Some professional arenas are driven by the favor trading of social capital.
I’ve got a gut sense that this is true on the two poles of commodity products and services. The middle ground has a lot more nuance and is thus less susceptible to favor trading, as it’s clear what drives price and value of service. With complete commodities (identical replacement value) and the non-fungible (not interchangeable or replaceable) there are not simple price or value anchors. This makes it more likely your purchase or choice will be driven by the perception of social capital. We will do favors for those with higher status or by the recommendation of those we trust.
Interchangeable commodity products trade on price, which means favors from across the ecosystem act as the grease in otherwise equivalent deals. Think suppliers of everything from lumber to textiles. If the price is the same maybe you buy from someone you like who took you out to dinner. Or you buy because that person has a good reputation in the community so you use the person your neighbor recommended. This seems intuitively true of commodity services like accounting, plumbing or roofing. Within certain bounds of quality, a 2×4 or a roofing bid should fall into the same bucket so it’s ok to pick whoever feels best. That’s why it’s susceptible to favors and social capital exchange.
On the other end, extremely differentiated non commodity products are equally prone to being tipped by favors. Think professional services like public relations that are very hard to compare. A publicist with favors to trade gets their clients the best coverage. A reporter who has a lot of sources can trade them in to get a quote for a story. Venture capital is one of the least commodified types of capital, a founder will pick one firm over another not just based on the price of a term sheet but whether others recommend them. Reputation matters a lot. Social capital is what gets a deal done, a nudge to consider someone will push you into a cap table.
Not convinced? Think about a product that exists in the middle like clothing from a brand you know but isn’t connected to you in any other way. This is the least susceptible to favor trading or the pressures of social capital.
We can intuit a dress made from quality fabrics and a recognizable brand has a set cost because the brand of the designer is not interchangeable (maybe with others in their category but Prada isn’t the same as Old Navy) and the cost of the fabric is transparent. A silk blouse can’t ever get too cheap on a one off basis. Both the brand and the fabrics set the bounds of the prices.
I didn’t really have a point in writing this other than being curious about what impacts how we pick what to purchase and what sets the bounds of our pricing. We are in a narrative cycle around inflation and work shortages which is having an impact on how willingness to to spend or hire.
So be careful if something seems too expensive but comes highly recommended. Be equally wary if something is particularly cheap even if a friend likes it. Look for the sweet spot of pricing and reputation that is based on market price beyond your in-group.