Income-Sharing As Relational Work: Understanding Informal Financial Transactions in Côte D'ivoire

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 16:30
Oral Presentation
Kristen MCNEILL, Brown University, USA
Rachael PIEROTTI, World Bank, USA
While embeddedness has been the foundational principle of modern economic sociology, recent scholarship using a relational approach rejects the analytical separation of economic and social spheres, highlighting their profound co-constitutiveness. A relational approach to analyzing economic behavior reveals the dynamic process of relationship management that occurs both through and in service of economic transactions. To date, this approach has most commonly been applied to special cases of intimate domains in which market logic seems an uncomfortable fit.

Our work extends relational economic sociology theory to everyday financial transactions. We analyze the practice of income-sharing, or the social expectation that better-resourced individuals should give informal loans and gifts to others upon request, among formal sector workers in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa. In-depth qualitative research reveals that financial considerations interact with relational concerns to shape the case-by-case calculus that workers perform when deciding whether to give money in response to particular requests.

Acknowledging the social relational work performed in informal financial transactions is crucial for understanding these economic behaviors. First, we find that far from being pre-determined either by self-interest or by social norms, individuals have leeway to determine whether to give. Second, givers’ calculations about whether money is available to give is not an objective accounting practice; it requires evaluating the personal and social implications of diverting money that had been “earmarked” for another purpose. Third, the asker is deemed deserving of the loan/gift not by virtue of the type or strength of social network tie with the giver, but by the relational work the asker performs demonstrating adherence to social conventions. Finally, when refusing a request, givers use a variety of strategies to prevent or mitigate damage to their relationships. Relational work is accomplished not just through the performance of economic transactions, but also through the justification of these (in)actions.