Relational accounting: A cultural approach

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This article extends (but goes beyond) Zelier's original concept of relational earmarking, where individuals engaged in dynamic forms of relational work categorize their spending and develop practices of resource allocation by virtue of the relationships being managed. This article pushes for a performative understanding of accounting practices by elaborating a theory of relational accounting based on the outlines proposed by Zelizer. Relational accounting begins (i) upstream where identifiable codes and structured meaning systems shape the set of options, non-options and their sense of being possible for the person engaged in action. Moral considerations embedded in these codes affect the geometric shape of the individual's decision tree, nearly collapsing some decision branches. (ii) In mid-stream there are meaningful, ritually prescribed occasions altering accounting priorities. And (iii) downstream people are engaged in relational work where the meanings of their relationships function performatively. Deals make more or less sense by virtue of the types of relationships being managed and the meanings of the relational sites where monetary evaluations take place. Identifiable third parties sanction these relational performances. The article concludes with concrete examples of relational accounting for luxury transactions and for high cost debt.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)131-156
Number of pages26
JournalAmerican Journal of Cultural Sociology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • debt
  • decision trees
  • household finance
  • mental accounting
  • morality
  • relational accounting


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