The morality of market exchange: Love, money, and contractual justice

Monica Prasad*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


Prostitution as a cultural practice describes the line between what must be given as a gift and what may be exchanged as a commodity: an investigation of prostitution can therefore further our understanding of the ideological underpinnings of commodity exchange. This study uses interviews with prostitutes' clients to show how commodity exchange can be understood as being morally superior to gift exchange. The interviewees praise "market exchange" of sex for lacking the ambiguity, status-dependence, and potential hypocrisy that they see in the "gift exchange" of sex characteristic of romantic relationships. This justification of market exchange suggests that theories of the "moral economy" that posit a dichotomy between "premarket" and "market" societies understate the degree to which market societies are, for their participants, also moral economies: they are economies embodying moral beliefs about individual autonomy, democratic equality, and unambiguous and nondiscretionary fulfillment of obligations. Critics of the market do themselves a disservice in ignoring the powerful moral appeals of market exchange. More generally, sociological analyses that pit "norms" against "self-interest" ignore the ways in which norms can enable as well as constrain self-interested market behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)181-214
Number of pages34
JournalSociological Perspectives
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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