This post was inspired by a classic sketch by the 1990s comedy troupe The State:

Awww, yeahh…while whispering sweet nothings,  Barry and LeVon have raised Important Sociological Questions. Such as: what is worth? What does the word actually signify?

For answers, we must turn from Barry and LeVon to Luc and Laurent—Boltanski and Thévenot, that is. In On Justification: An Economics of Worth (Princeton 2006), these French sociologists argue that the concept of worth is a “social technology” used to adjudicate the competing claims to resources, legitimacy, and other goods that characterize social life.

As an example, consider the notion of the “deserving poor,” created in Elizabethan England in order to institutionalize the claims of certain people to public assistance (in the form of education, housing, medical care, money and food), while denying those resources to others (the “undeserving poor”).

Prior to the Reformation, these issues had been sorted out informally by the community. But with Catholic-communitarian morality giving way to a more individualist Protestant ethic (big shout-out to Max Weber here), people apparently stopped trying to save their own souls by doing good works for the poor. Which created a problem: the poor were still around, but they weren’t getting any kind of systematic help.

Enter bureaucracy: in 1563, Parliament began passing a series of laws, culminating in the “Poor Law” of 1601, to provide for the counting, classification, and treatment of poor people. The “worthiness” of these persons, and thus their legitimate access to resources, was defined as follows.

The “deserving poor” included

Those who would work but could not: these were the able-bodied…poor. They were to be given help either through outdoor relief or by being given work in return for a wage.

Those who were too old/ill/young to work: these were the impotent…poor. They were to be looked after in almshouses, hospitals, orphanages or poor houses. Orphans and children of the poor were to be given a trade apprenticeship so that they would have a trade to pursue when they grew up.

The “undeserving poor” were

Those who could work but would not: these were the idle poor. They were to be whipped through the streets, publicly, until they learned the error of their ways.

So the putative “worthiness” of some poor people justified their access to basic survival resources, while the “unworthiness” of others justified allowing them to starve. (Plus ça change, n’est-ce pas?) This is the kind of connection between moral and material worlds that Boltanski and Thévenot are trying to establish.

They argue that societies can be characterized by which standards of evaluation are considered legitimate, “universal” and binding on social actors. These evaluative standards are called “orders of worth” or “economies of worth.”

At any given time, multiple orders can coexist in a society, though they may not enjoy equal persuasive power. By analyzing contemporary French management training documents through the lens of political philosophy (!),

The authors argue that justifications fall into six main logics exemplified by six authors: civic (Rousseau), market (Adam Smith), industrial (Saint-Simon), domestic (Bossuet), inspiration (Augustine), and fame (Hobbes). The authors show how these justifications conflict, as people compete to legitimize their views of a situation.

Which brings us back to Barry and LeVon. Much of their two minute skit, particularly the opening 45 seconds, is devoted to justification:

LeVon: “Now we coulda bought $100 worth of of pudding…”

Barry: “And that woulda been a whole lotta pudding.”

LeVon: “But we had to go all the way, baby…”

Barry: “All the way home.”

LeVon: “With two hundred…”

Barry: “Forty dollars…”

LeVon: “Wortha pudding.”

This sounds just like the Augustinian notion of “inspiration,” which Boltanski and Thévenot define as a legitimation of value based on the “creation of a masterpiece” in a moment of creative genius. In fact, their description of this “order of worth” reads like an academic parody of Barry and LeVon:

…inspiration manifests itself spontaneously, suddenly, in a disorderly fashion, gripping the creator and obliging him to “surpass himself“…It is in the nature of inspiration to pour out, to spring up, to manifest itself in a “flash of genius, ” a “spark,” that will provoke the appearance of an idea, an illumination or unusual intuition that disturbs, bringing in its wake a “confused bubbling up,” a “strange whirlwind.” In this state, one grasps the world by means of impressions and feelings, through an aura of happiness, vertigo, fear and trembling.*

Awww, yeeaaahh. Happiness, vertigo, fear and trembling? “Now that’s the kind of pudding that only $240 can buy!”


* Boltanski and Thévenot 2006: 163. All italics, unbelievably, in the original.