Rukhin Sofia
National Research University “Higher School of Economics”
Sociology Department

The primary concern of this paper is to analyze money as a cultural and social formation from the symbolic interactionism perspective. Therefore, we find it significant to examine the basic premises of symbolic interactionism, to provide our own critique of these premises and state how these premises can be applied to the analysis of money as a social item. We think that the analysis of money is too broad theme to be discussed in this paper. So, we decided to touch upon only one aspect of the analysis of money as a social formation – social function.

Keywords: cultural and social formation, money, premises, social function, symbolic interactionism

Рубрика: Социология

Библиографическая ссылка на статью:
Money as a Social and Cultural Construction in the view of Symbolic Interactionism // Гуманитарные научные исследования. 2012. № 11 [Электронный ресурс]. URL: (дата обращения: 14.05.2024).


Symbolic interactionism as a theoretical tool has three basic premises. The first premise says that the meanings of things determine behavioral patterns in people, because people act on the basis of these meanings. First, it is necessary to define what kind of objects we consider. As it is stated in Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method by Herbert Blumer (1986:12), “An object is anything that can be indicated or referred to”. All the physical objects we can touch, all the things we are not able to reach, and all abstract ideas can be analyzed through this framework. We can’t but agree with this premise: it is sensible of a person to act based on the meanings of things around him or her. If it was not so, our actions would probably not be relevant to what we face. In this case it is useful to consider the theory of systems of relevance by Alfred Schutz. Based on this notion, we can claim that symbolic interactionism has a direct meaning for our everyday experiences.

The second premise states that meanings of different kinds of things are derived from or are born of the social interaction process. As Herbert Blumer claims, this premise differentiates symbolic interactionism from other approaches which have some similarities with symbolic interactionism. He is sure that a particular person can acquire the meaning of a thing only when it is obvious how other people behave in connection with a person who, for example, possesses this thing. On the one hand, it seems to be reasonable to think so. For instance, an authoritative person who managed to occupy one of the leading positions in the bureaucratic organization has power to defend his or her interests. However, power can lead to the feeling of superiority which has an adverse impact on a person’s relationship with other people. An attitude toward power can be constructed through the process of social interaction – sharing opinions among people and communication with authoritative people.

The third premise suggests that after acquiring the meaning from social interaction, people “digest” meanings through a process of personal interpretation. In our opinion, this  is the most important stage because, thanks to it, the meaning is finally shaped. As a consequence, a person is able to build his or her own strategy of behavior, using a particular thing. It is a part of our everyday experience, which is why it is incredibly easy to find an example proving this statement. For instance, when a law in draft is discussed among citizens of a country it will be the first step in their understanding of it, i.e., attaching importance to it. The second step is “polishing” through personal interpretation. It is similar to a social psychology category, interiorization, which means that social experience becomes a part of personal experience.


As all we know, money is known as an ordinary economic product. No wonder. Money is created to perform several especially economic functions. However, that is not our focus in this paper. The other framework of analysis of money can show us this practical economic tool in a different view – as it is something born of social interaction and personal interpretation.

The money theme was touched upon in Karl Marx (1960) work Capital: Critique of Political Economy. Even though Karl Marx examined money as an especially economic tool, saying that money is the display of good price, he also stated that it is a foundation of people’s relationships, and it is easy to explain. Based on Capital we can assume that the worker, being dependent on the capitalist because he is the owner of investment means of production, is also dependent on the amount of money he will get in exchange for his work. This amount of money is necessary for him or her because it supports the worker financially, and, therefore, provides with all things necessary for living. As a result, money relationships influence social relationships between two classes. It follows that money has power to establish relationships among people. How can it relate to our discussion of symbolic interactionism? First, it is evident that the worker chooses the job on the ground of the meaning a particular job has for him (the first premise). Second, the overall meaning, the perception of the job requirements, conditions, etc., is formed through communication with the capitalist and other workers (social interaction process). However, the meaning and, therefore, the worker’s the willingness to perform this job (i.e. the pattern of behavior, strategy) are determined with the meaning.

Another sociologist known in the classic sociological theory who dealt with this analysis of money as a social and cultural formation – was Georg Simmel. He was sure that money, while being an economic tool, is also able to modify relationships among people and become part of the sphere of life– able even to ruin social ties. It is said that if somebody uses money as a present, such a practice can have an adverse impact on people’s relationship because it increases the “distance” among them. The reason for it is that money is too “cold” and too anonymous; therefore, such features influence connections among people in the same way.

However, we do not agree with Simmel’s point of view. In light of symbolic interactionism, it is better to say that the meaning of money as a gift is influenced with two stages already discussed (social interaction and interpretation). It might be that people who communicate with one another came to the conclusion that money as a present is not an offence to their relationship, but the proof of their mutual understanding and trust. So, the important conclusion we came to is the fact that things do not determine social reality by themselves – social interaction and interpretation have a fundamental role to play in constructing it. But what is more interesting is that communication, regardless of how many people are engaged in it, forms individuals’ reality. So, it results from this that even our own individual world, which seems to be created by our own efforts and actions, is, in any case, the collective construction.

Motives similar to what Simmel proposed are found in the article The Sociology of Money by Jason Jimerson and Wayne Baker (1992).  They state that money performs a role of an indicator of social relationships. Financial transactions show us a scheme of interaction among different social groups; they show the presence, direction and the strength of social ties. There are many historical examples proving this fact: the dependent state was forced to pay tribute to the more powerful state or became the colony of it. As a consequence, money or money relationships are viewed as an obvious consequence of power – dependent relationships.

Talking about social functions of money, it is also necessary to examine one more important issue – the point of view seeing the social status as a substitution for money. This point of view was proposed by the American sociologist James Coleman, and it is reasonable to think so. Take, for example, the situation, in which social status is known as a guarantee of the purchasing capacity: a famous person can, for instance, take some clothes from very expensive brand-name shops to try it on, without having to pay. How can it relate to our theoretical framework? If we talk about this narrow example, it can be said that a salesperson sees this customer not for the first time and knows that he/she always buys the most expensive items. Communication with this customer (interaction) helps the salesperson come to conclusion (to the meaning) and interpret that the client is a reliable purchaser. Of course, this salesperson is not the only one who will behave in such a way. So, his/her individual action can lead to similar actions undertaken by other salespersons. As a result, these separate actions lead to the fact that there will probably be formed a kind of joint action, sort of a culture of attitude toward rich clients. So, these individuals’ steps are able to grow into collective actions. As Herbert Blumer writes, his aim is not to analyze this process in detail, “but to call attention to its presence and operation in the formation of human action” (1986:18). Our aim in this paper is also not to analyze this process, but to show that there is such a process in a particular sphere of life – dealing with money as a cultural and social construction. The last example does not exactly relate to the money issue, but it demonstrates to us the fact that there is a social substitute for money and this means money also can be considered as a social item. But it would be impossible to consider it like this, if we did not behave like it is something social. As a consequence, we do behave like it is something social, because we acquire the meaning of it like a social item.

Of course, it is not the only reason why we expect money to be a cultural and social phenomenon. Money in different displays is reported to be not only an indicator of a social status, but also an indicator of the quality of work a person performs, of intellectuals abilities or social bonds a person is engaged in (not a direct indicator, however). However, to avoid misunderstandings it is better to say that in most cases not money exactly, but the amount of money a person possesses can be the source of this information. So, this means that a particular amount of money can be a tool of maintaining social inequalities.

The other thing we ought to mention is the disciplinary function of money. The easiest example is using it as a fine for different kinds of faults. Probably, such a kind of punishment is not able to make people respect the law. But at least it can make us behave in certain ways. However, money can be used not only as a disciplinary tool, but also as a means for working a consumer culture. For example, Viviana Zelizer (1997) in the work The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies describes a situation when social workers were responsible for guiding poor families how to distribute money due to the class of goods. It should be stated that in this connection money (for these families) was seen more as a teaching object rather than as a financial resource because they really did not have an opportunity to spend it by themselves. Being seen as a teaching object, money was perceived as something having a “non-financial” nature and this meaning of it is born of communication experience with social workers. However, the final point (the final perception of it) depends upon the personal interpretation of the meaning of this money by poor families.

The same framework can be used so as to understand the nature of money as an item having an aesthetic function. For the common sense understanding of money as an economic tool it can be quite unusual to examine it like something having an aesthetic value. We should remember that money is not always used specifically for economic purposes, but also it can be seen as something valuable because of its age, for example. An example is anniversary money. It is rather interesting example because money through the symbolic interaction gets the identity different from the most ordinary one – the identity of a cultural item. Our theoretical framework proves the fact that money thanks to the symbolic interaction process can be considered as a cultural item, as we have already said. In turn, money in this perception as a cultural item proves the fact that we are able to talk about the presence of the process of symbolic interactionism.

One more function of money is even more ephemeral. It is the sacred function of money, which is difficult even to be called a function. The roles of its “performers” often are bribes, gratuities, gifts of money. We would like to focus on the two types. A bribe is a special payment for special services which sometimes, do not enter into confrontation with the law; however, the word “bribe” definitely has a negative connotation. Despite this fact, millions of people in search of an optimal solution for problems do not find other ways to “reach out” at the closed door. A bribe is not just money, items, and services. It is also a key to specific social groups, communities that “guarantee” their favor in relation to the briber. Contrary to the ardent attempts in different countries to eradicate such a dangerous disease by various punishments, the practice of bribery showed strong immunity in relation to these measures, once again reaffirming its social nature, and not the economic preconditions.

Tip, as a special form of payment, also has a sacred meaning for the average person and irrational meaning for the economist. However, it is quite understandable:  it seems to be irrational to invest in something that is obviously not suggesting profit.  What is a tip? It is payment for the courtesy and the attention given by service staff in relation to the client. There are complex unwritten rules, which different cultures hold concerning giving tips. But not only culture, but also the sphere of using of the tips also influences its perception. In many countries, it is customary to leave a tip for waiters, taxi drivers, but completely inappropriate for government officials that can be perceived as a bribe.


So, the main social functions of money were analyzed. This analysis shows us that the meanings and functions of money are constructed thanks to the personal interpretation process which is has  vast power in determining meanings. This process is not the only stage in “building” these identities – the process of social interaction (i.e., tips and bribery giving) also plays a fundamental role. Moreover, it is obvious that people tend to behave based on the meanings of money. Therefore, the social functions of money support the claim that symbolic interactionism should be considered as a reasonable framework for the analysis of money as a social and cultural construction.

  1. Blumer, H. (1986). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
  2. Jimerson, J. & Baker, W. (1992). The Sociology of Money The American Behavioral  Retrieved 2 February, 2011 from
  3. Marx, K. (1960). Capital: Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: State Press of Political Literature
  4. Zelizer,V. (1997). The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

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