Money Talks

social meaning of moneyThe rise of mobile payment apps like Venmo has made it much easier to, say, split a dinner tab, but this convenience comes along with worries about security and privacy. Further, could companies’ use of personal information about payments to target advertising reveal compromising details about our personal lives?

Venmo, for instance, is explicitly “not just a mobile payment app”—it’s also a social media platform that broadcasts its users’ payment activities to their friends. Cameron Tung discusses some of the implications in Slate. Mobile sharing of payment information helps us attach social meanings to financial transactions, and $100 spent in a restaurant is not the same as $100 spent on a phone bill. Sharing details about whom we’re paying and when opens our financial activity to social scrutiny. Don’t want your spouse or partner to know about the fancy dinner you had last weekend? Better not pay with Venmo.

To support this point, Tung cites Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s work on payments and social ties. We should think about each monetary transaction, according to Zelizer, as a gift, an entitlement, or compensation: “each one corresponds to a significantly different set of social relations and systems of meanings. People making payments use a number of earmarking techniques to distinguish those categories of social relations and meanings from each other.”

When Zelizer wrote about Christmas bonuses, for instance, she found that whether employers and employees thought about bonuses as gifts, compensation, or entitlements had a profound effect on the relationships between bosses and workers. Mobile payment platforms allow us to attach similar meanings to everyday transactions, broadcasting these meanings to our friends. As we consider the privacy and security implications of convenient mobile services, we also need to think about their cultural implications. Though we might want to use sharing apps strategically to cultivate particular online personas and identities, we may not always be able to predict how others’ will attach meanings to our payments.

Excavating the Wealth Gap

A chart from O'Rourke's paper, via the Boston Globe.
A chart from O’Rourke’s paper, via the Boston Globe.

A social problem examined by sociologists for decades, the white-black wealth gap has widened to record highs during the recession, with the median wealth for white households at twenty times that of their black counterparts. On the Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog, Kevin Hartnett shares a recent study by Princeton sociology graduate student Rourke O’Brien. The study quantitatively tests the idea that this wealth discrepancy is due, in part, to giving or loaning money to relatives.

Middle-income blacks are more than twice as likely as middle-income whites to have a poor sibling and more than four times as likely to have parents below the poverty line. And because of these relationships, they’re called upon more often to provide financial assistance.

Whereas investments can be used to generate more wealth, gifts and informal loans to family members are usually spent  paying bills or covering immediate financial needs. O’Brien argues that informal financial support networks can account for roughly 27% of the white-black wealth gap.