By Ariel Wilkis
Looking beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary social interactions, The Moral Power of Money investigates the forces of power and morality at play, particularly among the poor. Drawing on fieldwork in a slum of Buenos Aires, Ariel Wilkis argues that money is a critical symbol used to negotiate not only material possessions, but also the political, economic, class, gender, and generational bonds between people.
Through vivid accounts of the stark realities of life in Villa Olimpia, Wilkis highlights the interplay of money, morality, and power. Drawing out the theoretical implications of these stories, he proposes a new concept of moral capital based on different kinds, or "pieces," of money. Each chapter covers a different "piece":
- money earned from the informal and illegal economies,
- money lent through family and market relations,
- money donated with conditional cash transfers,
- political money that binds politicians and their supporters,
- sacrificed money offered to the church, and
- safeguarded money used to support people facing hardships.
The Moral Power of Money builds an original theory of the moral sociology of money, providing the tools for understanding the role money plays in social life today.
About Ariel Wilkis
Ariel Wilkis (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1976) has received a P.h.D in sociology from Ecole Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and Universidad de Buenos Aires. He is a researcher at the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) and Co-Director of the Center for Social Studies of Economics at the National University of San Martín, Argentina.
Nicholas D'Avella on Journal of Cultural Economy wrote:
"No longer the chief object of economy, money has made a successful career as a topic of sociological investigation since the 1980s. The ‘sociologization’ of money begins with approximating its place in social life, or more precisely, with the dilemmas concerning its effects on social relationships: does money corrode social ties, or is it instrumental in establishing or reaffirming relationships? Once money is captured, its appropriation as a sociological object tends to focus on its multiple meanings, because money can no longer be imagined only as a neutral medium of exchange, but rather as an altogether personal, moral, and cultural agent in its own right. The efforts made in challenging the fungibility of money are framed within systematic attempts to reconceptualize economic life. Ariel Wilkis’s book inscribes in the same canon, offering insights into morality and economy in the life of the poor. [...] Set in the villas miserias of Buenos Aires, Wilkis provides an engaging and thought-provoking ethnography in which money reveals a gamut of social and market relations, political affiliations, forms of work, and religious expression: in short, an entire social world. To this end, for Wilkis money acts not only as an object of investigation, but also as a methodological key in opening up spheres otherwise undetectable. [...] The kernel of the book revolves around the concept of moral capital. Inspired by the sociologies of Pierre Bourdieu, especially his notion of ‘symbolic capital,’ and Viviana Zelizer’s sociological theory of multiple and special monies, moral capital promises to shed light on the connections among money, morality, and power [...] The Moral Power of Money: Morality and Economy in the Life of the Poor is a fascinating read. Accompanying Wilkis through Villa Olimpia opens up a diverse and morally complex social universe [...] His ethnography is attractively and effectively written, making it appealing for all types of audiences, scholars and nonscholars alike."
Melchior Simioni on Sociologie économique wrote:
"His collection of ethnographic moments works to show the many ways poor people leverage money to produce and reinvent hierarchies of power in their daily lives. Moral capital is the term coined by Wilkis, in dialogue with the sociology of Bourdieu, to think through the power people accrue through virtuous comportment, including the fulfillment of social obligations. He brings this intertwined relationship between morality and power into focus through relationships around money, building off of the work of Viviana Zelizer and others for whom money is not a monolithic entity but a multiplicity, manifesting in diverse forms through everyday practice. Through relationships around multiple pieces of money, each with its own moral implications that articulate with one another like a puzzle, the poor create and recreate hierarchies of power and morality in their lives. The book thus‘approaches pieces of money as moral entities, and [their relationship] in the money puzzle as a moral puzzle, ’Wilkis explains (p. 5). Wilkis’ book dances across a rich multiplicity of inflections in the ways money and morality intertwine, offering six different forms of money unfolding on variegated moral terrains: lent money, earned money, donated money, political money, sacrificed money, and safeguarded money."
"The book offers a new focus for interpreting the multiple power relations that configure the world of the poor. It analyzes heterogeneous money exchanges among the urban poor in Buenos Aires and regards how the money circulates on formal, informal and illegal markets, through welfare and NGO assistance, and around political, religious and family ties. Along this path, the moral dimension of money plays a critical role in the production of economic, class, political, gender and generational bonds. In an innovative dialogue that includes Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of power and the sociology of money of Viviana Zelizer, this book proposes the concept of moral capital to interpret the connections between money, morality and power. This sociology allowed us to understand that money is more like a puzzle comprised of several pieces. The concept of moral capital allows reveals that the pieces of money are shaped by ideas and moral feelings, and that each of these pieces differs from the others. The dynamic of these pieces—a dynamic involving hierarchies, tensions and contradictions—challenges the definition and the negotiation of people’s status and power in specific social orders. This research explores the roles of money that do not appear among its functions in economy textbooks. Along the way, we hit upon subjects such as hierarchy, domination, status and competition. In short, the proposal of this book is to build a toolbox based on the moral sociology of money to understand the role money plays in social life today."