walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Weak Analysis in _The Social Meaning of Money_, Viviana A. Zelizer

It's mostly a good book -- I've had it since 1998 and just never got around to reading it. It's my current procrastination motivator: it is supposedly my top priority, but whenever I decide I don't want to read it and do something else, there's a strong inclination to do something _else_ from the to do list (or something else of value to me) to justify not reading it. Hence the laptop project leaping forward.

Anyway. Zelizer tends to repeat what her sources say without a lot of skepticism, which is a problem when you are working with etiquette books and other late 19th century/early 20th century advice givers. Also, a real lack of context provided, in terms of what was going on in the larger political economy. So for example, she recognizes changes in in-kind vs. cash relief and that it changed back and forth, but doesn't actually spend a lot of time on why that might have happened. I'm not sure you could come up with a compelling single explanation, but some of the influences would be worth discussing (pushback from farmers against in-kind relief is _never_ mentioned, for example, and it was a huge influence at least in the early 20th century).

In an earlier chapter, she talks about earmarking and other delineation of "gift" currencies, and then in the chapters about money for the poor she talks about relief agencies and gifts to the poor (money and other). In the "gift" currencies stuff, she gets into the advice books saying you have to send a thank you note saying what you did with it if you get a cash gift. But when the agencies gift gifts to the poor (which are supposed to be real gifts, not further relief), she critiques them as not, and here's her analysis, from page 165:

"But just as the Christmas bonus or the tip never did quality as an intimate personal gift, charitable Christmas money was still earmarked as a special currency, never fully a free gift." [Mind you, she never made that criticism about having to report back about what you spend the cash gift on, at least for adults.] ... Notice what happened to the Berks County, Pennsylvania, mothers who were allowed by a mothers' pension agency to become their children's Santa Claus. Each mother received $10 to spend "as she saw fit"; yet after the holidays they dutifully reported how the money was spent."

Exactly as a well-behaved cash gift recipient should, according to contemporary etiquette books!

"When another private agency decided to give each of the children a dollar to buy a present for his or her mother, a visitor accompanied them to make the purchase."

Not knowing the actual age of the kids, hard to know for sure, but I'd want someone going with a kid to buy a parent a present, and not making mom do it seems extra special, imo.

Weak. Very, very weak.
Tags: not-a-book-review

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