Relational goods

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Relational goods are non-material goods that can only be produced and consumed within groups, and which are intrinsically linked to relationships and interaction.[1] Popular examples include the enjoyment of a football game in a stadium, where the collective enjoyment of the game adds a relational good in terms of excitement and enjoyment to all in the stadium. This constitutes an experience that cannot be had when watching alone. Other examples include group charity work, friendship or reciprocal love.[2] Relational goods can be necessary for the optimization of an activity like the football game example. On the other hand, like Nussbaum suggest, a relational good may be the relationship in itself, with the good being dependent on the existence of the relationship. Friendships is an example of a relationship in which the value that come from the relationship are tied up in the existence and maintenance of the relationship.

This parade is an example of a relational good as the participants and the spectators both must engage in order for the experience to be successful.

The essential point tends to consider relational goods as goods that are produced and consumed simultaneously by those interacting in the relationship.[1]


Adam Smith, in his 1759 work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first outlined the idea of non-instrumental relational positives.[3] The 18th century Italian tradition of Civil Economy put the concept of the inner relational nature of the person at the core of the economic science. The idea was largely abandoned until the 1970s by the mainstream (although we can find intuitions in Mill, Marshall, the Austrian school, Keynes, Hirschman), when the discussion of happiness again came to light with the first analysis of the Easterlin Paradox. A solid concept of relational goods was built in the following years in an attempt to reconcile this paradox, and to answer the issue of why voter turnout is higher than rational choice theory suggests. Thus relational goods as an economic concept became more researched in the late 1980s when economists Benedetto Gui wrote From Transactions to Encounters: The Joint Generation of Relational Goods and Conventional Values (1987), and Carole Uhlaner penned Relational Goods and Participation: Incorporating Sociality into a Theory of Rational Action (1989). They aimed to change the way economist think of relationships, and viewed them as non-instrumental goods that have value within themselves.

This idea was adopted from other fields that understood human interaction as a fundamental part of human life,[4] with social deprivation being incredibly harmful to human well-being. Economists adopted this concepts, and began to involve relational analysis to study what creates happiness for individuals.[5]

It is important to understand that while commodities may be exchanged or consumed during an encounter, it is the utility that comes from the encounter specifically, rather than the utility of the goods consumed, that is considered a relational good. A shopkeeper may sell a good to a customer, but the relational good in that instance is the interaction, the potential enjoyment, sharing and emotional connection that is swapped which is relevant. Due to the highly intangible nature of this connection, relational goods and their value is difficult to measure, and thus study.[6] Many studies instead measure social interactions (volunteering, clubs, church events, parties and gatherings etc.) against self-proclaimed levels of happiness, thus identifying some impacts of socialization. What is infinitely clearer is that deprivation of human interaction can have drastic negative effects physiologically, which aids the hypothesis that relational goods at the very least have health-related utility.[4]

Theories on relational goods can have many policy implications for governments. Policies that increase Gross Domestic Product while negatively effecting an individual’s ability to consume and produce relational goods, may have negative long term impacts on society as a whole.[5]

The Production of Relational Goods[edit]

In mainstream economics, the production of commodities employs manufactured capital (tools and implements), natural capital, human capital, and financial capital. All of these contribute to the creation of a good or service valued for its mostly observable physical properties. In contrast, relational goods are produced in sympathetic, empathetic, trusting, and high regard relationships referred to here and by others as social capital. Oliver and Robison (2017)[7] write that social capital produced relational goods may be tangible or intangible. Social capital rich exchange partners exchange what Robison and Flora (2003)[8] refer to as intangible socio-emotional goods (SEGs), which are capable of satisfying socio-emotional needs. When SEGs become embedded in or associated with commodities and other objects, they create an attachment value for the object in addition to its value connected to its physical properties. The result of embedding objects with SEGs is the creation of a relational good referred to as an attachment value good (AVG) that may be tangible or intangible. Though not always called by that name, AVGs are abundant in social life: wedding rings, meaningful songs, family photos, hometowns, artifacts in museums, religious symbols, mementos of emotionally charged experiences, and prized family heirlooms.

Economic Definition of Relational Goods[edit]

The categorization of relational goods is a complex landscape. Carole Uhlaner, for example, describes them as local public goods; this classifies them as goods that can only be enjoyed (and at times produced) within a community or specified sub-section of an economy.[1] Examples of local public goods include local beaches, or parks. As Relational goods require a similar level of participation, Uhlaner defines them as such. Luigino Bruni, on the other hand, rejects the notion of categorizing relational goods as either private or public, as that categorizes them in states of exclusivity. As relational goods are not exclusive, and are rather anti-rivalrous than non-rivalrous, Bruni considers these definitions irrelevant.[edit]

Bruni's Characteristics of Relational goods [5][edit]

Basic characteristics of a relational good were stated by Bruni, and are a generally accepted definition of properties.

  1. Identity: relational goods are considered identity-dependent goods,[3] which cannot be enjoyed when people are allowed to remain anonymous.
  2. Reciprocity: these goods can only be enjoyed in multiples
  3. Simultaneity: relational goods require individuals to actively, though not equally, co-consume and co-produce simultaneously. While unequal production or consumption may be possible, there is no possibility for a pure free rider; one must first become involved in a relationship to consume relational goods, and interactions themselves produce relational goods.
  4. Motivations: relational goods are dependent on the motivations of those interacting. If the motivation of an interaction is to achieve an end, the relational good ceases to exist, as there is no longer a necessity of simultaneity or reciprocity.
  5. Emergent Phenomenon: relational goods often display emergent properties, where more is produced than the contributions of the individual participants. The ability for social reactions like sympathy or shared excitement to enter, for example, a business transaction, brings that interaction to a more robust relationship.
  6. Gratuitousness: A relational good requires there to be no other end in consideration than the relationship in itself. This is exemplified in Nussbaum's definition of a relational good as the relationship itself. All motivation within the interaction must be tailored to maintaining that relationship, however short, rather than any specific gain. When the relationship is based on a return, it falls out of the relational goods discussion.

Good: a relational good is a good but not a commodity.[9] This implies that it has value and worth but no market price. Relational goods always, however, come with an opportunity cost of some kind, be it time, costs of engaging in social environments, or other.[edit]

Under-consumption of Relational goods[edit]

It is widely considered that, as with many public goods, relational goods are under-consumed by individuals. This may be due to the effort it takes to construct the social situations in which relational goods can be shared, this effort benefits others, creating a positive externality which the market fails to widely produce.[6] This is especially the case in intangible, and non-commercial goods. On this point, Frey and Stutzer[10] (2005) claim that as people tend to focus on acquiring surface needs like status and income, and neglect internal necessities such as maintaining relationships. They also go on to posit that in cases of choosing which goods to consume, extrinsic goods produce more memorable "peak" emotions whereas intrinsic goods tend to produce long term positive externalities. People tend to focus on re-acquiring peak moments. Human nature’s short term bias, makes measuring or planning for these intrinsic goods difficult. As a result of these factors relationships tend to be under-preserved, and under produced, which naturally leads to a relative scarcity of relational goods.

Happiness and Relational goods[edit]

In their 2009 paper Income, Relational goods and Happiness, Becchetti, Londono Bedoya and Trovato[11] were able to study 100,000 people from 82 countries and concluded that increased consumption of relational goods is strongly linked to happiness. They were also able to reflect on the "fellow feelings" theory[12] which stated that relational goods increase in their ability to generate happiness with:

  1. Increased time and experiences the interactors share
  2. The mutual consent of the interactors

This hypothesis suggests that closer, warmer relationships garner more happiness, than colder relationships. They were able to see that time spent with close friends or fellow religious congregation members more strongly increased a person's happiness than did spending time with colleagues outside of working hours. This strengthens the view that time and depth of experience has an impact of the value of a relational good.[13]

Relational good-Happiness-Income connection[edit]

The question of whether income generate happiness is one that has plagued economists since Richard Easterlin (1974) published research that showed that increased income didn't generate the same proportional increase in wealth. Easterlin theorized that crowding out concept, where pursuit of increased wealth has a negative effect on non-material goods like maintaining relationships. Becchetti, Londono Bedoya and Trovato[11] found in 2009 that at the highest income levels, time for relationship is negatively affected. However, they also found that this effect is reversed in other income groups as raised income levels increases the amount of free time available to dedicate to relationships. Meanwhile, others, like economist Justin Wolfers dispute this and place a much higher importance on money and financial security.[14] Where Easterlin found that happiness didn't necessary correlate to money, Wolfers found in a study of 155 countries that richer countries and people are also generally happier. On this issue, Becchetti, Pelloni, Rossetti (2007) discovered that relative income is also a relevant factor. They found that an increase in income of a member of social group relative to your own income can actually have a negative effect on happiness.[6]

Regardless of the dispute on how important money is, what is less in dispute is that money is not the only factor. Traditionally, happiness, a notoriously difficult concept to measure, is defined economically as utility and is expressed as an extension of choice, i.e. the more choices available, the more happiness you can/do attain. The study of relational goods suggests that happiness can be correlated to the consumption of relational goods.

Relational goods and Television[edit]

The average American watches about 5 hours of TV per day.[13] In their paper Watching alone: Relational goods, television and happiness (2008) Bruni and Stanca were able to show that increased television watching time reduces consumption of relational goods as individuals use television as a substitute for relationships, thus crowding out relationships. This supports previous research that has shown that increased television time is negatively correlated to life satisfaction. One a direct level, Bruni and Stanca were able to show that increased television time takes away from time spent socializing, and also that television reduces communications within gatherings. Secondly television, through advertisement, has the indirect effect of propagating the consensus that material goods improve life satisfaction to a greater degree than do relational goods.[15]

People watch increasing amounts of television. This potentially takes time away from forging relationships

Despite the reality that television correlates to unhappiness, the habit propagates because firstly, television is a cheap medium that requires no effort for a proportionally high degree of entertainment, compared to the higher degree of effort necessitated in socialization. Furthermore, television is highly addictive. The golden age of television has successfully created a pseudo-reality that people can escape to, alienating them from others. On the other hand, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has shown that gossip evolved as an aid to social bonding, and about 2/3 of our conversations can be boiled down to gossip (defined as discussions on social topics). Discussing television shows is arguably a sub-set of this, and can thus help in forming relationships.[16]

Policy Implications of Relational Goods[edit]

Other research, such as the work of Blessi et al., has shown that people prefer cultural social activities of a non-instrumental nature, where relational goods can easily be shared, these types of activities in turn tend it improve one’s well-being. This has several implications to government policy. If relational goods are currently under consumed, then it may need organizational provision from government.[17]

Policies like increasing access to public spaces for collaboration, providing opportunities for volunteering or other sociable activities, all help that may improve wellbeing. This can help improve total happiness which as many positive consequences for overall stability and productivity within a nation.[18] The United Nations General Assembly has also suggested that nations measure their citizens’ Gross National Happiness, and use it to extrapolate policy.[18] Research suggests that increasing relational goods consumption will also increase happiness.

Unfortunately, relational goods and their direct impact is hard to measure, making investments into increasing their consumption hard for governments to make tangible.[19] However, policies that encourage engagement tend to have positive effects can also be (socially) profitable. Consider for example, the provision or promotion of group volunteer opportunities.

Consumption of Relational Goods in varied demographics[edit]

In general, it has been found that relational good are not equally shared among peoples. It has been found that females consume and produce more relational goods in general. This is concurrent with other research that has proven women to be more empathetic, an emotion that lends itself well to socialization and may be considered a relational good.[6]

Furthermore, it has been found that older people as well as less educated people are happier and consume more relational goods.[6] This may be an issue of choice, where they are less capable of doing solo activities, and are generally more dependent on a framework of people. Therefore, relationships are more vital, and thus they reap the rewards of relational good. Others have suggested that older people are happier due to an improved level of emotional intelligence.[20] As for less educated people, findings about relational goods being more widely consumed within that demographic supports statistical evidence that shows that less educated people aren't necessarily less happy.[6][21] This is an economical issue as choice and happiness are often correlated. While education significantly improves choice in material goods, the traditional yardstick for happiness, it does less to improve your options in relational goods, and may in fact reduce your options as more educated people tend to work longer hours,[22] thus leaving less time for relationships.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Uhlaner, Carole Jean (1989-01-01). ""Relational Goods" and Participation: Incorporating Sociability into a Theory of Rational Action". Public Choice. 62 (3): 253–285. doi:10.1007/bf02337745. JSTOR 30025077.
  2. ^ "The Fragility of Goodness". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  3. ^ a b Bruni, Luigino; Stanca, Luca (2008-03-01). "Watching alone: Relational goods, television and happiness". Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 65 (3–4): 506–528. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2005.12.005.
  4. ^ a b "Why Loneliness Is Bad for Your Health". US News & World Report. 2008-11-12. Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  5. ^ a b c Bruni, Luigino. "Relational Goods, A new tool for an old issue". ECOS - Estudos Contemporâneos da Subjetividade. 3 (2): 173–178. ISSN 2237-941X.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Becchetti, Leonardo; Pelloni, Alessandra; Rossetti, Fiammetta (2008-08-01). "Relational Goods, Sociability, and Happiness". Kyklos. 61 (3): 343–363. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6435.2008.00405.x. ISSN 1467-6435.
  7. ^ Oliver, J.R.; Robison, L.J. (2017). "Rationalizing Inconsistent Definitions of Commodification: A Social Exchange Perspective". Modern Economy. 8: 1314–1327.
  8. ^ Robison, L.J.; Flora, J.L. (2003). "The Social Capital Paradigm: Bridging Across Disciplines". American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 85: 1187–1193.
  9. ^ "Commodity Definition | Investopedia". Investopedia. Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  10. ^ Frey, Bruno S.; Stutzer, Alois (2005-01-01). "Beyond outcomes: measuring procedural utility". Oxford Economic Papers. 57 (1): 90–111. doi:10.1093/oep/gpi002. ISSN 0030-7653.
  11. ^ a b Becchetti, Leonardo; Trovato, Giovanni; Londono Bedoya, David Andres (2009). "Income, relational goods and happiness". Applied Economics. 43 (3): 273–290. doi:10.1080/00036840802570439.
  12. ^ Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
  13. ^ a b "Average American watches 5 hours of TV per day". NY Daily News. Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  14. ^ Poppick, Susie. "Does More Money Mean More Happiness?". Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  15. ^ Frey, Bruno S.; Benesch, Christine; Stutzer, Alois (2007-06-01). "Does watching TV make us happy?". Journal of Economic Psychology. 28 (3): 283–313. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2007.02.001.
  16. ^ "Gossip in evolutionary perspective — PSY". Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  17. ^ Blessi, Giorgio Tavano; Grossi, Enzo; Sacco, Pier Luigi; Pieretti, Giovanni; Ferilli, Guido (2014-01-01). "Cultural Participation, Relational Goods and Individual Subjective Well-Being: Some Empirical Evidence". Review of Economics & Finance. 4: 33–46.
  18. ^ a b Sahadi, Jeanne. "Should gross national happiness define a nation's success". CNNMoney. Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  19. ^ "2 - From transactions to encounters: the joint generation of relational goods and conventional values - University Publishing Online". Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  20. ^ Worl, Justin. "Here's Where People Are Happiest Growing Old". Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  21. ^ Michalos, Alex C. (2007-07-07). "Education, Happiness and Wellbeing". Social Indicators Research. 87 (3): 347–366. doi:10.1007/s11205-007-9144-0. ISSN 0303-8300.
  22. ^ "Why is everyone so busy?". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2015-11-03.