Value and its enigmas: from stained cloths to matrimonial alliances

by André Vereta Nahoum

Since the days economics was basically a British endeavour, the production of value (and price formation) has been one of the most fiercely debated topics of the discipline. Such is the centrality of the issue at stake that the main disciplinary divides are formed around conceptions of the origins of economic value and its relation to social practices (namely labour) or subjective preferences. There is an inflation of theories of value with no consensus in sight. Sociology and anthropology followed suit (see further reading below). The legacy of their studies is to assert the social nature of the act of valuing and, thus, the connection of pecuniary value with social values and social relations in which exchange is entangled.
Either associated with labour or individual preferences, valuing (evaluating and defining a quantitative equivalence for goods) is an essentially social and relational practice, which relies on social classification and continuing interaction through which there is signalling of quality and worth. Independently of the theories they bear in mind, people are daily valuing goods and deeming prices adequate, fair or absurd. Through recurrent experiences in markets and formal education, people develop their own strategies and rules of thumb to assess the worth of goods. These strategies give rise to everyday, lay theories about value in market transactions which might, or not, be connected with expert theories.
Advice on valuing goods are certainly worthy and traditional songs voiced their own, including some compositions to be heard at concert halls. In 1914, the Cádiz-born composer, Manuel de Falla finished composing arrangements for piano and soprano of a set of seven traditional songs from different Spanish regions, named Siete Canciones Populares Españolas (Seven Spanish Popular Songs). The composition was part of his quest for a truly national(istic) musical language and just as other contemporaries, he sought this in traditional tunes. The first song of the cycle is “El paño moruno” (the Moorish Cloth), a variation on a song collected in the Andalusian city of Córdoba. The lyrics to this short, one stanza song, feature a very simple theory of value:

“On the fine cloth in the store / Al paño fino, en la tienda,
a stain has fallen; / una mancha le cayó;
It sells at a lesser price, / Por menos precio se vende,
because it has lost its value. / Porque perdió su valor.
Alas!” / ¡Ay!”

At first, the lyrics may seem a trivial statement to any who have purchased goods: if any commodity is damaged, in this case, a fine cloth is stained, it loses value and it goes on sale for a smaller amount of cash. The theory resembles demand and supply notions from Marginalist writers: by adjusting the price, a seller is always able to find someone willing to buy the good, because it matches the utility potential buyers bestow on the commodity and the quantitative amount they are willing to sacrifice.
However, the song allows for a more interesting consideration on value and, notably, on the connections of social judgements of worth with pecuniary values of things and persons. This consideration requires us to understand what the song actually means. The song is a piece of advice from the Spanish folklore using a recurrent symbol to invoke the virtues, prospects and the value a woman has in the matrimonial market. The image of a stain on a cloth metaphorically suggests the loss of purity, chastity and their embodiment: virginity. The popular wisdom of the times, especially directed to potential grooms and parents raising their children, warned against “stains” in the reputation of a potential bride. The comparison of a young woman and fine cloth can be found in Spanish texts since Renaissance times, stressing that parents should be aware that “stains” cannot be removed from “fine cloths”. A less than virtuous woman, thus, is less valuable as a potential partner.
Unfair and misogynous as this is, societies have placed high demands of pre-marital behavior on women – demands that do not apply to men – and this was especially the case in nineteenth century Spain. Members of societies who seek to secure the reproduction of their lineage, its reputation and social position continue to harshly judge those women who fail to abide to strict codes of purity and consider them less reliable to carry their name and maintain loyalty toward their partners.
This metaphor becomes much clearer in the following song of De Falla’s cycle, a Murcian Seguidilla. The song’s second stanza is another condemnation of women who lack purity and chastity, the same trope of the former song:

“For your great inconstancy / “Por tu mucha inconstancia
I compare you / Yo te comparo
to a [coin] that runs / Con peseta que corre
from hand to hand; / De mano en mano;
which finally blurs, / Que al fin se borra,
and, believing it false, / Y creyéndola falsa
no one accepts!” / ¡Nadie la toma!”

In this text, the lyric persona compares an inconstant woman with a coin (a peseta, the pre-euro Spanish currency) that is constantly exchanged in daily transactions until it gets worn out, cannot be distinguished from fake coins and is no longer accepted. Here, a woman is compared with small currency and her habits to the rapid circulation of money. Once more, habits of a free, independent woman depreciate her and has effects on her value in the matrimonial market.
General-purpose, i.e., legal-tender money is often considered, in our societies, the opposite of purity and considered dirty. However, anthropologists and sociologists have shown the entanglements of money, value and marriage in many settings. The romantic idea of love that came into existence in the nineteenth century, a very historically and geographically specific notion of erotic relationship, denies all material (or pecuniary) interest associated with love and marriage, allegedly based on disinterested affect, but interactional settings of  dating and coupling are not absent of value considerations or decoupled of money and market transactions. Even in contemporary societies where dowry and bridewealth are deemed inadequate, dating involves tokens of appreciation. Diamond rings are a common engagement symbol and jewels a formidable way of storing value, which has been recognized, on occasion, as savings women can use in case of divorce.
More importantly, authors like Lévi-Strauss and Pierre Bourdieu have shown that the value of a potential partner for the union and the kin is considered, even if not consciously. There are many ways in which pecuniary value and worth are entangled in marriage: habits that generate reliability in the union and suggest the possibility of reproducing power and the position of the kin are deemed virtuous and valued in partners. The values contained in these habits are, in turn, all convertible into monetary value. A good marriage means access to material funds and the possibility of reproducing the lineage.
These old-fashioned (but unfortunately not necessarily outdated) considerations on the purity of women as indicated by their behaviors and their value that these songs bring are good to consider how valuation in markets are often related to acts of social judgment of the worth of objects, persons and attitudes. In other words, (pecuniary) value always reflects a set of social, cultural and political values.

Further reading:
– Beckert, Jens and Patrick Aspers (ed.) 2011. The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in the Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Fourcade, Marion. 2011. “Cents and Sensibility: Economic Valuation and the Nature of “Nature””. American Journal of Sociology, 116(6): 1721–1777.
– Graeber, David. 2001. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave.
– Zelizer, Viviana. 2005. The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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