Polycentric Institutions of Intimacy

Counter to the “hostile worlds” view that considers economic and social relationships to be separate and in tension with each other, Viviana Zelizer adopted a “connected lives” approach that considers the many ways our economic and personal relationships can be linked. Her concept of “circuits of commerce” was developed as a way of understanding the diversity of complex institutional arrangements that individuals form as they use culture, norms, and communication to navigate this interconnected landscape of economic and personal relationships. Similarly, Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom developed theories of polycentric self-governance that were predicated on the idea that institutional arrangements are composed in many, varied ways, and that norms, trust, and the language we use when communicating with each other are integral to institutional development. In this essay, I will apply a Zelizer/Ostrom framework to the circuits of commerce that shaped family life under the historical Anglo-American practice of coverture. Under coverture, women’s economic rights were subjugated to men’s economic rights within marriage, rendering them asymmetrically dependent on their partners. The nature of this asymmetry shaped women’s lives and relationships far beyond the domain traditionally interpreted as “economic.” My aim in applying the Zelizer/Ostrom framework to this question is to (1) investigate whether the framework might be a useful theory for understanding the historical development of gender roles, and (2) to shed light on the extended social and cultural implications of institutions, like coverture, that create relationships of economic dependence.

This chapter is part of an edited volume, "Living Better Together: Social Relations and Economic Governance in the Work of Ostrom and Zelizer."

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