Mortuaries, markets, and meaning: the social context of funeral expenditures
In this dissertation, I examine how buyers and sellers interact in the Massachusetts funeral market. I utilize theories in economic sociology and ritual studies to explain how these interactions coalesce into a functioning market. To do so, I draw on semi-structured interviews with funeral consumers and funeral directors in Massachusetts. Standard economic theories would predict that funeral consumers weigh the costs and benefits associated with each choice they face before purchasing those products that best maximize their individual utility. Economic sociologists respond by pointing out that economic actors face uncertainty, a state in which they cannot assess the costs and benefits of their many options. Instead, consumers rely on 'social devices' - such as social norms and rules - to guide their behavior; however, they are 'intentionally rational' in that they seek to maximize their utility. Rather than thinking of consumers as rational utility maximizers or as uncertain, intentionally-rational actors, I argue that the majority of funeral consumers' purchases are unreflexive and thus cannot be thought of as choices at all. When consumers do make choices, they do not seek to maximize their utility, but instead purchase goods and services that perform what Viviana Zelizer labels relational work. Such purchases serve to define, maintain, or change social relationships. The ways that consumers approach their purchases shape the ways that sellers compete with one another. Because most consumers return to the same funeral home again and again without considering alternative providers and because consumers are socially required to purchase those goods and services necessary to complete the funeral ritual, sellers cannot draw in new customers by lowering prices or by developing new products. With these avenues closed off, sellers must compete by building social networks in their communities; however, they must work to define their network connections in specific ways. Customers must see their involvement in the community as motivated by a desire to contribute to civic life rather than a desire to generate business. Ultimately, then, sellers also perform relational work, and their relational work serves as the main competitive mechanism in funeral markets.