I know what you’re thinking when you see this photo: where can I get free samples of SPAM? Where is my priceless chunk of junk? Well look no further: I’m here to help.

I have to check the contents of my SPAM filter each and every day, because one time in 20, a legit message gets routed there by mistake. As a result, I get to read the subject lines of 50 or so emails, most of which are SPAM; some of them are so hilarious that I feel the need to memorialize them somehow. Here’s the catch of the day:

uplift your sweet couch experience : does this make it more likely that I’ll find change between the cushions? because if so, count me in!

Footjobs : this is probably a sly solicitation for nude toe modeling.

A Christian Sex Cure : only steely sociological discipline prevents me from clicking on this link; I would contact Max Weber in a seance just to hear what he could make of this one….

Sax can be endless! Im not kidding! : what about the rest of the brass section? what if the flugelhorns feel self-conscious? (P.S.: thanks to the sender of this email for noting that s/he is not kidding; because otherwise, I might have thought “no way can a saxophone be endless! this can only be a Dadaist provocation.”)

Do not worry about trifles , use new debilitant! : what is this “debilitant” of which they speak? I’m hoping it’s like the “neural neutralizer” from Men in Black, because I’ve got a lot of commercial jingles and songs from 1970s AOR floating around in my brain, and the lyrics to “Get Down Tonight” need to make way for things like the difference between Type I and Type II errors:


 …I’d even settle for Buck Rogers’ “disintegrator.”


Just to add to the joy, living in Europe means that I now get SPAM in four languages: English, German, French and Italian.  To my surprise, instead of showing cultural variations in the content of their wares, they all seem to be shilling the same things: sex, drugs and academic credentials. That last one kind of surprised me, because it would seem to appeal to a very different kind of customer–the academically insecure or ambitious?–than the ones for Viagra and various potions designed to increase (selectively) the size of our appendages.

Given the sociological evidence linking educational attainment to lifetime earnings, I suppose the diploma mill SPAM should be classified under “get rich quick” schemes, along with those helpful “stock tips” that were very common a few years ago.  “Stock tip” SPAM seems to have declined precipitously in the last year, at least in my inbox, perhaps because the global market crisis means that when it comes to the stock market, everyone just wants out.

The other notable absence is the 419 or Nigerian bank scam emails. You know the ones: they usually open with an elaborately formal greeting, like “Most Esteemed Sir,” and then continue in this stilted prose–as though the writer had learned English from reading the lesser novels of Charles Dickens–to solicit “urgent help” in stashing a few million dollars in return for a percentage of the funds. This might be because all the publicity that 419 scams have received in the past five or six years has made people less likely to fall for them; or perhaps the world has just run out of fools.

Okay, perhaps that latter speculation stretches the bounds of credulity, but it is an empirical question whether there is a finite audience for these sorts of scams. Recent research is suggestive in this regard: in 2008, computer scientists from UC-Berkeley and UC-San Diego sent out a bunch of  “fake SPAM” (how postmodern is that?) purporting to offer prescription drugs online; then they simply counted the number of responses they received.

“After 26 days, and almost 350 million e-mail messages, only 28 sales resulted,” wrote the researchers.

The response rate for this campaign was less than 0.00001%. This is far below the average of 2.15% reported by legitimate direct mail organisations.

“Taken together, these conversions would have resulted in revenues of $2,731.88—a bit over $100 a day for the measurement period,” said the researchers.

Another factor in the demise of the 419 scam is the rise of “web vigilantism,” in which groups like 419 Eater and Scam-O-Rama make sport of stringing scammers along, causing them to waste loads of time and money chasing false leads. The intention is to impose costs on the senders of these scam emails, because the main economic problem with SPAM to date has been that it costs senders virtually nothing. Since they have nothing to lose, even the meagre .00001% return estimated in the UC study would be a meaningful payoff. Particularly in countries where $100/day is a princely sum–countries such as Nigeria, where per capita GDP was US$1,128 in 2007/2008, according to estimates from the United Nations.

Still, if the UC study is correct, any downward pressure on the profits from the tiny proportion of responses that SPAM emails receive might be enough to change the cost-benefit ratio for the senders. The BBC News story concluded with the following sociologically intriguing observation:

Scaling this up to the full Storm network the researchers estimate that the controllers of the vast system are netting about $7,000 (£4,430) a day or more than $2m (£1.28m) per year.

While this was a good return, said the researchers, it did suggest that spammers were not making the vast sums of money that some people have predicted in the past.

They suggest that the tight costs might also open up new avenues of attack on spammers.

The researchers concluded: “The profit margin for spam may be meagre enough that spammers must be sensitive to the details of how their campaigns are run and are economically susceptible to new defences.”

Being “sensitive to the details” might include responding to the monitoring and sanctioning being conducted by web vigilantes. Read some of the stories on 419 Eater and Scam-O-Rama to see how scammers can spend days (and presumably significant sums of cash from their perspective) travelling to and fro in search of Western Union Moneygrams that have somehow been “misrouted” or money-toting messengers who never show for their appointments.

So it appears that there is some good news about SPAM: if profit margins are already razor-thin, as the UC study suggests, it may not be that hard to wipe them out entirely. On the more pessimistic side, I suspect that combatting SPAM in this way may just turn into a giant international game of Whac-a-Mole in which, as profits associated with certain genres of SPAM (like the 419, or online diplomas) asymptotically approach zero, those genres fade away, only to replaced by new ones.

Anyone want to guess what the next years hold for us in terms of SPAM come-ons? Human organs on the DL? Lots of money to be made there, but since eBay banned organ auctions in response to a fellow who tried to sell his kidney via their website, the transactions can’t happen via the legit online markets. So they stay underground, for now. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the market starts to bubble up into our SPAM filters. Think of this post when you get the first “are you the guy who can’t produce urea? hre’s new liver 4 u!” email. Til then, feel free to post your predictions, or your favorite SPAM subject lines, in the comments.


Here’s the magnum opus, hot off the presses! It’s about deception–among people competing for status and resources (including money!), as well as animals. It’s about culture and warfare, along with computing and public policy.

It’s the culmination of five years of work  in which I brought together 15 leading scholars in the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities, to compare and contrast their disciplines’ approaches to this topic. As we found, through two conferences I organized at the Santa Fe Institute (a think tank devoted to the study of complex systems and trans-disciplinary research problems), deception is not the same as lying, and it’s not always a bad thing.

After putting the workshops together, I edited the book we produced and wrote two of the chapters: the introduction, and an empirical piece on deception in financial markets (a topic that, unfortunately, just seems to get more relevant as time goes by). While I can’t post the financial markets chapter here, you can find the full text of the introduction, which sketches out each of the 15 chapters, here. The table of contents is also available online.

One of the leading contemporary economic sociologists, Professor David Stark of Columbia University, had this to say about the book:

Don’t be deceived by the deceptively simple title. These fascinating essays by biologists, psychologists, sociologists, poets, and computer scientists reveal the complexities of studying deception across historical epochs and types of interactions—from the micromechanisms of facial muscles to online communications, from photography to finance, from the false mating signals of the carnivorous firefly to the literary trickster Brer Rabbit, from deception in warfare to self-delusion. Insightful analysis, and delightful reading.

From Stewart Brand’s review:

 One of the most important forms of communication—deception—is one of the least studied, in part because it deliberately blurs itself to get its effect, in part because there are so many forms of deception they seem to defy coherent analysis. A useful approach to the problem, then, is with a collection of investigators, each with a different angle, each aware of the others’ contributions, each looking for signs of hidden structure. The result in this book, deliciously, is an introduction to the Science of Untruth.

If you’re like me, you’re really kicking yourself for missing out on a cut of the federal bailout money.

Through sleepess nights, I ask myself, “Self, why didn’t you run a Fortune 50 company into the ground? What has Rick Wagoner got that you haven’t got?” (Answer: about $20 million.) 

My admiration for the GM CEO, along with the employees of Goldman Sachs and AIG , all of whom are getting mad ducats in the bailout, is tempered by the realization that I am a slacker: when I could have been out hustling sub-prime mortgages, I was sitting in my office writing about the similarities between investment clubs and the kangaroo cults that Durkheim studied amongst Aboriginal Australians.

To quote from another Story of Wall Street, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

So now I have to bail myself out, with no help from Uncle Sam. Necessity being the mother of invention, I’ve hit on a few ideas I like to call “Plan i,” in which the i stands either for innovation or for imaginary number. It depends how well my plans work out.

But surely one of these strokes of genius will catapult me into champagne wishes and caviar dreams territory:


1) Get adopted by Madonna

Reliable sources say she’s heartbroken over the rejection of her bid to adopt a young girl from a Malawian orphanage. I can hook a sister up! I’m female, younger than Madge, and no judge can come between us. Problem solved!


2) Write romance novels.

The romance genre–known in the trade as “women’s fiction”–is the only area of publishing that’s growing! And practically the only corner of the industry that still accepts manuscripts over the transom from unknowns. According to a recent article in Publisher’s Weekly, profits were up over 11% at Harlequin–one of the oldest publishers of romance novels, now entering its 60th year in business–during 2008, when virtually every other part of the economy was hemmorhaging cash.



3) Get married.

For many American Protestants, Catholics, agnostics and atheists, weddings used to involve registering for gifts–stuff like bed linens and appliances to help the young couple set up their household. Now, understandably, it’s all about the Benjamins.

But how does one convey that one wants a chunk of bailout money, without being crass? You could invite the entire United States Congress to your wedding, but they get drunk and noisy and start filibustering the groomsmen during the ceremonial toasts. Emily Post is useless on this question, so I’m going with advice from the Wall Street Journal :


…And those are just my top three ideas. Lots more where those came from. Take fancy dog sweaters, for example–have you seen what those things cost? Redonkulus. I can knock one of those suckers out in an evening watching TV. Look out world, I’ve got my cable needles and Ima get my tycoon on!

What’s your Plan i?



Why is the AIG bonus scandal so shocking? Wasn’t this sort of thing bound to happen as soon as our elected representatives signed off on a no-questions-asked $700 billion bailout plan? This isn’t to defend the insurance firm’s decision to use $165 million of their $30 billion chunk of federal “assistance” to pay hefty bonuses to some of the same executives who helped destroy the firm’s finances by investing in mortgage-backed securities (bonuses that AIG claims they were contractually obligated to pay). Rather, the point is that self-dealing is predictable when large sums of cash are bestowed without accountability.1

The surprise expressed by the most highly-placed officials in our government—I’m looking at you, Tim Geithner—rings as hollow as that expressed by the Bush administration when the market collapsed last September. It has since come to light that government officials and finance executives worldwide were on record warning of this catastrophe, and urging preventative action, well before the Fall. Assertions by the Bush administration that the economic crash caught them by surprise are as demonstrably false as their claims following another September catastrophe, seven years before, when they told us they had no inkling that terrorists were planning a massive attack on our soil. As we learned later, there was advance warning from credible sources (like FBI agents)—the Bush administration just chose to ignore it. They apparently did the same with the collapse of the financial markets.

With the AIG controversy, we’re seeing recent history repeat itself: if September’s market meltdown was a tragedy, this bonus scandal is farce. It’s reminiscent of that famous scene in Casablanca, when Captain Renault shuts down Rick’s Café for permitting gambling:


Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.


What’s more, this post-bailout farce is playing out through one of the oldest and crudest tricks in the book: buying a pig in a poke. This genre of scam, in which a confidence man persuades a mark to make a risky purchase without examining the goods, goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages. When meat was scarce, gullible peasants could apparently be convinced to buy a “suckling pig” in sack (known as a “poke” in archaic English), without actually opening the sack. When they got the bag home and opened it, they found that the wriggling animal inside was actually a cat, who often ran off upon being liberated from the poke—hence the term, “the cat’s out of the bag,” meaning that a truth concealed has been exposed. As implausible as it seems, it’s so common for people to fall for this trick that phrases equivalent to the English “to buy a pig in a poke” exist in at least 25 other languages:





kupiti mačka u vreći

to buy a cat in a sack


koupit zajíce v pytli

to buy a hare in a sack


at købe katten i sækken

to buy the cat in the sack


een kat in de zak kopen

to buy a cat in the sack


ostma põrsast kotis



acheter chat en poche



ostaa sika säkissä

to buy a pig in a sack


die Katze im Sack kaufen

to buy a cat in a sack


αγοράζω γουρούνι στο σακί



חתול בשק

cat in a sack



cat in a sack


að kaupa köttinn í sekknum



pirkt kaķi maisā



nusipirkti katę maiše



да купиш мачка во вреќа

to buy the cat in the sack


kjøpe katta i sekken

to buy the cat in the sack


kupić kota w worku

to buy a cat in a sack


comer gato por lebre

to eat cat for hare


a fi prins cu mâa în sac

being caught with the cat in the bag
(i.e., caught while cheating or lying)


купить кота в мешке

to buy a cat in a sack


dar gato por liebre

to give a cat instead of a hare


купити мачку у џаку

to buy a cat in a sack


kúpiť mačku vo vreci

to buy a cat in a sack


kupiti mačka v žaklju

to buy a cat in a sack


köpa grisen i säcken

to buy the pig in the bag



to buy a water buffalo (which is out) in the swamp

The main difference between our recent experience with the federal bailout and the medieval European experience with “suckling pig” purchases seems to be the price tag: we have the dubious distinction of having purchased the most expensive pig-in-a-poke in history! Going forward, this might be a good time to rediscover the concept of fair trade enshrined in Englishman Richard Hill’s Common-place Book of 1530: “When ye proffer the pigge open the poke.”

The problem is, under modern capitalism, it might not be possible to open the poke—at least in some transactions. There are two reasons for this: information asymmetry and systematic risk. The first issue is a consequence of living in complex societies with intricate divisions of labor. The specialization enforced by that kind of social structure makes it increasingly difficult to evaluate anything we buy, and increasingly necessary to take things on trust.

Consider the recent problems with melamine contamination of dairy products from China: until consumers started getting sick and dying, there was no way for anyone to know that the products were dangerous. In the context of financial markets, the Enron and WorldCom cases taught us that even the most diligent investors—the ones who read all of a firm’s financial statements, right down to the footnotes—can’t really know what they are buying. In the case of the contaminated dairy products, only the producers knew about the melamine; in the cases of financial corruption, only the corporate executives knew they were “cooking the books.” Like the medieval con artists selling bags of wriggling cats as “suckling pig,” the sellers withheld crucial information from buyers, and exploited the information asymmetry for profit.

But unlike the hungry “pig” buyers who could have opened the pokes to check the merchandise, there was no way for the buyers in these contemporary cases to know what they were really getting. They just had to make the purchases on faith, a faith placed in part in institutions to whom we have delegated the monitoring and sanctioning functions on which trust is based. Those institutions failed us—how they did so is the subject for another post, but the larger theme here is that part of what we’re seeing in the “bailout fallout” is a consequence of the buyers (the taxpayers who are footing the bill) being structurally unable to overcome the problems of information asymmetry.

The second problem, systematic risk, is the intrinsic risk underpinning any transaction, from a simple barter exchange to investing in complex financial instruments. This is the kind of risk that remains no matter how much information one has, how much insurance one buys, or how much one diversifies. Imagine you need change for a coin-operated washing machine, and you call your next-door-neighbor to see if she can give you four quarters in exchange for a dollar bill. What could be more transparent? You know your neighbor, the currency is standardized, and you have no reason to expect that she might be counterfeiting 25-cent pieces. But there are still many ways the transaction could fail, for reasons you could not foresee: for example, as you’re walking across the street to make the exchange, your neighbor drops dead of a heart attack brought on by an undiagnosed arrhythmia. That’s a systematic risk—in the broadest sense, it’s the risk we take by assuming that we and our transaction partners will live to fulfill our agreements with one another. In the financial world, systematic risk could come in the form of an outbreak of war or a pandemic, or what are often termed “acts of God” in the fine print of insurance contracts.

As a result of both systematic risk and information asymmetry, both of which are inherent in economic life, we end up buying pigs-in-pokes, faute de mieux. There is nothing else to buy. Capitalist development has colonized the life-world so completely that even if one was able to withdraw from social life and stop making transactions with others—living in isolation, off the grid, providing for all one’s own needs—these risks are still unavoidable. You might find that the plot of land where you grow your food was poisoned by a previous owner who used synthetic pesticides or stored toxic substances underground; if you’re lucky enough to avoid that hazard, you could still be wiped out by anything from a roving grizzly bear to a nuclear strike. These things are not in our control.

Yet we still get up every day and buy more of those wriggling sacks, hoping that whatever eventually jumps out resembles what we thought we were buying. From this perspective, the bailout, like the case of Long Term Capital Management a decade before—that was the hedge fund that demanded that investors fork over a minimum of $10 million, with no questions asked about the fund’s plans or investment strategy—is just an extreme case of “normal” everyday practices in which we all engage within complex capitalist societies. This is simultaneously reassuring and terrifying, because it suggests that the global economic crisis is not an anomaly, but literally the new business as usual. Unfortunately this means that, as with “extreme weather events” like Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, we can expect more of the same in the years to come.

Lacking any words of optimism or consolation, I can only offer some distraction: the sweet revenge of the poked pig.

UPDATE: For an absolutely hilarious mash-up of classical and contemporary drama (Aeschylus meets AIG), check out Kieran Healy’s send-up of Agamemnon.


 1. The whole deal is rather galling to those of who can’t get paltry sums from the federal grant-making agencies without a detailed proposal up front, and expense and status reports afterwards to keep us accountable.


An ancient Greek tomb of a dog, Stephanos, from the archaeological museum of Antalya, Turkey.

Visiting a museum in the Turkish city of Antalya a few years ago, I was startled to find–among the Greek and Roman sarcophagi–the tomb of a dog. The monument, for a dog named Stephanos, was discovered near Termessos in 1998, not far from the inscribed sarcophagus of Rhodope herself. The epitaph on Rhodope’s tomb–written in ancient Greek, like the one on Stephanos’ monument–states that she paid for her grave marker entirely by herself, which suggests that she was single. And wealthy.

It is not surprising to know that ancient people loved the animals who lived with them. But it was surprising to find that spending a lot of money on pets, which is commonly thought to be a recent phenomenon, is really nothing new. In the contemporary United States, the vast majority of households count pets among their members (63 percent as of 2006), and spend lavishly on their care: $43.2 billion in 2008, up from $23 billion in 1998. These figures break down as follows:

Food………………………………………………….$16.8 billion 
Supplies/OTC Medicine………………………..$10.0 billion
Vet Care…………………………………………….$11.1 billion
Live animal purchases………………………….$2.1 billion
Pet Services: grooming & boarding………..$3.2 billion<

Data from American Pet Products Association market research.

No data were available on expenses for sarcophagi, but animals seem to be playing a part in the economic surge of the American funeral industry. A simple pet cremation starts at $185, with additional charges for a burial, procession, and grave marker; apparently, one bereaved “pet parent” (the preferred term in use by funeral directors) paid $5,000 for a bronze sculpture of the deceased to mark the dog’s grave. Which brings us back to Rhodope, a woman of the ancient word, and her beloved dog Stephanos.

The limestone structure I saw in the Antalya museum was shaped like a modern doghouse, but with a roof ornamented like an ancient temple. The narrow front end of the tomb bore the inscription, which seems to have consisted of three epigrams; the first can no longer be read, but the second two have been translated thus:

(I) was Rhodope’s happiness.
Those who played with me
Called me lovely Stephanos.
Rhodope shed tears when I perished,
And buried me like a human.
I am the dog Stephanos,
And Rhodope set up a tomb for me. 

The sight of Stephanos’ tomb was so moving, because so unexpected: I had never heard that the ancient Greeks buried their dogs (or other animals) with sarcophagi and poems. But a little poking around on the internet revealed that the tomb of Stephanos was far from unique, but rather on the more elaborate end of a spectrum of such practices.

Here are some other texts, taken from ancient dogs’ gravestones, presumably on display elsewhere in the world (I am indebted to this blog for the texts):  

  • Thou who passest on this path,
    If haply thou dost mark this monument,
    Laugh not, I pray thee, though it is a dog’s grave.
    Tears fell for me, and the dust was heaped above me
    By a master’s hand.

This epitaph reminds me of Argos, Ulysses faithful dog in the Odyssey, who was the first to recognize the returning king after 10 years’ absence from Ithaca: 

  • This stone holds the white dog from Melita,
    The most faithful guardian of Eumelus;
    Bull they called him while he was yet alive
    But now his voice is ‘prisoned in the silent pathways of night.

I particularly love this last epitaph because it’s so easy to imagine how the dog memorialized in it would be pleased to know that she still scares the animals she used chase on the mountainside when she was alive:

  • Surely even as thou liest dead in this tomb
    I deem the wild beasts yet fear thy white bones, huntress Lycas;
    And thy valour great Pelion knows,
    And splendid Ossa and the lonely peaks of Cithaeron.

All this love and expenditure directed at dogs reminded me of Leona Helmsley, the wealthy American businesswoman who left the bulk of her multi-million-dollar estate to her white Maltese, Trouble. When Helmsley died in August, 2007, she had four living grandchildren, two of whom she left nothing; the other two received $10 million each. But Trouble–the dog notorious for biting everyone except Helmsley–got a trust fund worth $12 million, and the right to be buried in the Helmsley mausoleum next to Leona. Helmsley’s brother also received a bequest of several million dollars–to pay for his services as Trouble’s primary caregiver!

Leona Helmsley and Trouble: a modern Rhodope and Stephanos?
Leona Helmsley and Trouble: a modern Rhodope and Stephanos?

I had to wonder why we never seem to hear about such extravagant expenditures on animals other than dogs. Where are the monuments to the faithful and affectionate rabbits? Or to the long-lived and highly-intelligent African grey parrots? Maybe such memorials exist, but since there are so many more dogs living with humans compared to other kinds of animals (75 million as of 2008, in the US alone), that when we read about funerary monuments for pets, odds are that the story will concern a dog. Your thoughts?

To see more on the sociological study of human relationships with animal companions, click here.


“By saying that someone becomes the owner of something, we are referring to a market transaction, while by saying that something is a good belonging to someone, we emphasize the fact that it has been incorporated into the world of someone, of which it has become an integral part.”
Michel Callon and Fabian Muniesa, 2005: 1233


One of the most important concepts in contemporary economic sociology—the notion of “singularity”—can be illustrated through a well-known advertisement from the 1970s: the “My Bologna Has a First Name” campaign for Oscar Mayer. This short TV spot featured a song whose lyrics many Americans, young and old, know by heart:

            My bologna has a first name,

            It’s O-S-C-A-R.

            My bologna has a second name,

            It’s M-A-Y-E-R.

            Oh, I love to eat it every day,

            And if you ask me why I’ll say,

            ‘Cause Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A.

Here’s a link to the original 30-second spot. 

The central conceit of the ad, that consumers can differentiate among commodity lunchmeats such that one can be singled out as “my bologna,” is a nice illustration of the process of singularization, in which supply and demand relationships are shaped not only by prices but by the qualitative attributes of products. When a product is considered in a class by itself, that is the ultimate expression of singularization, as Harvard economist Edward Chamberlin first described it in his 1933 book, The Theory of Monopolistic Competition (probably one of the most lucid and sensible books ever written by an economist about markets—highly recommended).

Michel Callon and Fabian Muniesa took this idea further by looking at what happens to products after purchase. As the quote above from their 2005 Organization Studies article indicates, Callon and Muniesa are interested both in the market transaction (the price, the exchange of money for goods) and in the subsequent process through which the purchased object becomes integrated into the life and identity of the new owner. This illustrates the special contributions of sociology to the analysis of economic behavior: while economists (even the behavioral sort) would consider the purchase the endpoint of the analysis, Callon and Muniesa can go much further, delving into the social lives of transacted objects—a inquiry that until recently has been left to practitioners in marketing and consumer research.

One reason the Oscar Mayer bologna spot remains one of the most famous commercials of all time—35 years after it first appeared—is precisely because it illustrates a common but rarely discussed aspect of everyday economic experience: the bonding and identification process which occurs between consumers and their products. Many of us have these experiences of what psychiatrists call “cathexis” with consumer goods, but lack a common vocabulary to discuss this experience, since it falls outside the hegemonic discourse of economics—except perhaps as a perplexing “stickiness” in consumers’ brand loyalty or in producer pricing, virtually all of which gets black-boxed as “irrationality” or “noise” in models otherwise devoid of social influences. A few astute cultural critics have tried to unpack this process of bonding between products and consumers, notably Herbert Marcuse, who wrote of consumption-crazed 1960s America, “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fit set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”[1] But other than these occasional critical reflections, the consumer experience and the post-purchase fate of objects were simply excluded from scholarly inquiry, leaving the field to practitioners.

Thus, the Oscar Mayer bologna commercial emerged not from a theoretical model consumers’ relationships to products, but through inductive inquiry—including focus groups consisting of children as participants (a methodological innovation, since virtually all consumer research prior to the 1970s was done with adults).  In fact, my mother—who worked at the advertising agency handling the Oscar Mayer account—says that the phrase “my bologna” actually came from me! Apparently, I opened the refrigerator one day to make a sandwich, and was dismayed to find, instead of the Oscar Mayer bologna I expected, some alien brand of lunch meat, at which I exclaimed, “Mom, that’s not my bologna!” I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this story, since I have no memory of the event, but I do know that the term “my bologna” struck a whole generation of kids as an apt description of their relationship with a branded product.

Portrait of the sociologist as a young artist: me about age 7 drawing advertising storyboards with one of the art directors at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. As you can tell from the art director's storyboard, this was while the team (which included my mother) was working on the Oscar Mayer account.
Portrait of the sociologist as a young artist: me about age 7 drawing advertising storyboards with one of the art directors at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. As you can tell from the art director's storyboard, this was while the team (which included my mother) was working on the Oscar Mayer account.


That in itself is rather strange upon further reflection. There is something particularly odd about identifying with one’s food to the point of anthropomorphizing it. “My bologna” is so fully singularized that it has both first and last names! The jingle almost makes it sound as if the lunch meat is an imaginary friend, except that it’s embodied and edible. So the product is defined by the child (as “my bologna”) while at the same time, the product defines the child; this is not made explicit in the advertisement, but is a kind of unspoken consequence of the cathexis between the lunch meat and its consumer. The child identifies with the brand Oscar Mayer as—the advertisers hope—the adolescent will later identify with specific brands of jeans, and the adult will identify with certain brands of automobiles and laundry detergent. (I examined this phenomenon at length in Pop Finance, in the context of investors’ stock picks; see particularly Chapter 2 on “identity investing.” Socially-responsible investing is a major instantiation of this phenomenon, as is the rapid growth of niche investment funds designed to meet the highly specific “economic-expressive” needs of various religious sects, along with secular interest groups.)

This process of mutual definition between product and consumer is termed “co-elaboration” by Callon and Muniesa, and—in my opinion—it’s a brilliant insight. Two points strike me as particularly important to note. The first is that the “sociotechnical process” of consumption does not stop with the purchase of goods: in fact, that’s only the beginning. Second, Callon and Muniesa take a radical, innovative theoretical stance simply by refusing to give precedence to human agents in their model of economic relations: products and consumers enjoy equal status and powers of defining reality. Indeed, tools of calculation—including everything from pencil and paper to abaci and computers—are co-equals with humans and products, sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating with one another.

This recalls the writings of science fiction and cyber-punk authors from Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick through William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, in which carbon-based and silicon-based life forms exist in tension with one another. The theme of much of this literature concerns the emergent agency of the latter (such computers or robots and cyborgs) against their creators; here, we could think of Hal9000, the computer in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who becomes a character in the narrative by defying his intended function as a tool for astronauts and asserting a will of his own—“I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that.” Fast forward 20 years from the making of that film to the late 1990s, when children around the world began playing with “tamagotchis”—keychain-sized electronic “pets” that expressed needs for food and water, and which could die from lack of care. And sure enough, by 2001, humans were clearly accustomed to attributing agency and independence to the products and tools they bought, snapping up “Personal Digital Assistants” to fill the roles once occupied by human secretaries and spouses.

By putting human agents on an equal footing with “products” and “tools,” Callon and Muniesa do much moe than open the door to considering products as semi-autonomous agents in economic life, which is radical enough in itself. In addition, the theory of “co-elaboration” provides a way for scholars to examine a phenomenon of increasing importance in contemporary consumer activity: the ways in which products and tools change the people who buy and use them. (This has become a popular topic among futurists, many of whom write of an imminent “posthuman, biocybernetic” era in which humans and machines become seamlessly integrated.) Marketing practitioners, particularly in high-tech, have been aware of this and leveraged its profit potential for some time—perhaps most notably in the case of Apple Computer. After circling the drain in the late 1990s, leading to predictions of its imminent demise, the firm not only survived but thrived by treating the purchase of their electronic devices (supposedly their main business) as simply the beginning of a lengthy consumption process whose object was the personalization—singularization, if you will—of their products. However much profit Apple makes from the sales of iPods and MacBooks, the business model clearly centers on the subsequent purchases which enable consumers to make the products their own—notably music and software from iTunes.

These consumption possibilities, in turn, change us as consumers. Anyone old enough to remember wax LPs knows that people listen to music very differently now that it is no longer delivered to us via albums, which constrained listeners to consume songs in full and in a specific order. Naturally, there were ways to get around those constraints (getting up and moving the needle on the record player to skip to a favorite song, or creating a “mix tape” by recording songs from multiple albums), but they were cumbersome and inconvenient. Now, instead of listening to music in a format created by others, we can readily and cheaply create our own musical content and play order. We can buy music in much smaller quanta than were available even a decade ago, and due to the lowered cost of search, we may broaden our listening habits and preferences because we can buy one song at a time rather than investing in whole albums.

Recognizing the socio-cultural implications of economic activity turned Apple Computer from a dying firm to one of the most successful in its industry. Other computer manufacturers, like Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Compaq, did not see these possibilities, and instead saw themselves in a traditional economic way, as sellers of computers and other electronic equipment; their main concern was to make the sale. To the extent that they were concerned with what happened to their products after the sale, it was only in a technical sense, such as selling replacement toner and ink cartridges. The social life of products, and the ways that products can exert social influence on consumers, was not part of their business model. Those firms are suffering economically, while Apple has been doing better than ever.

By raising such issues as the “co-elaboration” of products and consumers to the level of scholarly inquiry, Callon and Muniesa’s theory showcases the strengths of a sociological approach to economic issues. In essence, they show how economic sociology picks up where economists leave off, examining phenomena of great theoretical and practical interest that often fall between the disciplinary cracks within social science. Their theory allows questions that have formerly been the domain of marketing and consumer research practitioners—questions about the post-purchase “lives” of products, how products shape and define their consumers, and how consumers use products as tools to understand themselves and make themselves understandable to others—available for sociological inquiry. This gives us reason to look forward to a future of fascinating research in hitherto un- or under-explored realms.  


 [1]Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One Dimensional Man. London: Routledge. p. 9.


U1300513INPOnce upon a time, the phrase “The Lady or the Tiger?”–taken from an 1882 short story of that name–was a byword for impossible choices. The story took place in a mythical kingdom where justice was dispensed through the workings of chance. The accused were presented with two identical doors behind which awaited opposing fates: one concealed a hungry tiger, who would immediately devour the accused, while the other concealed a beautiful woman, whom the accused would have to marry on the spot. This doesn’t present a problem until the accused man is the lover of the King’s daughter; when the lover asks the princess for a hint as to which door to choose, she has to decide whether she’d rather see him dead or married to another woman. The story ended without the author revealing the princess’ choice or the lover’s fate; the unresolved puzzle thus secured the story’s role as a topic of speculation and “thought experiments” for generations to come.

This is by way of prologue to the economic sociological news that an American woman was recently offered a live tiger in exchange for her virginity. Now the woman has been running an auction for her virginity since September, so the offer didn’t come entirely out of the blue. But still, the offer of a live tiger (by a zookeeper in an undisclosed location) is incomparably bizarre.

It’s also deliciously ironic, in that it brings “The Lady or the Tiger?”  into a 21st century Western context, in which everything can be legitimately and publicly commodified so that there is no longer an irreducible opposition between lady and tiger. Instead, they are being offered as equivalents for exchange. Reduction of everything to a price tag puts everything up for grabs, and everything on an equal footing.

I stress the legitimate and public commodification of virginity, because of course, intact hymens have been put on the auction block for hundreds–perhaps thousands–of years. It still happens openly all over the world: Nick Kristof of the New York Times has done an excellent series on the selling of young Vietnamese girls (by their own families) into sex slavery in Cambodia. It even happens in the US, albeit under cover; since selling other people’s bodies is against the law, we only hear about it when there is a criminal investigation or a dramatization, like those surrounding the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.

But what if you want to sell your own body? And what if you want to define it as an act of free market rationality–“I have something of value, and I should be compensated for it.” Or how about framing the sale of one’s hymen as a feminist act, by keeping the profits rather than having them expropriated by men or older women, as was the fate of Moll Hackabout (see below)? 

These are precisely the ideological claims of the lady–one Natalie Dylan, aged 22, of San Diego–who is being offered a live tiger in exchange for being sexually penetrated for the first time. Dylan’s reasoning, in her own words, is as follows (the phrases in boldface are my emphasis):

And the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with me. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism…  And for what it’s worth, the winning bid won’t necessarily be the highest—I get to choose.

Bidding for this prize was up to a reported $3.8 million earlier this month. Natalie’s ability to construct a narrative of empowerment and autonomy around the auction stems in part from her training in Women’s Studies, in which she received an undergraduate degree from Sacramento State University. She says the auction started as a “sociological experiment” on the value of virginity, as well as a practical means of raising money to fund her graduate studies in marriage and family therapy. She was inspired in part by her older sibling, Avia, who earned enough in three weeks working as a prostitute at Nevada’s Bunny Ranch brothel to put herself through graduate school. Sisterhood is powerful!

Avia and Natalie Dylan (not their real names).
Sisters doing it for themselves: Avia and Natalie Dylan (not their real names).
So Dylan presents herself as a feminist capitalist, extending the logic of the market to an extreme that only slightly surpasses what Madonna and other female “entertainers” have been doing for decades. Dylan adds that she has been praised for her “entrepreneurial gumption” by an unnamed Fortune 500 CEO–a claim I have been unable to verify independently. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, given what Frankfurt School sociologist Jürgen Habermas calls the creeping “colonization of the life-world” by capitalism, in which “systemic mechanisms –for example, money – steer a social intercourse that has been largely disconnected from norms and values.”
Habermas means that concepts, values and modes of thought associated with the market have intruded into daily life to such an extent that individuals become increasingly unable to think–or act–outside the hegemonic system. Everything gets (re)packaged in market terms–that is, everything is (eventually) assigned a price. This impoverishes our world and our relationships, as if we eliminated words, images and gestures from our communication, and replaced them instead with number systems like binary or hex. More “efficient” and “precise”? Possibly. But can those qualities really be traded off against the powers of allusion, metaphor, and symbolism?
Habermas’ ideas have their roots in the work of founding sociologists, like Karl Marx (who wrote of the “internal colonization” of humans by capitalist ideology) and Max Weber, who observed the competing relationship between value-rationality (in which entities can be measured on their own terms, and cherished for their own sake) and instrumental rationality (in which entities are measured by their exchange value).  The increasing dominance of instrumental rationality is linked to the process of modernity, and it not only “flattens” the world by reducing everything to its value vis-a-vis something else (usually money), but it reduces our own autonomy as humans. As another contemporary social theorist put it in a recent essay,
The life-world, by and large, characterized by value-rationality, begins to be eclipsed and absorbed in instrumental rationality, making persons become means to political and economic ends not in their interest, nor under their control.
Herein lies the fallacy of Natalie Dylan’s empowerment reasoning, and–to be fair to her–the reasoning of the many, many men and women who make the same claims. Dylan and people like her have no real “autonomy” or “control” in the market system. According to Habermas, and to Kant, when you live in a world turned upside-down, where instead of socio-economic structures serving human needs, humans become subordinated to the systems, you have no means to mount an effective challenge. By profiting from the trophy status of her virginity, Natalie Dylan isn’t doing anything new–consider all the marriage markets, past and present, in which a woman’s ability to command a wealthy husband is contingent in part upon her intact hymen–and she’s certainly not subverting anything. This isn’t her fault, or a weakness on her part; it’s the human condition in what Max Weber would call modern, rational-bureaucratic societies.
This scenario differs from the plot of The Matrix only in that there is no cabal–no specific people or institutions–who can be overthrown in order to change the system. The horror of it all is that many people and institutions contribute, often unknowingly, to the commodification of themselves and others, making the system incredibly difficult to change. So Natalie Dylan isn’t “hacking” the system of women’s sexual commodification, nor is she going to alter it with her auction. Certainly, the process will change her, and from what I’ve read of her, she seem to both underestimate that change and overestimate her own power to control her experience within this colonized life-world.
While writing this post, I’ve been conducting a little thought-experiment of my own: what would I have done if Natalie Dylan had been my student? Answer: I would have tried to do what I aimed for with all the students I ever taught, which was to inform them, and show them how to think critically and clearly. I doubt that just discouraging her, or conveying my concern about the effects the auction might have on her, would have made much of a difference. And for a 22-year-old, even parental disapproval would likely be ineffective (though I’ve wondered how her parents responded–something I have not seen addressed in any of the news coverage).
So, had she been my student, I would have asked Dylan to do three things:
  • First, read about the colonization of the life-world by the market, using selections from Habermas, Marx, Weber, Kant.
  • Second, write a paper describing a world in which selling sex (or reproductive material) wasn’t the only way for a young woman to make a big pile of money quickly, just to see if she could imagine such a thing–and to help her begin to see what it means to be “colonized” by an idea (somewhat like the strategy employed by the high school counselor working with the white supremacist teenager in American History X).
  • Third, I would ask her to analyze her auction plan in relation to the valuation of other women’s virginity: what does it mean that she expects to command enough money for her hymen to put herself through graduate school, while the Vietnamese parents interviewed by Nick Kristof (see above) can barely clear enough from the sale of their virgin daughters into brothels to open a little hut selling rice and vegetables? Is it acceptable to her to profit from the same social system that led soldiers in Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, and many other war zones, to target virgins for rape in order to inflict maximum damage on the enemy?

Perhaps none of these exercises would have changed Dylan’s mind. But I think we’d be hearing a lot less from her about empowerment. Instead of claiming “I’m seizing control of the commodification of women’s sexuality for my own benefit,” I imagine she’d say something more like, “I’m willing to enter into this corrupt and unfair exchange because it’s the only way I can make a fortune in a few months.” I’d prefer unpleasant accuracy to pleasant (self)deception any day. And maybe a more accurate perception of herself and her actions would lead her to do something positive, like donate proceeds of her auction to help the women whose trophy-virginity was taken without consent or compensation.

Fellow Contexts blogger Ron Anderson, aka the Sociological Eye (which sounds like a name for Philip Marlowe’s sidekick), invited me to guest-blog and requested that I address the impact of the market crash on investment clubs. This is the result. Turns out I had more to say than I initially thought possible! Blogging brings out my inner Proust.

Are you still cruising on an Obama-related endorphin surge? Wallowing in the afterglow of Inaugural optimism? This news story will snap you out of it like a cold shower:

MOUND HOUSE, Nev. — A downturn in the economy means an upturn in applications to some brothels.

A brothel owner says his industry’s resilience is attractive to many who are out of a job.

“There’s so many girls wanting to go to work because of the economy,” Dennis Hof, the owner of the Bunny Ranch says. “There’s layoffs in every sector of the economy… We get a lot of people from New York City wanting to come to work.”

“Air Force Amy” has been in the business for 19 years. She says she has seen a change in the types of woman applying for employment.

“We do see ladies with a great education, Masters degrees. And woman from all walks of life,” according to Amy. “It’s lot different from 20 years ago where it was just a street hooker from under the bridge. It’s a totally different ball game now.”

Sweet! Now the US can boast some of the most well-educated prostitutes in the world. In your face, Thailand!

If it weren’t so sad–at least to this female with a master’s degree, who’s thinking “there but for the grace of god go I”–the story would provide hours of entertainment. The potential for hideous puns seems virtually limitless, starting with the name of the city in the byline: Mound House. (Cue snickering by Beavis and Butthead .) It rivals even the mock-worthiness of Rudy Giuliani’s “welfare-to-work” program, which trained unemployed New Yorkers to read Tarot cards in preparation for glittering careers as “Psychic Hotline” operators. But I have Important Sociological Points to make, so the punning will be left as an exercise to the reader.

Being sarcastic provides me with a welcome–albeit temporary–distraction from this extremely depressing reminder that while America can elect a black man President, it can’t do much better by its female population than 18th century England once did. I’m referring, of course, to the series “A Harlot’s Progress,” by legendary engraver William Hogarth, which traces the sad fate of an innocent country girl who comes to big city–London–seeking employment. Instead of finding the work she’d sought–as a tailor or a maid–she ends up as a prostitute and dies in squalor shortly thereafter, of venereal disease.

"Moll Hackabout has arrived at the Bell Inn in Cheapside, fresh from the countryside, seeking employment as a seamstress or domestic servant. She stands, innocent and modestly attired, in front of Mother Needham, the brothel keeper, who is examining her youth and beauty." Plate 1 of 6, April 1733
"Moll Hackabout has arrived at the Bell Inn in Cheapside, fresh from the countryside, seeking employment as a seamstress or domestic servant. She stands, innocent and modestly attired, in front of Mother Needham, the brothel keeper, who is examining her youth & beauty." William Hogarth, Plate 1 of 6, April 1733


Allow me to digress for a moment, in order to acknowledge the people who claim prostitution is an “empowering choice” for women–a job, just like any other, except that it pays better than most employment held by women (i.e., waitress, retail clerk, etc.).

There are many reasons to be skeptical of this argument, including the ways that current and former sex workers describe their experiences of and feelings about prostitution in first-person accounts. A post on the blog expresses some other reasons for skepticism about the “benefits” of prostitution for women:

…[such] approaches argue that “prostitution is one of women’s best economic choices.”  It pays well.  And that’s a good thing, they say.  But we have to ask why is it one of our best choices?  Why are our bodies the most valuable possession we have as women?  Getting more money isn’t the end all and be all of liberation. It’s a pseudo-liberation.  It is not full liberation if it preserves the underlying structure of inequality which exists under the global capitalist system we have today.  There’s something inherently wrong with a system that makes women’s bodies their most valuable possession.


Right. Which leads back to the classic question for economic sociology: how do humans assign value to things, like human bodies, or pieces of artwork, or cars? 

My point: Why is prostitution still the default job for women, particularly in the United States, which boasts some of the finest universities and highest per capita incomes in the world? If we have the resources to educate women so well, to endow them with so much human capital, why can’t they translate that into economic capital (i.e., wages and salary) as effectively as men? After all, men have the physical ability to earn money for sex–why isn’t prostitution the last-resort job for most of them, as it is for most women?

To put it simply, men have more choices in the labor market than women. That doesn’t mean that men have it “easy” or that they don’t suffer from un- or under-employment. But it does mean that when men can’t work in the occupation of their choice, their alternatives are much more varied and appealing (economically as well as socially) than those facing women. As this chart from a 2007 United Nations report shows, while the United States is still leading the world in wealth and opportunity, those assets are so highly concentrated in the hands of men that even the poorest countries in the world do a better job of allocating resources fairly. Simply put, the left-hand column of the table shows that American women get about the same share of their country’s resources as women in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe; while the Americans’ share may be much larger in absolute terms, their position relative to men is as disadvantaged as that of women in countries that are barely functioning at all, let alone claiming to be the land of opportunity:

The human development index (HDI) measures average achievements in a country, but it does not incorporate the degree of gender imbalance in these achievements. The gender-related development index (GDI), introduced in Human Development Report 1995, measures achievements in the same dimensions using the same indicators as the HDI but captures inequalities in achievement between women and men. It is simply the HDI adjusted downward for gender inequality. The greater the gender disparity in basic human development, the lower is a country’s GDI relative to its HDI….Out of the 156 countries with both HDI and GDI values, 106 countries have a better ratio than United States’s.

Table 2 shows how United States’s ratio of GDI to HDI compares to other countries, and also shows its values for selected underlying values in the calculation of the GDI.

What’s shocking is that education–human capital development, in sociological parlance–is supposed to broaden one’s opportunities, regardless of gender, race or age. On this basis, many people have fought long and hard for equality of educational opportunities in the US (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education). But it turns out that the “return on investment” in human capital is entirely different for women versus men, whites versus non-whites, and so forth. So, all other things being equal, a woman won’t get the same labor market benefit (i.e., salary, status, advancemet opportunites) from a master’s degree as a man will.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s plans for the economy are likely to exacerbate these problems. His economic jump-start program will create lots of new jobs–but almost entirely in occupations dominated by men, like construction. What about reversing the trend, to inject some distributive justice into those plans? This would be a great time to rebuild the country on a more equitable basis. That’s change we still need.

The cult classic film “Repo Man” turns 25 this year, and I’d like to mark the occasion by quoting this exchange between two of the lead characters. The context here is the moral justification for taking away people’s cars by stealth and subterfuge–an activity that looks very much like simple auto theft–when those people fail to make their contractual payments. According to Bud, the wizened Yoda to Otto’s Luke, repo work not only isn’t “stealing,” it’s a blow for justice and the American Way::

Bud: Credit is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is founded on. Do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia? I said, do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia?

Otto: They don’t pay bills in Russia, it’s all free.

There’s something poignant now, even charmingly retro in the post-apocalyptic financescape of 2009, about the phrase “Credit is a sacred trust.” It seems to belong to another world.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan might have been thinking of Bud when he said in a 1990 commencement address at Harvard College,

Trust is at the root of any economic system based on mutually beneficial exchange. In virtually all transactions, we rely on the word of those with whom we do business…If a significant number of business people violated the trust upon which our interac­tions are based, our court system and our economy would be swamped into immo­bility.

Prophecy, or just a gloss of the Gospel According to “Repo Man?” You decide.

As for Otto’s utopian vision of the Russian socio-economic complex, credit cards and cowboy capitalism put an end to all that. For an excellent account (no pun intended), see Prof. Alya Guseva’s recent book, Into the Red (Stanford University Press, 2008).

Meanwhile, Happy Birthday “Repo Man!”