Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: The Wi$dom Path: An Adult Program on Money, Spirit, and Life

Leader Resource 1: Special Monies

Part of The Wi$dom Path

From “The Social Meaning of Money: 'Special Monies',” by Viviana A. Zelizer, The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 95, no. 2, September 1989.

[The] invisible boundaries [of special money in the modern world] emerge from sets of formal and informal rules that regulate its uses, allocation, sources, and quantity. How else, for instance, do we distinguish a bribe from a tribute or a donation, a wage from an honorarium, or an allowance from a salary? True, there are quantitative differences among these various payments. But surely, the special vocabulary conveys much more than diverse amounts. Detached from its qualitative differences, the world of money becomes undecipherable.

The model of special monies thus challenges the traditional utilitarian model of market money by introducing different fundamental assumptions in the understanding of money:

  1. While money does serve as a key rational tool of the modern economic market, it also exists outside the sphere of the market and is profoundly shaped by cultural and social factors.
  2. There are different kinds of monies; each special money is shaped by a particular set of cultural and social factors and is thus qualitatively distinct.
  3. By focusing exclusively on money as a market phenomenon, it fails to capture the very complex range of characteristics of money as a nonmarket medium.
  4. The assumed dichotomy between a utilitarian money and nonpecuniary values is false, for money under certain circumstances may be as singular and unexchangeable as the most personal object.
  5. Given the assumptions above, the alleged freedom and unchecked power of money become untenable assumptions. Culture and social structure set inevitable limits to the monetization process by introducing profound controls and restrictions on the flow and liquidity of money. Extraeconomic factors systematically constrain and shape
    1. the uses of money, earmarking, for instance, certain monies for specified uses;
    2. the users of money, designating different people to handle specified monies;
    3. the allocation system of each particular money;
    4. the control of different monies; and
    5. the sources of money, linking different sources to specified uses.

Even the quantity of money is regulated by more than rational market calculation. For instance, in The Philosophy of Money, Simmel suggests that money in “extraordinarily great quantities” can circumvent its “empty quantitative” nature: it becomes “imbued with that 'super-additum,’ with fantastic possibilities that transcend the definiteness of numbers.”

Even identical quantities of money do not “add up” in the same way. A $1,000 paycheck is not the same money as $1,000 stolen from a bank or $1,000 borrowed from a friend. And certain monies remain indivisible—an inheritance, for instance, or a wedding gift of money intended for the purchase of a particular kind of object. The latter is a qualitative unit that should not be spent partly for a gift and partly for groceries.

Exploring the quality of special monies does not deny money’s quantifiable and instrumental characteristics but moves beyond them, suggesting very different theoretical and empirical questions from those derived from a purely economic model of market money.