What are you worth? What is your value-in-exchange?

A satirical website exists called humansforsale.com. Asking: Have you been thinking about putting yourself up for sale lately? Ever wonder how much money you could get on the open human market? You are invited to fill out a form assessing your worth, against an array of criteria, including ethnicity; education; income; athletic-ability; weight; and sense of humour. Upon completing the form, you are then assigned a monetary value based on how you score on these criteria. While this website is satirical, Bev Skeggs’ recent work on social media reveals how your personal choices, preferences and identity markers are being bought and sold with every click. Capital extracts value from personal attributes.

I am interested in youth friendships across social differences. In my recent article in The Sociological Review, I develop the idea of exchange-value friendships. Enjoying each other’s company, in the moment, a friendship has a value-in-use. However, exchange-value friendships are about whether the relationship is an investment. In an economic sense, an investment is the purchase of goods that are not consumed today but are used in the future to create wealth. So, a friendship that is an investment is one in which the ‘investor’ sees ‘potential’ in the friendship, that it can bring them some benefits at a later date.

In my research, which involved depth interviews, focus groups, friendship mapping exercises and observations, I am interested, analytically, in how young people’s personal attributes and identity features can be (unconsciously) ‘bought’ or ‘sold’ to enable or deny access to different friendship spaces. So, in the educational field, I explore the ways in which embodied identity-features: skin colour; comportment; body size; fashion style; demeanor; are assigned a value and traded in the urban school marketplace. Drawing on Deborah Youdell’s early work, and Christy Kulz more recent book, I explore the White middle-class body in the educational field (the ‘ideal learner’) as a body which has superior value and more extensive mobility.  I am not promoting these processes of exchange, like some kind of social Darwinism. To the contrary, I actively condemn them. I want to expose opaque processes to demystify the: ‘why am I here, and they are up there’?

I hone in on three working class, minority ethnic participants to explore how ‘exchange-value’ friendships might be working. For example, Lara (not her real name) was a petite Peruvian girl who lived on a local council estate with her Spanish-speaking parents, having migrated to London when she was 13 years old. She tells of how, initially, she was formally ‘buddied up’ with a Black Caribbean girl, and she integrated quickly into the ‘Black crowd’ at her school. However, she did not feel ‘at home’ there, as she explained they were too ‘loud’ and too intense for her. She gradually made friends with a White middle-class girl- timid and quiet like herself- and this friendship subsequently gave her access to a White middle-class friendship group.

Damian was a gregarious Black Caribbean boy and ‘leader’ of the predominantly Black and minority ethnic, working-class ‘football crowd’ in his school. In addition to his Black friends, he named two White middle-class boys on his friendship map. He had made friends with these boys recently, as many of his Black friends did not stay on at sixth form. Damian highlighted that he could ‘jam’ with these boys at the school gates, and made ‘jokes’ with them, but he never saw them outside of school.

Tyler was a Black Nigerian lad, who had migrated to London from Florida. Upon joining the school, he was (reluctantly) taken under the wing of two White middle-class boys, but now he was in the sixth form he enjoyed his place and his friendships in the multi-ethnic football crowd. He described how he used to be ‘obese’ and was a ‘nerd’, but described how he had he gradually lost weight, worked on his physique, and put his ‘books down’.

Lara’s petit-timid-shy-high-achieving (and Whiter) embodied identity did not ‘fit’ with the Black girls’ performances in school, but these features had exchange value for the White and middle-class group, with a quieter and more studious outlook. Damian’s Black-gregarious-joker-clown identity, saw him the leader of the Black crowd, but these performances also had some currency with two middle-class White boys. Tyler’s move from obese-bespectacled-studious-bookworm-geek (but Black) identity, into an athletic-bodied-sporty-football-joker-party-lightener identity, saw him move from a White and middle-class friendship group to a Black and working-class one.

These participants appeared, at initial analysis, to have mixed friendships: they embodied the ‘good mixer’ and moreover, they exhibited a ‘sustained conviviality’ across both ethnic and class differences, over time. However, these friendships across social class difference were ‘limited intimacies’, or ‘semi-investments’. Lara’s White middle-class friends all left the school to attend high-achieving sixth form colleges, and she was left behind with her working-class peers. Damian accentuates that his White middle-class friends were ‘outliers’ on his friendship map, and that they were only friends in school.  I argue that his performances are consumed by them, he is not able to optimise these relationships: he remained excluded from external social networking opportunities. They were into ‘partying’, drinking and recreational drug-taking which he avoided (perhaps Bourdieu’s excluded, who exclude themselves from that which they are already excluded). However, Tyler’s effort to ‘work’ into the Black crowd was conscious, and he said if he had to choose between his Black friends and his White middle-class ones, he would choose his Black friends. When asked why, he said his Black friends would run into a burning building for him, whereas his White middle-class friends would probably just call the fire brigade. He was aware of his low value-in-exchange: he was disposable, dispensable. Conversely, Tyler’s Black friendships had use-value, which presided over everything.

Yesterday I bid for some writing work through an agency, and I was rejected because my writing sample apparently read like a ‘non-native’ English-speaker. As an English native speaker, I wondered, had I been read and coded as ‘non-native’ due to my personal attributes: my ‘foreign’ sounding name, my email signature which reveals my current visiting fellowship in Turkey? As I sign up for editing and writing work on a freelancer website called ‘People Per Hour’, I now hesitate as I choose my location: ‘Istanbul, Turkey’ or ‘Sussex, UK’ (where I am from).  I reluctantly opt for Sussex. We know these processes of reading, coding, assigning value, are going on, but they are very hard to ‘prove’. These participant’s friendship stories are exploratory and act as heuristic device to explore the ways in which these processes might be going on in friendship-making and social mixing. I invite you to consider, to what extent does exchange-value dominate contemporary friendships? Are your friendships exchange-value friendships? In this arena, what are you worth? What is your value-in-exchange? In my latest research, I am exploring the possibilities to dwell outside of the exchange-value economy, and the potential for use-value relationships to be a subversive space, a space of resistance.   

Sumi Hollingworth is a mother, partner and sociologist who researches and writes about community, identity, parenting and education for social justice. For twelve years she worked in university academic research and undertook a PhD in sociology of education. She is interested in social relationships and how we attempt to connect across difference, and try to find alternative forms of value under western capitalism, or beyond it. She blogs about this at Waiting for the machine to stop. She is currently visiting researcher at Koç University in Istanbul.  

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