American Sociological Association

Exploiting Ambiguity: A Moral Polysemy Approach to Variation in Economic Practices

Sociologists have shown that the relationships people establish between moral orientations and market practices vary considerably across historical, geographic, and institutional contexts. Less attention has been paid to situational variation in how the same actors moralize different economic goals, especially in their workplace. This article offers an account of situational variation by theorizing the implications of the ambiguity of moral values for economic activity. I draw on the case of a post-acute care unit, where reimbursement policies create the contradictory demands of discharging elderly patients quickly while ensuring their safety to avoid re-hospitalization. Using ethnography and interviews, I show that the same actors switched between different normative evaluations of “independent aging” to legitimize divergent organizational goals. A shared understanding of autonomy as synonymous with “home” moralized the organizational mission of discharging patients off the unit. Expectations that elderly people attain independence by acknowledging need for assistance moralized the extension of services. Conversely, interpreting independence as a constellation of duties to be self-reliant moralized practices that lead to fast discharge. Based on these findings, I develop a framework of moral polysemy to analyze ambiguity as a resource for cooperation in organizations and a tool to expand understanding of moral economies.


Guillermina Altomonte





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