily overlooked feature of the economic landscape. We try to reestablish analytic distance to appreciate the profound effects of money.

Our efforts draw on Wittgenstein’s (1958) pragmatic theory of language. Following Wittgenstein, we consider the meaning of money as something accomplished and revealed in its use. Wittgenstein rejects any theory of language that posits a constant relationship between words, their meaning, and how these correspond to the empirical world. Words are not simply the names of things, and their meanings cannot be reduced to the objects to which they refer; there are no rules and no precise relationships that govern the way we use and understand language in daily life. We believe that Wittgenstein’s general argument can usefully inform the analysis of money. The meaning of money, like the meaning of words, cannot be reduced to that which it represents. Thus, it is misguided to try and identify universally representational properties of money and to link these to its meaning. The meaning of money does not depend on some characteristic that is common to all money. Instead, its meaning depends on what people in a particular context do with it.

Wittgenstein’s (1958) analogies for understanding language suggest useful questions for thinking about how to understand the meaning of money in practical contexts. Wittgenstein uses two simplified models of language to ground his analysis: language as a tool and language as a game. In likening language to a tool, Wittgenstein wants us to appreciate that language shares many of the same characteristics as tools. Words are actions as well as symbols; we use words, like we use tools, to do things. Wittgenstein urges us to ask «On what occasion, for what purpose, do we say this? What kind of action accompanies these words?» (par. 489). Although the same tool can have diverse functions (think of all the things you can do with a hammer or a screwdriver), it is important to notice when we use certain tools and when we do not. Not all uses or occasions are appropriate. What cannot we do with this tool? According to Wittgenstein, we should not be deceived by the superficial similarity of some tools. Even though cranks may look alike, they produce very different effects, and the meaning depends heavily on the particularity of these effects.

Different kinds of money, like tools, can look superficially alike although they do and mean very different things. The same piece of currency, like the same tool, can be used in a dazzling array of contexts to do very different things. There are some places where money does not or should not go and some functions for which it is inappropriate. What action does money engender? When and from where is its use prevented?

Wittgenstein’s (1958) conception of the language game, which he describes as «consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven» (par 7), helps us appreciate both the multiplicity of meaning in language and how meanings are constrained and defined by contexts. Meanings may be ambiguous, but they are not arbitrary. Although he argues that there is no universal relationship between words and their referent, there are constraints around meaning, and these are defined by the contours of their particular language game. Whether it is «poetry» or «following orders» or «telling a joke,» it is possible for those engaged in a particular game to understand the meaning of words, to see some word as nonsensical or inappropriate. Language games provide a system of references, the necessary linguistic context for meaning. Their parameters are established internally, by loose, improvisational, and collective «rules» about how to use language in this particular game.

The meaning of money, like the meaning of language, is diverse, practical, and local but not completely malleable. Money is not merely a label or a symbol for something. Both analogies of language, as tools and as games, firmly ground the meaning of language in what people do with language, point to the diversity of meanings that emerge in use, and show how appropriateness is grounded in the loose, proximate rules that bound particular contexts or «games.»

Markets share some of the characteristics of language games. As Zelizer (1996) argues, there are many markets that are distinguished by the particular systems of meaning that become attached to them. Markets proliferate, and people in markets are inventive. But like the variety of language games, the variety of markets need not compromise their connectedness. For Zelizer, diversity does not contradict uniformity. These are two aspects of the same transactions. The transformative potential of money derives partly from the tension between these two aspects: The universalism of money enables it to penetrate into, and link together, multiple contexts, each with its own particular meanings and relations. The semiotic power of the 24-dollar award results from a deliberate play on the tension between money’s universalistic ability to represent value, on one hand, and its particularistic meanings, on the other.

What do people do with money? How does it function? Consider the standard economics textbook definition of modern money: Money functions as a medium of exchange, measure and store of value, means of payment and unit of account? Because many things can perform these functions, it is more accurate to speak of monies rather than to assume that money is a singular, unitary thing.

Money is used to evaluate, to assess the magnitude of value possessed by some good or service. As such, it attaches a precise and often public number to represent the worth of something, a numerical price that «condenses» and summarizes value (Simmel, 1978, p. 196). Money is also used as a numeraire to commensurate among alternatives faced by a decision maker (Espeland, 1998; Orlean, 1992, p. 140). Using money as a common denominator, a decision maker can make tradeoffs and comparisons and, in effect, choose between apples and oranges. Money also serves as a general resource, as the means to any end, that allows activities to proceed. Money is empowering, for it allows its possessor to do what she wants. Finally, money facilitates economic exchange, and in so doing it circulates, moving from one set of hands to another and connecting distinctive market transactions in a long monetary chain. In fulfilling this last function, money has long served as a hallmark of market or capitalist society.[4]

Each of these uses represents a way for money to acquire meanings, to bestow them, to shift and to transform them. Furthermore, although modern money is characterized by most scholars as anonymous, homogeneous, fungible, and universal,[5] in fact money itself varies in several different ways that relate to its meaning. As we elaborate below, money varies in its irapersonality, ranging from highly anonymous to highly individualized. It can also differ in its scope, with general-purpose money at one end of the continuum and specialized or restricted money at the other (Douglas, 1967). Money can vary depending on how «natural» or «artificial» it seems. None of these characteristics is immutable or incontestable. In fact, the dynamism of money, and how its place in a society changes, depends very much on the kinds of conflicts, divergent understandings, and disagreements that arise over its proper role (Guyer, 1995, pp. 25-26).


Some of the different meanings that money can acquire depend on its universalistic potential: Money circulates—it flows from one place to another as people use it in successive exchanges and different contexts. The direction of these flows, and the social meaning of the places through which money moves, affects the meaning of money: Money itself can become morally tainted or purified. Terms like dirty money and the salience of money laundering suggest that money may not come through such exchanges unscathed. Yet, whether money gets colored by where it has been (or where it goes) is not a foregone conclusion. In fact, as the discussion between the Roman Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus suggests, this question, like many other moral questions, is subject to debate. Vespasian argues that money from urine smells no different than money derived from other, more reputable, tax sources. And yet, in Titus’s mind, such money is somehow unclean, tarnished, or polluted. Furthermore, these meanings adhere to money as it performs one of its primary functions: facilitating exchange. They are not attached «extrinsically» or «artificially» but as part of money’s normal role in the functioning of markets.

The status of money can be influenced by its place in a network of monetary flows. Money is affected by its proximate source, its «ultimate» source, and by its future direction. The status of where money comes from, and where it goes, matters. Consider first the proximate source of money. Where does particular money come from’? If the source involves some kind of inappropriate, socially sanctioned, or morally problematic activity (theft. sale of illegal drugs, bodily functions), or if it involves illegitimate individuals (crooks, thieves, sinners), then it may become dirty money or be defined as «ill-gotten gains.» Of course, fungible and homogeneous money is hard to track, and it is hard to determine where the money came from. But, frequently, monetary sources can be traced, and so the nature of the source becomes an issue.

The Kenyan Luo, a group of Christianized East African farmers, distinguish between good and bad money.[6] The latter is termed bitter money, and its moral status depends on its source. Money obtained through theft, as a reward for killing or hurting someone else, or through unearned gain (winning a lottery or finding someone else’s lost money) becomes bitter. The sale of certain commodities like land, gold, tobacco, and cannabis also generates bitter money. Such money is dangerous—it threatens both the holder and the holder’s family and must be kept strictly separate from transactions involving livestock or bridewealth. Its status as bitter is not permanent, however, for it can be converted into good money through a purification ceremony.

In a different cultural context, money derived from the sale of blood plasma also bears a cultural stigma (Espeland, 1984). Selling plasma comes dangerously close to violating American normative prohibitions on the sale of one’s body parts or even, because blood is symbolic of life, of «selling life.» Although legal, such market transactions are morally problematic. Sellers often distinguish between the money obtained from plasma sales and other money, earmarking the former for particular uses and purposes.[7]

The problem of how to mitigate the stigma of dirty money is a familiar one to state governments that depend on legalized gambling. Although gambling and lottery dollars look (and smell) the same as other dollars, their association with a highly disreputable activity taints them. State governments often «launder» this dirty money by earmarking it for noble purposes. Education is often a favored target for stigmatized revenues.

People distinguish money based on its source. In particular, earned money (of which the recipient is somehow morally deserving) gets differentiated from unearned money (derived from some kind of windfall). Whether the recipient saves or spends her money, and on what she spends it, depends on how the money is categorized (Lea, Tarpy, & Webley, 1988, pp. 230-231; Thaler, 1992, pp. 112-114).

Consider the example of Ms. Willis, a tenant leader and council member of a large public housing complex in a midwestern city. Her decision about whether to accept dirty money from gang leaders was a complex moral dilemma, one that reflected the inability of mainstream groups to provide for the basic needs of her community. Charged with raising money for a community party, she had been turned down by housing authority officials and had few other potential sources. «Guess I’ll go back to Ottie [a gang leader] again,» she concluded. «I just don’t like takin’ ‘dirty money’ if I can avoid it. You know?! But whatcha gonna do?» As drug money offered by gang members, its source tainted this money, however badly it was needed. Its meaning was mobilized—symbolically and materially-in the conflict over the moral standing of gangs as legitimate community members, their capacity to «buy» legitimacy with drug money, and conflict over who could rightfully represent and effectively serve the community (Venkatesh, 1997, pp. 96-97).

Money also derives meaning from what we might term its ultimate source (as opposed to proximate source). Who (or what) created and disseminated the money? Is the money issued by a sovereign government, by a private bank, by a local community, or by a single individual? Because money symbolizes or represents its issuer (whose specialized marks of authenticity and authority are frequently inscribed on it), the characteristics of the latter affect how the money is viewed and treated. Furthermore, the value of money depends on the issuer.

Money has had a historical connection with political sovereignty (Klinck, 1991, p. 3; Shipton, 1989, p. 6; Spufford, 1988, p. 83). To document their independence from former colonial masters, newly sovereign African countries frequently issued their own currency, following a fairly standardized iconography (paper money is usually stamped with numbers, pictures of political leaders, and signatures).[8] Money represents nationhood.[9] Kings and rulers put their faces or silhouettes on coins and often monopolized the right to mint new money (Geva, 1987, p. 139).[10]

One of the reasons sovereign rulers put their stamp on money (literally and figuratively) is that it can serve as an instrument of control. For example, sovereigns mobilize resources from the territories they govern in the form of taxes and tribute. To do so effectively, they try to track economic productivity and activity (Hart, 1986, p. 641). Tracing money, which is involved in most economic transactions in a monetarized economy, is much easier than directly monitoring the economic transactions themselves.[11] Consider the African colonial government’s insistence on the collection of hut or capitation taxes in cash rather than in kind. The need for money forced many native Africans into the cash economy and particularly into wage labor (Arhin, 1976, p. 460; Shipton, 1989, p. 22).

A standardized currency helps sovereigns to monitor the economic base, but it also can enlarge that base. Uniform money encourages trade and economic development within national boundaries. This was one reason, for example, why the U.S. Constitution granted the power to regulate money to the federal government rather than to the individual states (Hurst, 1973, p. 18). Thirteen states could well have established 13 different currencies, which would have made interstate commerce much more difficult.

Tensions inhere in the connection between money and sovereignty. The scale of sovereignty has changed over time, but so has money. Even as governments try to control money, its evolution and growing liquidity threaten to undermine such control. These tensions are exemplified by the struggles to regulate an ever-innovating financial sector (which generated new forms of money) during the period from the 1960s to the 1990s in advanced capitalist countries. [12] Financial innovation undercut the economic sovereignty of nation states (Leyshon & Thrift, 1997).

The strong relationship between money and sovereignty has not been uncontroversial. In the early United States, for example, people were deeply concerned about the danger that the national government might get too much control over the coinage and become tempted to abuse, clip, or depreciate its value (Hurst, 1973, pp. 8-10). Later on, post-Civil War bullionists celebrated the autonomous value that specie (allegedly) possessed as a protection against politically driven inflation. Paper money, according to their analysis, was too easily controlled and abused by governments (Carruthers & Babb, 1996).[13]

Local units of government can also issue monetary tokens. These function as money within a small community and represent an attempt to bolster the local economy by restricting expenditures. Such money can only be spent locally, and so, rather than buy goods from outside, money holders must reinvest their purchasing power internally. [14] Acceptance of such currency symbolizes confidence in the community and support for one’s neighbors.

Nongovernmental units can issue money. Before the Civil War, private banks, not the U.S. government, issued paper money. The multitude of banks meant that each type of money had a value that depended on the financial standing and reputation of the issuing bank (Myers, 1970, p. 121).[15] Dollar bills were not generic or homogeneous but were differentiated according to the issuer. No one in the United States imagined leaving the supply of money entirely up to market forces, although by granting private banks the right to issue bank notes, the supply of money was dispersed and «privatized» to a significant extent (Hurst, 1973, p. 31 ). Money can have individual as well as organizational sources. Personal checks function like money (and demand deposits are part of the official money supply), but their value depends on the individual who writes them.[16]

Money creation by nongovernment agents, either individuals or organizations, contributes to the idiosyncrasy of money and counteracts attempts by governments to try to standardize money. Even modern money remains heterogeneous. Of course, official, standardized, unitary money—the kind of currency issued by a central government—is what people have in mind when they first think of money. But one can shift attention to near monies, special monies, and quasi-monies: things that function (almost) like money and that may even be a part of the official money supply but that were not issued by the central government. Such things include personal or business credit, promissory notes, negotiable paper, demand deposits, and notes issued by private banks.[17] Alternative monies get produced privately in domestic households, as Zelizer (1994) has amply documented. But, they are also produced publicly, as part of standard commercial practices.

Personal credit is a kind of personal money. Unlike official money, it is nonanonymous—its value depends on a particular individual (the debtor or issuer). The example of 18th-century Paris bakers (Kaplan, 1996) suggests that the extension of credit establishes or constitutes a personal relationship between lender and borrower. It is a personal form of money, eventually to be exchanged for impersonal money (when the customer pays off his account) or offset against personal money going in the opposite direction (when two parties cancel offsetting claims and only settle the net balance). As Mary Douglas (1967) points out, credit often precedes money and so facilitates exchange even in economies where there is no generalized money supply (p. 121).

In early modern economies, credit was crucial for commerce (Earle, 1989; Hunt, 1996).[18] Early business handbooks (e.g., Defoe, 1745/1987) stressed the importance of credit for the success of business. No one could operate a trading firm, bakery, brewery, or textile mill if he could not obtain credit from his suppliers. Such handbooks underscored the necessity of credit and also advised on how to be creditworthy. The latter feature was conceived at the time to be a particular and deeply personal characteristic of the individual businessman. Credit was based on a man’s personal character—his moral standing, ethical rectitude, and trustworthiness (Hoppit, 1990; Muldrew, 1993). Handbooks advised on which individual features reflected or signaled high moral standing (for example, the orderliness of one’s accounts or the use of double-entry books were interpreted as good indicators of character and hence of creditworthiness).[19]

In the late 19th century, at the origin of today’s credit-rating agencies (e.g., Dun and Bradstreet), creditworthiness was still a matter that rested on the personal characteristics of the borrower. In the textile trade of 19th-century Buffalo, New York, credit raters put considerable emphasis on the ethnicity of the borrower, sharply distinguishing, for example, between Jews and non-Jews (Gerber, 1982). Their assumption was that ethnic identity served as an indicator of character and trustworthiness.

Cash money differs from credit money by shifting and reducing the problem of trust. In credit relations, creditors have to determine the trustworthiness of a specific debtor in relation to the creditor (i.e., will so-and-so repay me?). If cash is used to consummate the transaction, the seller/creditor only has to know if the money is trustworthy, and she can forget about the other party. If the money is «green;’ so to speak, then it does not matter who the other person is.

Money’s meanings depend on its future direction of flow as well as its proximate and ultimate sources. When dealing with fungible money, it is always hard to know exactly where it goes? But earmarking and other techniques for differentiating money can be used to track it and discern what future transactions it enters into. The moral purity of a future use of money can help counterbalance the immorality of its source (as governments that «purify» gambling revenues by earmarking them well know).[21] Money that goes to a «good cause» becomes good money? As well, idiosyncratic money (credit, commercial paper) often acquires the characteristics of its issuer, ensuring that money brings a reputation with it. Such money is definitely not anonymous.


Money’s meaning is also a function of where it does not flow and why it does not flow. From what social spheres, activities, or exchanges is money excluded? How is its flow restricted? Douglas (1967) points out that even modern money is restricted to within national boundaries: Its purchasing power may be almost limitless within a country, but try to spend it elsewhere and serious problems arise. Restricted «spheres of exchange» are an anthropological truism (Bohannan, 1955, p. 1959) that reflect, among other things, social boundaries placed on the set of possible exchanges: Some things cannot be traded for others no matter what the terms of trade (Parry, ! 989, p. 88). Generalized all-purpose money cannot function as such in an economy composed of separate spheres of exchange (Douglas, 1967).

Modern money may not be completely excluded from certain social domains or types of exchange, but its use is nevertheless highly constrained and restricted. Perhaps the best example of this concerns money’s relationship to gift exchange. Money characterizes the exchange of commodities in markets, which is quite different from gift exchange. Although gift giving is universal, its pattern and meaning vary cross-culturally (Bloch & Parry, 1989, p. 9). In modern, Western society, gift exchange tends to be personal and altruistic, as compared with the impersonality and self-interestedness of commodity exchange. Gregory (1982) poses the difference sharply: «Commodity exchange is an exchange of alienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal independence …. Non-commodity (gift) exchange is an exchange of inalienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal dependence» (p. 12). Gift exchange establishes (or maintains) a social relationship between giver and recipient, whereas commodity exchange tends not to.[23] A gift invokes an obligation—a relationship of indebtedness, status difference, or even subordination. Consequently, the meaning of the gift must be appropriate to the relationship.[24]

Most exchanges in modern society occur in markets and, thus, are mediated by money.[25] Goods circulate as commodities purchased for money. Normatively, markets are distinctive institutions: «The norms structuring market relations… have five features.., they are impersonal, egoistic, exclusive, want-regarding, and oriented to exit rather than voice» (Anderson, 1993, pp. 144-145). Yet, some exchanges are protected from monetarization and commodification because of their inappropriate ethos. Money in our society is so strongly identified with market exchange that its attachment to something brings with it strong «economic» connotations that may be deemed unsuitable. In many situations, the use of money violates and endangers the spirit of gift giving. Consequently, money is generally inappropriate as a gift, and even when it is used as such, all kinds of restrictions, framings, markings, and reinterpretations come into play.[26]

The ethos of the gift is strong enough to influence some market transactions. In the contemporary West, much cultural work has gone into defining blood donation as an instance of gift giving (Titmuss, 1971). Thus, to donate blood confers status on the donor, status that will not accrue if the person sold their blood. Furthermore, transplantable body parts (like kidneys, hearts, livers, etc.) are not for sale. But, in the United States, certain blood components can be legally exchanged for money. Nevertheless, given that selling blood transgresses sensibilities about the integrity (both physical and moral) of the human body, the exchange of blood plasma for money is enormously problematic. The meaning of money is deemed inappropriate to a context of gift giving, and so plasma selling is stigmatized. As Espeland (1984) shows, blood plasma centers devote considerable effort to managing and ameliorating this stigma.

Of course, the difference between gifts and commodities has little or nothing to do with the objects themselves but rather with the role that they play and how they are perceived. Things can be transformed from commodities into gifts (and vice versa) through their insertion into different types of exchange—the book that one buys at Barnes and Noble becomes a birthday gift for a friend as its price is removed and it is «personalized» through wrapping, the addition of an inscription, or the attachment of a card (Carrier, 1990, p. 30). Things are not intrinsically girls or commodities—that status is bestowed on them depending on how they are used.

Even though things can be transformed from commodities into girls, many gift exchanges remain separate from the monetarized economy. A guest who receives the gift of an invitation to dinner becomes indebted and may reciprocate later on by having the host over for a meal (thus extinguishing the debt). But polite guests would never dream of offering money in return. Nor would they treat such a social debt like a monetary debt: as a negotiable or transferable obligation.[27] The debt is personal and direct and cannot be shifted to others.

Such restrictions on the use of money in exchange are not immutably grounded in timeless and unchanging cultural categories. Norms of exchange evolve, and what may have been deemed inappropriate at one point in time can become acceptable later on. Those who Barth (1966) calls «entrepreneurs» attempt, with mixed success, to break down the barriers that separate spheres of exchange: «Innovation for an entrepreneur must involve the initiation of transactions which make commensurable some forms of value which were previously not directly connected» (p. 18). Entrepreneurs contest what is deemed an illegitimate exchange and try to redefine the boundaries of exchange. Others may resist their attempts.

In societies in which the monetarized economy is sharply distinguished from other social spheres, the presence of money in noneconomic exchanges can come highly problematic. Money brings with it a lot of moral baggage, and so members of the society (although not the entrepreneurs) will endeavor to keep money out of some exchanges. But the problematic nature of money is certainly not a universal phenomenon. As Bloch and Parry (1989) point out,

The problem seems to be that for us money signifies a sphere of «economic» relationships which are inherently impersonal, transitory, amoral and calculating. There is therefore something profoundly awkward about offering it as a gift expressive of relationships which are supposed to be personal, enduring, moral and altruistic. But, clearly, this awkwardness derives from the fact that here money’s natural environment—the «economy»—is held to constitute an autonomous domain to which general moral precepts do not apply. Where it is not seen as a separate and amoral domain, where the economy is «embedded» in society and subject to its moral laws, monetary relations are rather unlikely to be represented as the antithesis of bonds of kinship and friendship, and there is consequently nothing inappropriate about making gifts of money to cement such bonds. (p. 9)

Gerriets (1985) offers a good example of this in her discussion of money in early Christian Ireland. Money was crucial in the management and maintenance of social ties but played little role in anything like a separate or autonomous economic sphere.[28]

How money gets used in exchange, and also how it is not used, both reflect and constitute meaningfulness. By virtue of its inclusions and exclusions in a social network of exchanges, and how it flows from one activity to another, money can become good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, legitimate or illegitimate. As an economy and society evolve, not only does the network of monetary flows change, but so do the meanings that money acquires. Yet, exchange is not the only determinant of monetary meaning, for other factors matter as well.


Over time, it seems that money has become less material.[29] From pieces of precious metal, to pieces of paper that represent (or are convertible into) metal, to inconvertible pieces of paper, to numerical entries in electronic accounts, money is becoming increasingly intangible. Cross-culturally, everything from cowrie shells to iron bars and cattle has functioned as money. Yet, the materiality of money mattered enormously in the past and even today still makes a difference. The extent of historical and cultural variation in monetary media suggests that what serves as the material for money is an arbitrary issue or at most a matter of convenience. Within societies at specific points in time, however, the matter of media has seemed anything but arbitrary.

Postbellum U.S. politics were dominated by monetary controversies (Carruthers & Babb, 1996; Ritter, 1997). Before the Civil War, the U.S. money supply consisted of coins (predominantly gold but also some silver) and banknotes convertible into specie. During the war, the United States went off the gold standard, and inconvertible paper currency (greenbacks) circulated as money. After the war ended, a widespread and protracted political conflict broke out concerning the choice between two monetary alternatives: gold (and gold-backed paper currency) versus greenbacks (inconvertible paper currency). Although this monetary controversy connected to many other conflicts (partisan, regional, class, ideological, etc.), much of the debate focused on the merits and liabilities of different monetary media. Bullionists—those who advocated a return to the gold standard—celebrated the intrinsic and natural value of gold and its traditional place as the basis for money. Inconvertible paper money, in their eyes, lacked substantial worth, and it devalued so easily that inflation was an everpresent danger. Greenbackers argued in response that value was conferred by law and that it did not inhere in the material out of which money was fashioned. Later on in the 19th century, Populists claimed that silver could function «as good as gold» and supported the monetarization of silver. Like the bullionists, silver advocates believed that the medium for money mattered.

The connotations of monetary media continue to resonate, long after the end of the Populist era. Consider a World Gold Council advertisement in the June 24, 1993, The New York Times that states, «No one has ever said of gold, It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,» and that «gold has intrinsic value.» Gold remains a powerful symbol. Although most people today rely on immaterial money (e.g., credit cards) for their market transactions, the traditional materiality of money still possesses an aura of solidity, beauty, and trustworthiness.[30]


To monetarize means to attach monetary value to something. Another way that money acquires and bestows meaning relates to the consequences of monetarization. Sometimes, these consequences are deeply symbolic. Progressiveera women’s reform organizations signaled their seriousness, their civic maturity, and their character as modern organizations by substituting cash contributions for personal service. The president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs chided her members, «As soon as women get big enough to spend money impersonally, then the story is told» (Clemens, 1997, p. 209). Elisabeth Clemens (1997) argues that these women understood that «cash was a criterion of citizenship» (pp. 208-210). This shift to a cash economy and the adoption of business practices, in turn, helped to displace the familiar models of sisterhood and maternalism that shaped how American women understood their organizations in the 19th century.[31]

Among other outcomes, monetarization involves affixing precise numerical values (the amount of money something is worth) to things. It also entails a distinctive type of valuation, quite different from and potentially inconsistent with other modes of valuation. Money can be «Procrustean» in its effects, as social values are stretched or trimmed to fit into quantitative monetary categories. Finally, by facilitating exchange, money can induce a set of equivalences across objects and activities that were previously considered incomparable or incommensurable. Because meaning is partly a matter of what something is like, creating new equivalences changes meaning.

In our society, it is considered wrong to value some activities using money as a metric (to do so would be cynical, in Oscar Wilde’s sense). For instance, many domestic or familial relationships and activities are highly valued but not in monetary terms. Most mothers would not wish their children to attach a dollar value to the mothering they receive (see Firth, 1967, p. 19). Such a valuation would violate the normal meaning of motherhood, even though many of the activities that comprise mothering (e.g., baby-sitting, feeding, cleaning) can easily be purchased for cash.[32]

Some 19th-century reformers, as well as later feminists (Oakley, 1976), have devised estimates of the market value of women’s unpaid labor as one strategy for publicizing and criticizing inequities.[33] But, many women remain leery of efforts to commodify domestic work. As Judith Stacey (1990) points out, «modern-traditional» conceptions of the family emphasize family relations as fundamentally different from market relations. For some, the family is crucial precisely because they believe it is a «haven» from the self-interested calculations that characterize economic behavior (Lasch, 1977). For women who embrace traditional roles, efforts to commodify their work are deeply threatening to their investments and identities (Stevens, 1996).

Different societies value different things in nonmonetary terms, but nonmonetary valuation is itself almost a universal feature[34] The majority of contemporary Americans comfortably put a money value on land and will view such a monetary assessment as legitimate. The Yavapai Indian tribe of Arizona, in sharp contrast, has refused to put a dollar value on their ancestral lands (despite considerable political pressure to do so). Such a valuation violates their cultural heritage and insults their collective self-identity (Espeland, 1994, 1998).[35] In the past, widespread monetarization has altered people’s perceptions of some quite ordinary things:

Just as cultivable land ceased to be regarded simply as a source of immediately consumable produce and came to be seen as a source of money, so other resources came to be judged in terms of the money that they would produce. Forests ceased to be seen merely in terms of hunting for pleasure or food and were valued in monetary terms. (Spufford, 1988, p. 245)[36]

Even the monetarization of things that are now ordinarily exchanged in markets can be consequential. The monetary valuation of economic investments seems valid almost by definition (most people understand capital as a stock of money). Yet, as Baldwin and Clark (1994) argue, the use of money as a measure of value focuses attention almost exclusively on the most quantifiable aspects of a situation and necessarily overlooks the unquantified. According to their analysis, U.S. companies after World War II adopted the discounted cash flow methodology to assess capital-budgeting projects. They evaluated their investment alternatives in purely monetary terms, and in so doing, failed to develop various organizational capabilities that had a discernible effect on performance but that were almost impossible to cast in monetary terms.

Much the same problem applies to labor. Workers now routinely exchange their labor for wages, and so, in effect, a money value gets attached to their labor. Yet, the establishment of wage labor was hardly an uncontroversial or inconsequential process. In the French textile industry,

they [workers] resisted trading off money for certain categories of things, especially limited control over their own bodies and routines and a coherent structure for the family life cycle. They resisted trading off money for these things because these things had an importance they did not wish to quantify. (Reddy, 1984, p. 334)

The monetarization of labor was no uniform process, for the attachment of money to labor varied considerably, even within the same industry. In the 19th century, workers were paid using a piece-rate system in both the British and German wool-weaving industries. Yet, these monetary compensation schemes measured the product (length of cloth manufactured) in the case of Britain and the labor expended (number of»shots,» or trips of the shuttle across the warp) in the case of Germany as the basis for wages (Biernacki, 1995). Multiple monetary measures of labor were possible.[37]

Valuation in general is a kind of assessment or estimation—a form of measurement. Some kinds of valuation simply put objects into different classes: This is good, that is bad; this is male, that is female. One can take a set of objects and determine which are similar (by virtue of belonging to the same class) and which are different. A different valuation might place the objects into classes that are ordered along some dimension (as in small, medium, and large). Valuations vary in terms of what psychometricians call the «level of measurement» (Fraser, 1980; Lea et al., 1988, pp. 336-337). When things are valued monetarily, one knows about much more than just similarities and differences. Money allows for, and in fact compels, the precise specification of magnitudes of value (i.e., this is worth exactly $100), differences between value (as in, this is worth $50 more than that), and relative values (this is worth twice as much as that).

The numerical precision of monetary price renders exchange much less ambiguous than before. Thanks to standardized money, it becomes absolutely clear what something is worth, and the magnitude of equivalences set up in exchange are rendered unambiguous. Of course, for many types of exchanges, undertakings, and relationships, ambiguity has its virtues.[38] Gift givers normally take the price tag off a gift because knowledge of an exact monetary, value encourages the recipient to draw conclusions («Our friendship is only worth a $10 gift?») and make comparisons («Samuel’s gift is worth twice as much as Esther’s, therefore I must mean more to Samuel») that violate the ethos of gift giving. In such a context, price provides too much inappropriate information. In other respects, price can provide too little information, as it offers only a one-dimensional assessment of value. The complexity of things with multiple dimensions may simply be ignored in a price.

Monetarization also encourages the belief that the arithmetic operations that can be applied to numbers (addition, division, subtraction, etc.) accurately represent real qualities of the things to which monetary value has been attached.[39] For example, to value jointly two assets, one might sum their individual monetary values, but such an operation would ignore the kind of asset specificities and synergies that make wholes sometimes more, and sometimes less, than the sum of their parts. Nonmonetary values may not conform with the laws of arithmetic, but widespread monetarization of value enforces such conformity (Ferreira, 1997). The monetarization and, consequently, arithmetization of the economy also encourages and privileges numerical skills. Numeracy becomes almost as valuable as literacy (Thomas, 1987).

Finally, the spread of monetarization inserts local transactions into larger circuits of exchange. Implicitly, all bilateral exchanges become multilateral (because money provides a common denominator, it makes all two-way comparisons possible), and so money creates equivalences between unlike things (M. Strathern, 1992). For example, suppose in some society object A did not equal and was not comparable with object B and, therefore, could never be exchanged for B. But with money, ifA = $x and B = $x, then by the transitivity of an equivalence relation, A — B. This is another way of saying that generalized money threatens to break down spheres of exchange (Bohannan, 1959) and to commensurate incommensurables (Espeland, 1998).

Even in situations in which monetary valuation occurs and is deemed appropriate, moral sensibilities can still make a difference. It may be «right» to attach prices to things, but the question of the right price remains open. E. P. Thompson (1971) argued that the 18th-century English crowd used standard forms of collective action, in particular the bread riot, to enforce moral standards about what was a «fair» price for bread or flour. Although one might dismiss such normative standards as early-modern holdovers from precapitalist society, Kahneman, Knetsch, and Thaler (1986a, 1986b) present strong evidence that similar standards apply today.[40] Some mechanisms for market allocation in situations of excess demand are considered more fair than others (for example, queues seem much fairer to people than do auctions). People bring to economic exchange a reference transaction (often a previous price or market price) that helps to define what is fair. The circumstances of a price change dictate whether it seems fair (i.e., it is more legitimate to raise a price if costs have gone up than if demand for the final product has risen).

The perceived distinction between natural and artificial applies to prices as well as to monetary media (e.g., gold vs. paper). A market price has a natural or inevitable quality to it that administered prices do not, and so the latter are more vulnerable to contestation. Valuation of assets in bankruptcy court frequently involves the derivation of prices in situations in which the market provides little guidance (Delaney, 1994; Fortgang & Mayer, 1985). Consequently, bankruptcy valuation can involve a very political and conflictual series of negotiations among interested parties. The transfer prices used by large firms to account for their internal transactions also often lack market benchmarks. Without the legitimacy of a seemingly natural reference point, organizational political interests weigh heavily as these artificial prices get negotiated and administered (Eccles, 1985).


Money derives meaning and transfers it both in the course of facilitating exchange and outside of exchange. Money creates meaning pragmatically, that is, through use. Money is not a neutral or meaningless social object, and its meanings are consequential. People treat money differently depending on what it means—good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, right or wrong, dirty or clean. Such meanings change over time. as «entrepreneurs» propose new exchanges, comparisons, and equivalences that transform preexisting categories and distinctions. The monetarization of economic life has led to the penetration of money into many (but certainly not all) spheres of exchange. Considerable effort goes into the protection of certain relationships and exchanges from money and into modifying, attenuating, or distinguishing money so that it becomes less dangerous. In our society, gift giving and money coexist uneasily.

Multiple monies exist in a structure with a core of official money (usually supplied by the national government) surrounded by a penumbra of quasi- and near monies that get supplied by banks, organizations, corporations, and individuals. If the core is standardized and anonymous, the penumbra is neither. Official money represents the sovereignty of government and, flowing easily from one transaction to the next, links them in a monetary chain that can transfer meaning from one site to another (e.g., dirty money comes from a disreputable source and must be treated differently). Quasi-monies are often less liquid and, by not flowing easily, cannot transfer meaning so readily. Yet, by virtue of who (or what) issued them, quasi-money acquires a distinctive meaning as the representation of the issuer. General monies also raise the issue of power more acutely than do special monies. The latter are not the kind of generalized resource that empowers money holders in a threatening way.

Those who use money to value the world see it through more quantitative eyes. The ability to apply mathematical operations to value has clearly been understood as a considerable economic advantage (witness the number of numerically based financial techniques that monetary valuation has generated). But it discounts, downplays, or even ignores those aspects of value that cannot be reduced to a single number. Although such a claim may seem fairly obvious in the case of pricing priceless heirlooms, it applies even to basic factors of production like capital and labor.

In addition to where it does and does not flow, who issues it, and how it values, money derives meaning from its medium. The tangibility of gold still weighs heavily on the public imagination, connoting intrinsic worth, natural value, solid tradition, and economic security. To gain marketing cache, even plastic credit cards turn to gold.

This article lays out some of the dimensions of monetary meaning: proximate and ultimate source, future flow, mode of valuation, and monetary media. These dimensions undergird much of the variation in money we have surveyed: homogeneous versus differentiated money, general versus specialized money, material versus immaterial money, anonymous versus personal money. The next step is to demonstrate the usefulness of this framework in a sustained empirical analysis of money and monetary change—something we hope to undertake soon.

Authors’ Note: An earlier version of this article was presented at the 1997 American Sociological Association Meetings, Toronto, Canada, for the panel «Changing Forms of Payment» organized by Viviana Zelizer. Thanks to her and to Christopher Tomlins and Julie Nelson for their helpful comments. Direct all correspondence to Bruce Carruthers or Wendy Espeland, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, 1810 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL 60208-1330.


[1.] Our goal in this article is to begin devising a general analytic framework for analyzing the meaning of money. Here, we use examples drawn promiscuously from different historical periods and societies. We unfortunately must relegate to future work our efforts to enlist this framework in a more sustained, detailed, and historically responsible analysis of money.

[2]. For this reason, we draw distinctions between economy and society, or between the economic and the social, for analytical purposes only. In reality, of course, both influence and interpenetrate each other in variable ways that call for explanation (see Carruthers, 1996).

[3]. See, for example, Stiglitz (1993, pp. 880-883).

[4]. «A market system requires for its existence the full and free convertibility of all objects of human desire into money equivalents and the full and free operation of a separate economic sphere of social life» (Reddy, 1987, p, 154).

[5]. See the summary in Zelizer ( 1994, pp. 6-12).

[6]. This discussion relies on Shipton (1989).

[7]. Earmarking money involves setting it aside, in reserve or for some special purpose (Zelizer, 1994, pp. 21-25).

[8]. Such iconographic conventions are very old. Procopius (the Byzantine chronicler) notes that as Franks and other tribes conquered regions of the western Roman Empire, they also took over the mints and started to issue coins. Procopius thought it fine that barbarian rulers should put their likenesses on silver coins but thought it a travesty that such undistinguished and inaugust people would also put it on gold coins (Spurford, 1988, pp. 12-14). These conventions of symbolism even apply to paper money, as Marco Polo’s description of Kublai Khan’s paper money suggests:

And all these papers are sealed with the seal of the Great Khan. The procedure of issue is as formal and as authoritative as if they were made of pure gold or silver. On each piece of money several specially appointed officials write their names, each setting his own stamp. When it is completed in due form, the chief of the officials deputed by the Khan dips in cinnabar the seal or bull assigned to him and stamps it on the top of the piece of money so that the shape of the seal in vermilion remains impressed upon it. And then the money is authentic. And if anyone were to forge it, he would suffer the extreme penalty. (Polo, 1958, p. 147)

In 1792, the U.S. Congress asserted national sovereignty by defining the gold content of a dollar so as to distinguish it from the other foreign coins then in circulation (see Hurst, 1973, p. 32).

[9], Consider Israel’s switch in its currency units from pounds (borrowed from the British monetary system) to lira to shekels (a unit with rich historical connotations and cultural resonances).

[10]. Minting coins was a prerogative that engaged rulers personally. Numerous 16th-century Italian city rulers vied for the services of the famous goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini in designing their coinage. Rulers competed to have their portraits cast on the most beautiful money.

[11]. Thus, one way to evade taxes is to exit the money economy and exchange via barter.

[12]. For instance, the euro-dollar market that emerged in the 1960s escaped U.S. financial and banking regulations.

[13]. Hurst (1973) suggests why monetary controversies were so intense:

But, regulation of the money supply made itself felt among the people with a sharpness and breadth of impact which did not characterize uses of most fiscal or regulatory law. Money was part of the form and substance of almost all economic transactions and entered into the calculations and expectations by which men structured much of their lives and behavior outside the market. (p. 91 )

[14]. Such local money tokens are issued in places like Ithaca, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; and Waldo County, Maine and are legal. See The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 1996 (thanks to Marc Ventresca for calling this article to our attention).

[15]. For example, the real (as opposed to nominal) value of a one-dollar bill issued by an insolvent bank was less than that of a dollar issued by a healthy bank.

[16]. For some time, demand deposits have constituted a large proportion of the total money supply. The resurgence of state banks after the Civil War, despite a prohibitive tax on state bank notes instituted by Congress, attested to the growing importance of demand deposits as a proportion of the total U.S. money supply (West, 1977, p. 25).

[17]. A question we do not treat here concerns the large number of quasi- and near monies. Given the existence of standardized official money, why are there so many of the others? Two reasons might help explain this: First, the supply of official money is frequently insufficient to support all of the economic transactions that people wish to undertake (and so they develop substitutes). Second, money is not qualitatively superior to the alternatives. Money is usually justified by economists as a solution to the nontrivial problem of barter (which requires a «double coincidence of wants»). In fact, however, actual barter is quite a bit easier than this suggests (Humphrey & Hugh-Jones, 1992, pp. 4-6).

[18]. Freyer (1982) and Weinberg (1982) discuss the importance of commercial paper, another quasi-money, in the 19th-century U.S. economy. The value of commercial paper depended on the initial issuer but also on the reputations of those who endorsed it as it changed hands.

[19]. See Addison (1711/1965) and Carruthers and Espeland (1991).

[20]. This is partly why money is an exception to the common law rule that a seller can transfer no better title than she herself has. Someone who in good faith unknowingly takes money from a thief gets to keep the money, even though the thief did not legally own it (see Geva, 1987, pp. 117-118).

[21]. The proportion of state tax revenues that are earmarked for specific purposes is surprisingly high. In 1993, the average proportion across all U.S. states was 24%, and the distribution ranged from 4% (in Kentucky) all the way to 87% (in Alabama). Many states earmark questionable revenues from tobacco and alcoholic beverage sales (see General Accounting Office, 1995).

[22]. In early 19th-century United States, corporations were legitimized by generating tax revenues that could be put to legitimate public purposes like funding public education (see Freyer, 1994, pp. 92-95).

[23]. Appadurai (1986) elaborates the contrast:

Gifts, and the spirit of reciprocity, sociability, and spontaneity in which they are typically exchanged, usually are starkly opposed to the profit-oriented, self-centered, and calculated spirit that fires the circulation of commodities. Further, where gifts link things to persons and embed the flow of things in the flow of social relations, commodities are held to represent the drive—largely free of more or cultural constraints—of goods for one another, a drive mediated by money and not by sociality. (pp. 11-12) For an analysis of gift giving in contemporary societies, see Cheal (1988) and Caplow (1982). In anthropological societies, gift giving manages relations among not only individuals but also groups, tribes, and villages (see A. Strathern, 1971, pp. 10-1 I; Mauss, 1990, p. 5).

[24]. For example, silk undergarments are considered highly inappropriate as a gift from a man to a woman unless they are in an intimate relationship. To give a Christmas ham to a good friend who is Muslim suggests that the insensitive gift giver is not really a very good friend (see Carrier, 1990).

[25]. Although commodity exchange predominates now, in the past gift exchange was much more important, precisely because it was so much more effective for the manipulation of social and political relationships. On Europe in the Middle Ages, see Grierson (1959), Geary (1986) and Spufford (1988, p. 17).

[26]. A friendly neighbor who does a favor usually gets repaid with a small gift, not with cash. Money’s impersonality means that those who wish to give it as a gift must frequently personalize it (see Anderson, 1993, p. 152; Lea, Tarpy, & Webley, 1988, pp. 322-333; Webley & Wilson, 1989; Zelizer, 1994, pp. 77-91).

[27]. By virtue of their negotiability, financial debts can function like money in the following way. Suppose A owes B a sum and gives to B a promissory note. If B also owes money to someone else, C, B can give the promissory note to C in satisfaction of the debt. Thus, A’s debt can circulate and function like money. In contrast, consider a similar pattern of social debts. A owes B dinner, and B owes C dinner. Social debts are not negotiable, and so B would not transfer A’s debt to satisfy the obligation to C. Negotiability would violate the meaning of the social obligation.

[28]. The early medieval wergild system, which attached monetary «prices» to an elaborate list of wrongs, did not represent an immoral intrusion of mammon into the resolution of interpersonal disputes. Rather, it was a system of monetary compensation. Consistent with Bloch and Parry’s (1989) argument, the economy did not constitute a separate, autonomous social realm (see Grierson, 1977; Spufford, 1988, pp. 9, 17).

[29]. In Simmel’s (1978) terms, money has shifted from substance to function (pp. 168-169).

[30]. Even plastic money is given a metallic sheen. An American Express credit card with a higher credit limit gets labeled a gold or even platinum card and is colored appropriately. Regular cards are colored green, just like cash.

[31]. These reformers also recognized that the source of their money mattered symbolically. Fund-raising that capitalized on women’s traditional roles was common, but some saw it as threatening women’s claims to full citizenship. For example, a leader in Wisconsin’s Political Equality League threatened to retire to a «cool spot near Lake Superior» rather than to resort to selling cookbooks or postcards to raise campaign funds (Clemens, 1997, p. 209).

[32]. Similar strictures constrain the valuation of children. Although children are considered highly valuable, valuation of them in monetary terms is considered wrong. This is why Landes and Posner’s (1978) proposal for market governance of child adoptions generated such a vehement response (see Cohen, 1987; Landes & Posner, 1978; and, more generally, Zelizer, 1985).

[33]. See Siegal (1994).

[34]. Weiner (1992) proposes that a fundamental social and cultural distinction exists between alienable and inalienable things: «What makes a possession inalienable is its exclusive and cumulative identity with a particular series of owners through time» (p. 33). Such objects can be transferred, just not bought and sold (i,e., exchanged for money). In fact, to ensure their physical preservation and the maintenance of their special significance over time, they must be passed down from one owner to the next, as successive owners die (e.g., the British Crown jewels, hereditary landed estates).

[35]. On a more personal level, one can consider family «treasures» and «heirlooms» as the kinds of objects for which monetary valuation is inappropriate, at least for the family members.

[36]. Arhin (1976) notes that the introduction by the British of cash into the Asante economy changed social and political relationships.

[37]. Biernacki (1995) explains the difference in the monetarization of labor in terms of national cultural understandings of labor. Different meanings of labor entailed different monetarizations of labor.

[38]. For more on the political and economic uses of ambiguity, see Padgett and Ansell ( ! 993) and Pollard (1983).

[39]. As Reddy (1984) puts it, «Unlike similar categories originating in earlier periods—noble and common, sacred and profane—the categories of market culture may all be expressed in numerical form, representing a real or potential exchange price, and, therefore, they may be added and subtracted, substituted, or canceled out» (p. 12).

[40]. See also Alexander and Alexander (1991 ).


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Northwestern University


BRUCE G. CARRUTHERS, an associate professor at Northwestern University, does research in the area of economic sociology. He recently published City of Capital: Politics and Markets in the English Financial Revolution (Princeton University Press) and coauthored a book titled Rescuing Business.’ The Making of Corporate Bankruptcy Law in England and the United States (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

WENDY NELSON ESPELAND is an assistant professor at Northwestern  University. She is the author of a forthcoming book titled The  Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality and Identity in the American Southwest (University of Chicago Press). She has ongoing research projects on culture, commensuration, and identity.

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