‘For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living‘ Mark, 12: 44, KJV.

It’s not about the money, but then again, it really, really is.

At my old church the tradition was to pass the wooden collection plate around. You drop coins or pound notes in (this was the 1980s), or gave your donation in an envelope. Everything you did was public, and humans being people, they made judgements. And when I say judgements, they appeared not to have heard the parable of the widow’s mite, or more likely they had and thought: what a tightwad, go Scribes and Pharisees! Who gave the most cold hard cash, and why were they doing it were the two questions that detained the congregation while we mused on whether you could get drunk on communion wine.

A rough set of rules emerged. Children were less keenly judged, but rich kids got to give more. For adults, giving a lot might indicate holiness, but also guilt, so a lot depended on how robust your prior reputation was. The envelope givers usually came out on top since they look generous, pious and modest. Money causes a lot of problems when it comes to the gift relationship. It is often a serious breach of etiquette to ask for money as a gift. Unless you live among saints, giving money sparks a massive agonising problem of how much you give as your gift is immediately measurable next to others. The gift relationship depends on maintaining a degree of ambiguity and separation from the cash economy.

Gifts are weighted with these various relationships, and so is the rest of the economy. Cash transactions are especially sensitive to the meaning given to money beyond its face value and purchasing power. In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US Dollar came to be acknowledged as what it had been for many years under communism, the one reliable transferable value. During that time public discourse acknowledged the dollar as being ‘worthy’ of this role. What better suited a superpower than to use the cash of the other superpower. That helped Russians cope with the cognitive dissonance of being in a society ruled by chaos and anomie, with a currency that felt like it was actively their enemy (Lemon, 1998).

Focusing on the meaning of money does not let us end up saying that is all there is about it which is where rational choice theory could be refreshed. ‘Rational’ is often drawn narrowly in terms of interests and should include the person’s identification of their own moral positioning in relation to the activity, their motivation. That appears in some accounts of criminal dealings, how and who they deal with, while others emphasis pure instrumental calculation. Even that is itself referring to a set of shared cultural expectations, a market habitus: a deeply embedded sense of what money means, and how it will behave in a given set of circumstances.

Lemon, Alaina. 1998. ‘“Your Eyes Are Green like Dollars”: Counterfeit Cash, National Substance, and Currency Apartheid in 1990s Russia’. Cultural Anthropology 13(1):22–55. doi: 10.1525/can.1998.13.1.22.