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social solidarity and the gift

This book brings together two traditions of thinking about social ties: socio-
logical theory on solidarity and anthropological theory on gift exchange. The
purpose of the book is to explore how both theoretical traditions may com-
plete and enrich each other, and how they may illuminate transformations
in solidarity. The main argument, supported by empirical illustrations, is
that a theory of solidarity should incorporate some of the core insights from
anthropological gift theory. The book presents a theoretical model covering
both positive and negative “ selective and excluding “ aspects and conse-
quences of solidarity. It is concluded that over the past century solidarity
has undergone a fundamental transformation, from Durkheim™s “organic”
solidarity to a type of solidarity that can be called “segmented”: separate,
autonomous social segments connecting with other segments, no longer out
of necessity and mutual dependency but on the basis of individual choice.
Solidarity has, thereby, become more noncommittal.

Aafke E. Komter is Professor of Social Science occupying the endowed chair of
Comparative Studies of Social Solidarity of Utrecht University, and Head of
the Department of Social Science at University College, Utrecht. Her articles
on informal giving, reciprocity and solidarity, power, morality, and gender
issues have appeared in international journals such as Sociology, the Journal
of Marriage and the Family, and the Journal of Family Issues. She is editor of
The Gift: An Interdisciplinary Perspective.
Social Solidarity and the Gift

Utrecht University
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Cambridge University Press
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Preface page ix

Introduction 1


1 The Social Meaning of Things 15
Things and Social Relationships 17
Four Different Types of Social Relationship 21
The Four Basic Meanings of Gifts 26
Con¬‚icting Social Lives of Things 30
Things: Markers as Well as Marks of Relationship 31

2 Patterns of Giving and Receiving 34
The Gift: Empirical Research 35
Psychological Functions of Giving 43
Motives to Give 45
Positive Feeling 46
Insecurity 47
Power and Prestige 47
Reciprocity, Equality 48
Self-Interest 48
Hostility, Hate, Contempt 49
Fiske™s Four Models and the Motives to Give 50


Offensive and Embarrassing Gifts 52
The Debt Balance: Source of Relational Risks 53

3 The Anatomy of Gratitude 56
The Spirit of the Gift 58
The Recipient of the Gift 64
Gratitude, Reciprocity, and Culture 67
Gratitude: The Moral Memory of Mankind 67
Gratitude, Power, Dependence 69
Gratitude Dissected 71

4 Women, Gifts, and Power 76
Empirical Research on Women™s Gift Giving 81
Presents and Money Gifts 82
Hospitality 83
Care and Help 83
Blood and Organs 84
Four Models to Interpret Women™s Gift Giving 86
Asymmetrical Reciprocity in Favor of Men 86
Equivalent Reciprocity 88
Asymmetrical Reciprocity in Favor of Women 90
Alternating Asymmetry 91
The Paradox of Female Gift Giving 95


5 Social Theory and Social Ties 101
Classical Theory: Unity of Generosity and Self-Interest 103
Affective and Instrumental Bases of Solidarity 103
Reciprocity and Morality as Bases of Social Ties 108
Modern Theory: Splitting Up Affection and Utility 112
Solidarity and Rational Choice Theory 112
Norms, Values, and Emotions as Bases of Solidarity 115
Combining Anthropological and Sociological Theory 116
Reciprocal Obligation 116
Motives 118
Ritual 120


6 Solidarity, Gifts, and Exclusion 123
Positive Manifestations of Solidarity 125
Giving Money 125
Giving Time 126
Giving Care 129
Negative Aspects and Consequences of Solidarity 133
The Two-Edged Sword of Solidarity 136
The Matthew Effect of Gift Giving 138
Philanthropic Particularism 139
Inherent Failures of Solidarity 142

7 Family Solidarity 144
The Relationship between Generations 147
Family Solidarity: Empirical Research 150
Dimensions of Family Solidarity 150
The Nature of Family Ties 152
Intergenerational Solidarity: Values and Beliefs 155
Caring for Family 157
The Troubled Side of Family Solidarity 159
Macro- and Microsolidarity 162
Family Solidarity: Solid but Ambivalent 165


8 Changing Solidarity 169
Changing Society, Changing Individuals 171
Individualization and Social Ties 171
The Assertive Self 173
Diversi¬cation and Uncertainty amid
Strangers 175
Globalization and the New Society 177
Changes in Contemporary Solidarity 179
Traditional Solidarity 180
Local and Global Solidarity 181
Civil Solidarity 184
Transformed Solidarity 187


9 Solidarity and the Gift 189
The Gift: Meanings and Motives 190
Solidarity and Selectivity 192
Contemporary Solidarity 194
Solidarity and the Gift 195
Recognition of the Other 195
Social Distance 197
Motives for Solidarity 199
Reciprocity: Gift and Sacri¬ce 201
Toward a Theoretical Model of Solidarity 205
From Organic to Segmented Solidarity 208

References 213
Index 225


This book is the result of more than ten years of research and teaching
about the themes of the gift and solidarity. It all started in 1992 when, in
conversations with anthropologist Willy Jansen, I was put on the track
of the gift literature. This was followed by an invitation from the Dutch
newspaper Trouw on the occasion of its ¬ftieth anniversary to conduct
a study into gift giving in the Netherlands, together with the sociologist
Kees Schuyt. The theme proved not only interesting because of its in-
terdisciplinarity and theoretical richness but also surprisingly mundane
and amusing. Suddenly it was less sinking to be asked about “your work”:
everybody gives gifts to others, and everybody has something to tell about
totally wrong gifts received or about dubious motives to give a gift to an-
other person. During the second half of the 1990s a remarkable devel-
opment occurred in the political tide in Holland: after having led a hidden
existence during several decades, the themes of solidarity and social cohe-
sion suddenly came to be exposed in full daylight. A broadly felt concern
about the current state of social cohesion and solidarity in our society
gave rise to extensive political and public debate. Policy documents were
written and plans were made to counter the perceived threat of a dissolv-
ing community and diminished citizenship. Both the Dutch government
and the Dutch Council of Scienti¬c Research reserved money for research
in the ¬eld of social cohesion and solidarity.


From the beginning the connection between my previous research
theme of the gift and that of cohesion and solidarity had been clear to me.
For had the classical anthropologists not convincingly argued that gifts
con¬rm social ties and that the theory of the gift is a theory on hu-
man solidarity? Extension of my former theme to that of cohesion and
solidarity was therefore a logical step. In my teaching I started to incorpo-
rate the classical and modern theories on social solidarity, and as of 2001
I became a co-researcher in a large-scale study about family solidarity,
the Netherlands Kinship Panel Study, ¬nanced by the Dutch Council of
Scienti¬c Research. One question, however, had become more and more
pressing over the years: why are there so few theoretical connections and
crosswise references between the gift theory and theories on solidarity,
when it is clear as sunlight that both concern the coming into being and
the maintenance of social community? This question is central to this
During a couple of delightful holidays in a Breton seaside hamlet the job
has been accomplished. This would not have been possible without the
help of a number of colleagues and other people who offered their views
and suggestions for improvement. I want to thank Jack Burgers, Louk
Hagendoorn, Mirjam van Leer, Maarten Prak, and Wilma Vollebergh
for their critical reading of former versions of Chapters 8 and 9. I am
also grateful to Godfried Engbersen for his help in ¬nding a suitable
terminology to describe the transformation of solidarity since the late
nineteenth century. The anonymous readers for Cambridge University
Press have been an enormous help, and I appreciate their careful reading
and invaluable suggestions. Finally, I am very grateful to Paul Verhey
for his interest, patience, and continuous friendship, both in the Breton
hamlet and elsewhere.

Several of the chapters of this book have been published previously. They
have been brought together here with the explicit purpose of creating one


coherent whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Here follows the
acknowledgment of the origins of the various chapters. A former version
of Chapter 1 has been published as “Heirlooms, Nikes and bribes: To-
wards a sociology of things,” Sociology 35 (2001): 59“75. A former, Dutch
version of Chapter 2 has been published as “De psychologie van de gift.
Over geven, vergeven en vergif” [The psychology of the gift: About giving,
forgiving and poison], Psychologie & Maatschappij 65 (1993): 306“319. A
slightly different version of Chapter 3 has been published as “Gratitude
and gift exchange,” in R. Emmons and M. McCullough (eds.), The Psy-
chology of Gratitude (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 195“
212. A former version of Chapter 4 has been published as “Women, gifts
and power,” in A. Komter (ed.), The Gift: An Interdisciplinary Perspective
(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996), pp. 119“132. A former,
Dutch version of Chapter 5 has been published as chapter 2 in A. Komter,
J. Burgers, and G. Engbersen, Het cement van de samenleving. Een verken-
nende studie naar solidariteit en cohesie [The cement of society: An ex-
ploratory study of solidarity and cohesion] (Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press, 2000), pp. 26“42. Parts of Chapter 6 have been pub-
lished as “The disguised rationality of solidarity,” Journal of Mathemat-
ical Sociology 25 (2001): 385“401; and as “Reciprocity as a principle of
exclusion: Gift giving in the Netherlands,” Sociology 30 (1996): 299“316.
Parts of Chapter 7 have been published in A. Komter and W. Vollebergh,
“Solidarity in Dutch families: Family ties under strain?” Journal of Family
Issues 23 (2) (2002): 171“189. Chapters 8 and 9 have served as the basis
of my inaugural speech “Solidarity and sacri¬ce,” Utrecht University,
January 2003.


More profound insights into the nature of solidarity and trust
can be expected from applying the theory of the gift to ourselves.
(Mary Douglas 1990: xv)

Is there a similarity between giving a birthday present and doing volunteer
work? Between donating blood and being a union member? In short: what
do gifts and social solidarity have in common? Giving to a beggar or to
charity is an act of solidarity. When we are giving care or help to our
elderly parents, we are demonstrating social solidarity; at the same time
we are giving a (nonmaterial) gift to another person. The term solidarity,
apart from its ideological use, for instance in the socialist and communist
jargon, and apart from its normative commonsense use by humanitarian
organizations, political parties, or the church, has traditionally been used
in a descriptive and analytic way, with the sociological approach of Emile
Durkheim providing the ¬rst scienti¬c attempt at theory development.
Solidarity derives from the Latin solidare “ to make ¬rm, to combine
parts to form a strong whole. In contrast to the term solidarity, the word
gift has an agonistic origin: the German Gift came from the Greek dosis
and Latin dos, which had replaced the former venenum because of the need
for a euphemism. Whereas solidarity is an abstract concept that remains
abstract even in its most common uses (one dictionary explanation of
solidarity is, for instance, a feeling of togetherness and willingness to take


the consequences of that), gift giving is often associated with concrete
and material objects exchanged on certain occasions between people
having a certain type of relationship to each other. This difference in
abstraction level may be one explanation of the fact that the scienti¬c
histories of the concepts of solidarity and the gift have remained separate
to a large extent. Also the concept of solidarity may take very concrete
shape, as the preceding example demonstrates. Inversely, the concept of
the gift does not exclusively indicate certain material acts but has a wealth
of cultural, social, and psychological meanings as well, all referring to
the abstract, symbolic functions of gift giving. Despite their differing
etymological and scienti¬c histories, both concepts are clearly related in
their most fundamental and characteristic manifestations and functions.
Giving gifts is an act that creates and maintains social ties by making
people feel mutually obliged to give in return. Similarly, social solidarity
is regarded as the glue that keeps people together, whether by mutually
identifying and sharing certain norms and values, or by contributing to
some common good, or both.
As Mary Douglas argues in her foreword to the translation of Mauss™s
Essai sur le don (1990 [1923]), the theory of the gift is a theory of human
solidarity. Both theories “ or, better, theoretical traditions “ have as their
main subject the way social ties come into existence and are maintained,
in brief, “the problem of social order,” as Talcott Parsons called it. Given
their common subject matter it is surprising that both sets of theories do
not seem to have in¬‚uenced each other in any signi¬cant way. On the one
hand, there is the anthropological and sociological tradition of thinking
about the gift and reciprocity, with authors such as Malinowski, Simmel,
Mauss, L´ vi-Strauss, Gouldner, and Sahlins. On the other hand stands
the sociological tradition of theories on solidarity and social order, in
particular the work of Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons. Where there is
some in¬‚uence, it tends to take the form of a critical stance, for example,
Gouldner™s criticism of the functionalist approach within social theory,
or Mauss™s radicalization of Durkheim™s views on the basis of social order.


Not immediately clear are how the theory of the gift and that of solidarity
relate to each other, what the similarities and the differences are, and
in which respects they may complete or enrich each other. Also, with
regard to empirical research both traditions are rather unconnected. The
bulk of empirical studies on gift giving are from non-Western societies,
although in recent years some “westernization” of the research has taken
place. Empirical research into solidarity has been scarce; its main focus
is on attitudes toward certain forms of solidarity (e.g., state support
of the socially weak, distribution of health care in view of risky life-
styles). Besides some national surveys about volunteer work and money
donations, and the research done within the Dutch tradition of theoretical
sociology (mainly inspired by rational choice theory), there have been
very few attempts to research concrete instances of solidary behavior.
During the past decade several scholarly works on the respective
themes of the gift and of solidarity have appeared. In L™esprit du don
(1992), for instance, Jacques Godbout analyzes the continuity between
the “archaic” and the modern gift. Between the various types of gift “
“normal” gifts, Christmas gifts, blood or organ donation, giving help to
unknown people “ there are interesting similarities connecting them to
the gifts given in archaic society. Outside the sphere of the market, our
society is still ¬rmly rooted in a system of gift exchange. It is impossible to
think of a society without gifts being circulated: gifts still create and main-
tain social bonds, thereby continually contributing to the revitalization
of society. Some years later Maurice Godelier published The Enigma of the
Gift (1999 [1996]) in which he reopens the anthropological debate on the
meanings and functions of gift giving for the constitution of social ties and
community. Returning to the classical works by Marcel Mauss and others,
he tries to disentangle the enigmas that kept surrounding the gift in the
eyes of many anthropologists. Drawing on the work of the late Annette
Weiner, he shows that a certain category of objects can be given and kept
simultaneously. Particularly objects deriving their meaning from birth,
death, ancestors, or sacred powers, and which are therefore associated


with human as well as cultural reproduction, are given as well as kept at
the same time: their ownership is inalienable in the end, while the right
of usage may be passed on to others. Another interesting publication is
The Sociology of Giving (1999) by the German sociologist-anthropologist
Helmuth Berking. Like Godbout he compares present-day giving with
gift exchange in “traditional” societies and also arrives at the conclusion
that giving and taking are elementary activities upon which the building
of community still rests. In addition to examining the motives, occasions,
and emotional norms of gift giving, he explores the historical, symbolic,
and linguistic roots of the moral vocabulary related to gift giving. The
concepts of hospitality, sacri¬ce, and gratitude are important elements
in this vocabulary.
A recent publication is the interdisciplinary collection of essays edited
by Mark Osteen, The Question of the Gift (2002). The volume com-
prises contributions from anthropology, literary criticism, economics,
philosophy, and classics and poses questions such as: what is the role of
noncommercial gift exchange in creating communities, how do people
deal with objects outside the sphere of consumption, what is the relation-
ship between gifts and commodities, to what extent are artworks gifts,
is a really free gift possible or desirable? Important elements in the book
are the concepts of power and reciprocity, and ample attention is given
to the ethical foundations of kinship, generosity, and gratitude. Osteen
feels that a too strong emphasis on (calculating) reciprocity and the im-
plicitly economic assumptions of classical gift theory underestimate the
spontaneous and sometimes altruistic character of the gift. He thus takes
a stance that is contrary to Mauss™s classical view that in the end every gift
is based on the principle of do ut des (I give so that you give in return).
Remarkably the book™s index does not contain any reference to solidarity;
although Durkheim does ¬gure in the book a number of times, his theory
on social solidarity is not mentioned.
Recent publications on solidarity are of a somewhat different nature:
more conceptual and theoretical, and frequently inspired by political,


social, and moral philosophy. Their point of departure is often normative:
what future is left for solidarity, how can we conceptualize it in such a way
that it ¬ts our modernized society? A German collection of essays edited
by Kurt Bayertz (1998), for instance, examines the moral and historical
context of solidarity, in addition to offering perspectives from psychology
and biology. Solidarity is also analyzed as a social norm and a civil right.
Chapters on international solidarity and solidarity in the (post)modern
society are included in the volume as well. In another German study that
is mainly conceptual as well, Rainer Zoll (2000) discusses the juridical
and French origins of the concept. He traces the conceptual history of
solidarity and attempts to draw up the balance of contemporary social
solidarity, in particular worker solidarity, and some new forms of soli-
darity in our society. He agrees with Habermas™s normative conception
of solidarity as tied to justice. In Zoll™s view a critical test for a new con-
ception of solidarity would be the way it would deal with our relationship
to strangers.
In the Netherlands some studies have appeared that exhibit the same
theoretical and conceptual concern as the German publications. The vol-
ume edited by de Wit and Manschot (1999), for instance, offers a critical
reconstruction of the traditional ways of conceptualizing solidarity. The
authors re¬‚ect upon how the ethical components of solidarity can still
be of value to our modern democratic societies. They present theoretical
arguments that connect solidarity to cosmopolitism, tolerance, and the
acceptance of cultural minorities. From the perspective of the law Dorien
Pessers (1999) offers an interesting analysis of the concept of reciprocity,
which she considers an essential aspect of solidarity. In her interdisci-
plinary study she examines what this concept might mean for the various
domains of law.
A British study by Turner and Rojek (2001), ¬nally, attempts to clar-
ify how (post)modern society deals with the principles of scarcity, on
the one hand, and solidarity, on the other. This study not only offers
an overview of existing social scienti¬c theories on solidarity but also


presents a normative view on the way solidarity might be given shape in
a modern society.
In the present book I attempt to bring together two rather unrelated
traditions of social scienti¬c thinking about social ties: sociological the-
ory on solidarity and anthropological theory on the cultural and social
meanings of gift exchange. The purpose is to explore how both theoretical
traditions may complete and enrich each other, and how these combined
insights may illuminate manifestations of contemporary solidarity. The
book™s main argument is that a theory of solidarity could gain signi¬-
cantly from incorporating some of the core insights from the theoretical
and empirical work on the gift. This theoretical argument is supported by
empirical illustrations drawn from research on gift giving and on various
forms of solidarity.

The book consists of three parts. The focus of Part I is on the socio-
cultural, social-psychological, and gendered meanings of gift exchange.
Chapter 1 starts at the most concrete level by investigating the trajectories
of things that pass between people and the different types of meaning
things become invested with as a consequence of their circulation be-
tween people. In turn, these meanings can explain how things come to
play a role in gift exchange and, by that means, in creating social ties.
We are strongly inclined to regard things as mute and inert. In many
anthropological and sociological writings “mute” commodities are op-
posed to gifts, which are supposed to have a “spirit” and to have rich
symbolic and social meanings. However, things also have “social lives”
that bestow them with symbolic value. While things derive their symbolic
meaning from exchange, the continuation of exchange is guaranteed by
means of the symbolic meanings of things. This chapter investigates the
social meanings of things by distinguishing four fundamental models
of people™s relationships to each other and to things; these models have


affection, power, equality, and utility as their respective bases. Empirical
research data on gift giving are used to illustrate the models.
The different patterns of giving and receiving and the meanings of
things-as-gifts are further explored in Chapters 2, 3, and 4. Chapter 2
presents some empirical data on social and psychological patterns of giv-
ing and receiving. Dutch research shows a strong relationship between
giving and receiving: doing well has its reward. Apparently the principle
of reciprocity also applies to Western society. In addition to its social and
cultural meanings the theme of the gift has great social-psychological
signi¬cance. The main psychological functions of gift giving are, ¬rst,
the creation of a moral bond between giver and recipient and, second,
the maintenance (or disturbance) of this bond. Gifts as “tie signs” dis-
close the nature of the tie between giver and recipient. They reveal how we
perceive the recipient while at the same time showing something about
our own identity. In gift giving a range of psychological motives may be
involved, varying from the desire to express love, gratitude, and friend-
ship, to motives related to insecurity and anxiety, and to the conscious
or unconscious need to offend, insult, or exploit another person. Gifts
may be deceptive insofar as their manifest and latent intentions do not
coincide. Empirical illustrations of offensive and embarrassing gifts are
also presented. Participants in reciprocal gift exchange are involved in a
psychological balance of debt, which should never be in complete equilib-
rium. Someone has to remain in debt toward the other, but both parties
may have different ideas on the magnitude of the debt and on how long
it can last. The debt balance is therefore a source of relational risks.
Gratitude is the subject of Chapter 3. According to anthropologists
one of the main characteristics of the gift is that it should “move”: gifts
should be given and reciprocated. If a gift is kept too long, the recipient
will develop a bad reputation. Gifts are not inactive but possess something
of the original giver. This “spirit of the gift” wants to return to its place
of origin; only then is the gift cycle completed and can a new cycle be


set in motion. Gifts can only bear fruit if people show their gratitude
in a proper way through passing the gift along. Gratitude may also be
considered from a psychological point of view “ as a moral virtue, a
personality characteristic, or asset. It is something one has to learn, and
some people are better equipped to learn it than others. The quality of
the earliest contact with the primary caring ¬gure seems to be at the
basis of the capacity to feel and to express gratitude. A sociological view
stresses gratitude as part of the chain of reciprocity, or “the moral memory
of mankind,” as Simmel called it. As such, gratitude ful¬lls important
cohesive functions for society. A culture or society deprived of all acts
of gratitude will inevitably break down. Issues of power and dependence
may complicate gratitude. Only in more or less balanced relationships
can gratitude unfold the best of its powers.
In Chapter 4 the gendered meanings of gift giving are discussed. Al-
though Malinowski recognizes that women have a prominent role in
certain ceremonial actions, he does not mention any active female part
in gift exchange; all his examples are from men. L´ vi-Strauss discusses the
practice occurring in many non-Western societies of exchanging women
as “the supreme gift.” The exchange of women as marriage partners is
supposed to be at the base of systems of kinship relations and thereby
forms the structural fundament of culture and society as such. More
recent work of Strathern and Weiner suggests that women™s role in gift
giving is not restricted to being merely the object of exchange but that
they have an important and autonomous part in gift exchange. Empiri-
cal studies in Western society demonstrate that women, far from being
passive and insigni¬cant, play a prominent role in gift exchange: they not
only give more gifts than men “ material as well as nonmaterial ones “
but they are also the greatest recipients. Women™s gift giving seems to be
caught in a paradox. On the one hand, gift exchange is a powerful means
of creating social relationships and af¬rming ties; on the other, by giving
too much, women incur the risk of losing their own identities, given their
unequal societal and economic power compared with that of men.


In Part II the theories on gift giving and solidarity are brought to-
gether and their strengths and weaknesses compared. Chapter 5 examines
how the theory of the gift can be connected to that of human solidarity.
Classical sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons highlight
the affective, normative, and instrumental foundations of social ties and
solidarity: people come to share norms regulating their interactions and
transactions, but they also develop functional relations based on more
instrumental and self-interested concerns. In the work of classical an-
thropologists like Malinowski and Mauss, in addition to these motives,
still others come to the fore, for instance, giving based on feelings of mu-
tual obligation. L´ vi-Strauss argues that power and prestige may also be a
driving force behind gift giving. In classical sociological and anthropolog-
ical theories on social ties, generosity and self-interest are not necessarily
opposites. In more modern theories, such as Hechter™s, Mayhew™s, or
Etzioni™s, this insight seems to have been lost. By combining sociological
and anthropological theory, four main motives behind both exchange
processes and solidarity come to the fore: affection, power, reciprocity,
and self-interest or utility. These motives correspond to the models pre-
sented in Chapter 1. Yet another element connects the theories of solidar-
ity and the gift, although it has received less attention in sociology than
in anthropology: the ritual aspects inherent in the interaction processes
that generate solidarity and reciprocal obligation.
The fact that solidarity may also have more negative and excluding
aspects is addressed in Chapter 6. This chapter presents some empirical
data derived from Dutch research on giving money to charity, giving
time to volunteer work, and giving informal care to other people. In the
Netherlands during the past decade the amount of money given each
year to charity continues to rise. Since 1980 the portion of the Dutch
population active in some form of volunteer work amounts to about one-
third. Giving care offers the same pattern: since the 1970s those giving
informal care to other people total about one-third. However, some in-
herent failures are connected to these positive manifestations of solidarity.


For instance, research on gift giving shows that those who give many gifts
(material as well as nonmaterial) also receive many gifts in return, but
those who do not give much themselves “ often because their social and
material conditions do not allow them to do so “ are also the poorest re-
ceivers. Informal giving mainly bene¬ts those who already receive much;
those who need it most receive the least. Solidarity may thus act as “a
principle of exclusion.” Solidarity appears to be selective in yet another
way: those who offer care prefer their own family members and nearest
relations over other persons in need of care. Those who do not have many
family relations or near relatives are therefore at a disadvantage.
Traditionally the family has been considered one of the most impor-
tant cornerstones of a harmonious and solidary society. Therefore family
solidarity is the focus of Chapter 7. The combined demographic devel-
opments of the growing number of old and very old people and the
decreasing number of young people have caused an increasing concern
about family solidarity. Changed relationships between genders have con-
tributed to this concern as well. Several theoretical dimensions of family
solidarity are distinguished, and some empirical data on attitudes, feel-
ings, and motives related to family solidarity are presented, as well as
data on the amount of care provided to elderly family members. Family
solidarity does not exist in a social void. The macrolevel of welfare state
provisions is in¬‚uencing the microlevel of informal care within the family,
and vice versa, as some empirical ¬ndings have indicated. While intergen-
erational care is still provided on a large scale, particularly by women, the
motives underlying it seem to be based on a kind of “prescribed altruism.”
Family solidarity is not necessarily or exclusively something positive, as is
shown is Chapter 6. Both the provider and the recipient may experience
it as a burden. Moreover, family solidarity cannot be isolated from the
ambivalent nature of family ties in general.
Part III addresses some changes in contemporary solidarity and at-
tempts to draw up the balance from the foregoing chapters. In Chapter 8
some broad societal changes supposedly having an impact on solidarity


are brie¬‚y sketched: individualization, diversi¬cation, and globalization.
Cultural critics often cherish a rather gloomy picture of the consequences
of these developments for the mutual concern and social commitment
of contemporary citizens. On the one hand, due to the individualization
process social ties would have become more transitory and citizens would
feel less committed to politics and societal concerns. A new personality
type more self-reliant than ever before would have come into existence.
On the other hand, the increased cultural and religious pluriformity
and the growing multiculturalism in Western societies are assumed to
have created much insecurity. Globalization is believed to create new
opportunities while at the same time generating new social inequality.
To counterbalance the views of these cultural critics, Chapter 8 presents
also a more factual, empirically based overview of contemporary solidar-
ity. Some traditional forms of solidarity have declined, others have been
maintained, and also new manifestations of global and local solidarity
have made their appearance. Civil solidarity as expressed in public be-
havior toward fellow citizens and the public space itself seems to have
Chapter 9, ¬nally, combines the insights derived from the previous
chapters in a theoretical model with various dimensions of solidarity. One
of these is the continuum of gift and sacri¬ce. The concept of sacri¬ce is
hardly encountered in sociological theories on solidarity. Nevertheless,
sacri¬ce is a characteristic aspect of some forms of solidarity. In anthro-
pological theories gift and sacri¬ce are conceived as two manifestations of
one underlying dimension. In the ¬rst case what is given is kept intact; in
the second it is “sacri¬ced” (destroyed, burned, slaughtered, killed, and
the like). In the theoretical model that is presented, the gift manifesta-
tion of the supposed solidarity dimension relies on mutual recognition,
dependency, and reciprocity, whereas the sacri¬ce manifestation more
often involves denial of personal autonomy and “otherness.” Solidarity
in small-scale social units is more likely to exhibit characteristics of the
gift, whereas large-scale group solidarity is modeled more on sacri¬ce.


With the help of this model it becomes possible to understand under
which conditions solidarity will have positive or negative consequences
for those involved. Finally, an attempt is made to characterize the essence
of the transformation that solidarity has undergone in the course of the
past century: from Durkheim™s “organic” solidarity toward a solidarity
that could be called “segmented,” because the former mutual dependency
of individuals and groups for the ful¬llment of their needs is increasingly
being replaced by autonomously operating segments that are showing
solidarity on a voluntary and self-chosen basis.
Two ¬nal remarks are in order here, the ¬rst one about my use of
concepts. It is obvious that the concept of solidarity harbors a multitude
of dimensions and covers a range of phenomena of a very different nature:
from giving to a beggar to organized worker solidarity, from offering
help to your neighbor to walking in a silent march, from doing volunteer
work to global networking. I deliberately refrain from attempts to give a
full-blown de¬nition of the concept that includes some aspects and leaves
others out “ which is what de¬nitions amount to “ because it renders every
attempt contestable by necessity. I therefore decided to include those
dimensions and manifestations of solidarity that are habitually accepted
as such. The gift seems to be a less contested concept, although one
might give some thought to what counts as a gift and why. This is done in
Chapter 2. In the remainder of this book “gifts” refer to material as well
as a nonmaterial gifts, like help or care.
Finally, my approach is analytical rather than normative. The concep-
tual framework developed in Chapter 9 is meant as a tool to understand
why solidarity takes different forms and what these are, and why it may
have different consequences for the well-being of the individuals and
groups involved. It is not meant as a signpost for future solidarity. That
is the domain of social and moral philosophy, which is outside the scope
of the present work.


The Gift
Meanings and Motives

The Social Meaning of Things

In any case all these things are always, and in every tribe, spiritual
in origin and of a spiritual nature. . . . Each of these precious
things . . . possesses . . . its individuality, its name, its qualities, its
(Marcel Mauss 1990 [1923]: 44)

Things are things, and people are people. Things are mute and inert;
people speak and act with each other and are involved in the construc-
tion of shared meanings. This way of conceiving the distinction between
people and things, common in Western society, is often contrasted with
the views of non-Western societies, where things are supposed to possess
a life of their own (Appadurai 1986). In some tribal societies described
by Marcel Mauss in his classical Essai sur le don (1990 [1923]), things were
considered as animated, or having a spirit (hau), communicating mes-
sages from the person originally in possession of the thing to its recipient.
The spirit of the thing would not come to rest until it was returned to the
place where its giver was born.
The opposition between Western and non-Western conceptions of
things is clearly too simplistic. Many people will recognize that things
may have a personal, often highly idiosyncratic meaning to them. For
example, it is impossible for some people to throw anything away: for
them the things with which they have surrounded themselves represent

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

inalienable and highly cherished memories. We may also think of lovers
who endow each other with little shells or stones found on the beach,
symbolizing their affection. Small children suck at pieces of cloth, taking
them to their bed and cherishing them as if they were animated. They
get attached to their ¬rst teddy bears, sometimes developing such strong
bonds that they still take them to their bed as grown-ups. Adults may
worship some objects, such as the grail or religious items like icons, but
destroy others “ burning letters, smashing pottery, or throwing jewelry
away. Both activities show that strong emotions may be connected to
Clearly, things may embody different kinds of personal meaning, vary-
ing between attachment and aggression. In this chapter, I focus on things
as depositories of social and cultural meaning. Things are a way to de¬ne
who we are to ourselves and to others (Carrier 1995). Things convey sym-
bolic messages, referring to the nature and (actual or desired) status of
the relationship between human beings. Things are “tie signs,” or signs
of social bonds (Goffman 1971).
Social historians as well as social and economic anthropologists have
pointed to the ways in which people inscribe meaning in the forms, uses,
and trajectories of things. As Arjun Appadurai argues in The Social Life
of Things (1986), it is not merely things but things-in-motion that illumi-
nate their human and social context. Only the analysis of the trajectories
of things enables us to interpret “the human transactions and calcula-
tions that enliven things” (1986: 5). In this view Appadurai is inspired by
Georg Simmel™s conception of (economic) value, as stated in his Philos-
ophy of Money (1907). Value is never an inherent property of objects but
is created in the process of exchange. An object gets value because one
party™s desire for it is ful¬lled by the sacri¬ce of another object, which
is desired by the other party. Economic life might, then, be considered
as an “exchange of sacri¬ces.” Rather than being a kind of by-product
of the mutual valuation of objects, exchange engenders the parameters
of utility and scarcity. The relationships and transactions in which they

The Social Meaning of Things

play a role create the value and identity of objects. This process not only
generates economic value but also extends to symbolic value, embodied
in the social and psychological meanings of objects.
The main question of this chapter is how things, in particular gifts,
come to embody meaning within the context of human relationships. A
speci¬c focus on the meaning of things can clarify the differentiation
in the nature of human relationships. This is important in view of the
broader purpose of this book, which is to show that both motives to give
and motives of solidary behavior depend on the nature of human relation-
ships. Things-as-gifts, social relationships, community, and solidarity are
inextricably tied to one another. First, I discuss different explanations of
how things become invested with meaning, emerging from the sociolog-
ical and anthropological literature. In those explanations, surprisingly,
an account of the way meaning derives from the nature of social relations
seems to be lacking. I present a model of the basic forms of human re-
lations, derived from Alan Page Fiske™s Structures of Social Life (1991). As
we will see, his model may also be helpful to categorize the meanings of
things. This model is then applied to some empirical data from a study
on gift giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt 1993). Finally, I
present a brief sketch of the complications that may occur when transac-
tors do not share the same frame of mind with respect to each other and
to the things that are transacted. When the meanings that things have
for different people are not in harmony, things may have different, even
con¬‚icting, social lives.

Things and Social Relationships

There are many different kinds of things. In addition to goods that are
transacted on the market, like utensils and food products, there are art
objects, buildings, means of transport, but also plants, trees, and stones.
Some of these things are suitable to give to other people as presents. A
common way of thinking in the scienti¬c literature of the 1970s and 1980s

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

was to oppose commodities and gifts. Gifts were supposed to be per-
sonal and inalienable and to create social ties between humans, whereas
commodities were thought to be alienable and to be exchanged between
people who do not relate to each other outside the context of the ex-
change (Gregory 1982: Hyde 1983 [1979]). According to the logic that op-
poses gifts to commodities, people™s relationships to things and to other
people seem to fall in two broad categories that are regarded as mutu-
ally exclusive: either as impersonal, economic, or market relationships
with strangers, or as personal gift relationships with intimates, friends,
or relatives. Solidarity is, from this perspective, predominantly a matter of
altruistic motives and is restricted to the second type of relationships. As
we will see in Chapter 5, this is a far too limited and one-sided conception
of solidarity.
The opposition between gifts and commodities is far less unequivocal
than was assumed previously (Miller 1995a, 1995b, 1998; Carrier 1995;
Davis 1996; Frow 1997). The distinction is mainly a matter of degree.
Inalienability is not exclusively a gift characteristic, and commodities are
not necessarily alienable objects. Goods may acquire cultural meaning in
the course of time (Kopytoff 1986); think of utensils that take on artistic
value later on. Commodities may become decommodi¬ed “ a piece of
jewelry once bought can gain personal signi¬cance and value “ and non-
commodities may become commodi¬ed, for instance, by selling one™s
blood or selling information (Corrigan 1997).
Many other parallels between gifts and commodities render an all-
too-rigorous distinction dubious and put the concomitant distinction
between two kinds of human relationship into question. In modern so-
cieties, the exchange of gifts as well as commodities is characterized by
ritual, social, and symbolic aspects. Whereas this may be obvious for gift
exchange (Komter 1996a, 1996b), the ritual elements in the consumption
of goods and in market transactions should not be underplayed. One
might think of modern consumption rituals, the ritual of trying to out-
bid each other at auctions, conspicuous consumption among the rich

The Social Meaning of Things

and powerful (Veblen 1934 [1899]), or customs of transacting business
in “disguised settings” such as concert halls or restaurants, where other
cultural and social aims “ listening to music, having a meal together “
are used as a cover for economic transactions. The things themselves do
not possess some inherent meaning, but the trajectories in which they
move render meaning to things. The gift economy and the market econ-
omy are interwoven in various ways, and gifts and commodities do not
exclude one another. As Frow (1997: 124) says, “There is nothing inherent
in objects that designates them as gifts; objects can almost always follow
varying trajectories. Gifts are precisely not objects at all, but transactions
and social relations.”
Which economic, cultural, social, and psychological processes are in-
volved in these transactions and how do these become embodied in
things? Remarkably, many explanations focus on commodities and ig-
nore the category of gifts. These, often Marxist explanations emphasize
social structures, relations of production, and ruling ideas as the determi-
nants of the meaning of things. Barthes (1973), for instance, argues that
commodities act as a kind of “myths” supporting the existing ideology,
thereby favoring those who are the most powerful in society. Similarly,
Baudrillard (1988 [1970]) links goods and consumption to the overall
economic order. Consumption is not tied to individuals but to the larger
system of objects within that order. People™s needs are not so much lo-
cated in the individual person but rather in the practices of marketing
and advertising. Manufacturers deliberately attempt to shape consumer
behavior through advertising. The sector of production has “total dic-
tatorship” over individual needs, according to Baudrillard. Whether the
sector of production alone has, in fact, such overwhelming power is
doubtful, but it is undeniable that advertising, marketing, and fashion
are important instruments that render meaning to things.
Bourdieu™s work (1984 [1979]) on the links between social class and the
practices of consumption is another example of explaining the meaning
of things by their role in sustaining existing social and economic power

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

structures: people distinguish themselves from each other by adopting a
certain life-style in which things or goods function as markers of their
(aspired) status (e.g., paintings, books, objects of art). Acts of consump-
tion, in his view, reproduce social difference because the consumption of
some goods is considered a sign of distinction whereas consuming oth-
ers signi¬es a lack of distinction. In a similar way McCracken (1990: 75)
analyzes the meaning of goods in terms of the sociocultural categories of
a certain society. Categories of class, gender, age, and occupation may be
represented in goods: “[T]he order of goods is modelled on the order of
culture.” But the process also works the other way around: goods do not
only embody cultural categories, but goods so charged “help make up
the culturally constituted word. . . . In short, goods are both the creations
and the creators of the culturally constituted world” (77).
The explanations presented so far refer to economic and social struc-
tures, advertising and marketing strategies, the ideology cementing ex-
isting power hierarchies, and sociocultural categories like class and gen-
der. The emphasis on market goods not only undervalues the category
of things transacted in nonmarket relationships, but at the same time
implicitly reinforces the too-categorical distinction between gifts and
commodities. No references to the speci¬c trajectories of things between
people are found in these explanations. This is striking considering that
many different scholars have explicitly advocated this view (Appadurai
1986; Kopytoff 1986; Carrier 1995; Frow 1997). In the classical anthro-
pology literature, which is mainly occupied with nonmonetary soci-
eties, the opposition between gifts and commodities is not yet visible.
Here the meaning of gift exchange has been mainly conceived in func-
tional terms: mutual gift giving serves to bring about social relationships,
which, in their turn, are the cement of a common culture (Malinowski
1950 [1922]; Mauss 1990 [1923]). This view can be recognized in more
recent contributions as well. For example, Titmuss (1970: 81“82), in his
study of blood donation, describes the meaning of gift giving as follows:
“The forms and functions of giving . . . may re¬‚ect, sustain, strengthen

The Social Meaning of Things

or loosen the cultural bonds of the group.” In the same vein Cheal (1988:
40) describes the meaning of gift exchange as being a moral economy
in which “the social signi¬cance of individuals is de¬ned by their obli-
gations to others, with whom they maintain continuing relationships. It
is the extended reproduction of these relationships that lies at the heart
of a gift economy, just as it is the extended reproduction of ¬nancial
capital which lies at the heart of a market economy.” Not ¬xed societal
structures but the ever changing context of human relationship is taken
as the point of departure to determine the meaning of gifts. It cannot
be known in advance whether things are gifts or commodities. It de-
pends on the nature of the social relationship within which things are

Four Different Types of Social Relationship

Drawing on a broad range of classical and modern work in anthropology,
sociology, and psychology, Alan Page Fiske (1991) develops an encompass-
ing theory of the basic psychological motivations underlying social life.
Human activities as diverse as arranging a marriage, performing reli-
gious rituals, making choices, judging what is morally right or wrong, or
dealing with things can be ordered in four fundamental models: commu-
nity sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.
Integrating ethnographic, comparative, and experimental research with
classical theory, Fiske demonstrates that people use different combina-
tions and permutations of these models to shape their own identity,
their motives, and their norms; to structure the way they relate to their
environment; and to regulate their social roles and their participation in
groups and institutions. These models also enable people to make sense
of the way others behave toward them and to interpret their motives and
intentions. The four relational models do not only orient people to other
human beings in different ways; they also determine their relationships
to nature “ plants, animals “ and to material objects, or things. “People

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

can use each of the four fundamental models to organize transfers of
material and nonmaterial goods and services and to provide obligatory
or ideal standards for such transactions” (1991: 51).
According to Fiske homo economicus assumptions are predominant in
many social science theories, from psychological learning theories, eco-
nomically inspired game theories, and rational choice theories to equity
and exchange theories. Against this monolithic tendency, he offers a mul-
titude of examples from Western and non-Western cultures that demon-
strate sharing, ranking, matching, and pricing behaviors. His hypothesis,
supported by abundant cross-cultural, ethnographic illustrations, is that
these behaviors are universal, “being the basis for social relations among
all people in all cultures and the essential foundation for cross-cultural
understanding and intercultural engagement” (1991: 25).
“Communal sharing” is conceived as a relationship of equivalence in
which people attend to group membership, while the individuality and
separate identity of persons are not very marked. Key words are iden-
ti¬cation, care, solidarity, and friendship. The experience of belonging
to, and identi¬cation with, the collectivity is primordial. The terms of
“kind,” “kindness,” and “kin,” having a common Indo-European root,
capture most of the features of communal sharing: “[I]t is a relation-
ship based on duties and sentiments generating kindness and generosity
among people conceived to be of the same kind, especially kin” (1991: 14).
In community sharing things are mainly exchanged on the basis of feel-
ings of connectedness to other people and out of a need to maintain
the quality of human relationships. What one gives is not dependent on
what one has received but springs from one™s perception of other peo-
ple™s needs. In this model the things given will often be food, care, or
services. Another category of giving within this model is not so much
based on perceived need but on identi¬cation with other people. An im-
portant characteristic of things of this type is their sentimental value:
who wore it or used it, to whom are you connected by means of these
things? One may think of heirlooms, keepsakes, and any other objects, that

The Social Meaning of Things

symbolize precious memories. In all these examples, things are markers of
In “authority ranking,” the social relationship is characterized by asym-
metry and inequality. People construe each other as differing in social
importance or status. The highest-ranking people in a social relationship
often have the prerogative of being accorded the initiative in social action,
being the ¬rst who are allowed to make choices or to voice a preference.
Those of high rank are more salient because they get more attention com-
pared with their inferiors. Subordinates believe that their subordination
is legitimate (although they may come to resist their predicament at some
time). Purely coercive power in which people are dominated by force or
threat is more often the exception than the rule in authority-ranking re-
lationships. Within the authority-ranking model exchange is motivated
by a (conscious or unconscious) desire to emphasize one™s own status
or power position. The perception of other people™s relative power is
an important factor in the selection of persons with whom one decides
to transact. Power, fame, prestige, and merit are regarded as the most
relevant criteria within social relationships. Transactions over valuable
things are conducted with those high in the power hierarchy, whereas
sops are good enough for those in lower positions. In contrast to the
community model, the authority-ranking model also promotes showing
and exposing valuable objects, in addition to exchanging items or giv-
ing such items to other people. Examples are conspicuous consumption,
exhibition of prestige items, or symbols of rank and status. Clothes may
function to symbolize status or group membership (think of children
forcing their parents to buy exclusively branded articles like Nike shoes
or Levi™s jeans for them). For men cars are often symbols of status, power,
virility, and sportsmanship. Women™s jewelry seems to perform similar
functions. In this model, things possessed (and exhibited) or exchanged
are markers of superiority in power relations.
“Equality matching” refers to egalitarian relationships between peers.
People have distinct identities but are in other respects each other™s equals.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

People share with each other, contribute to each other, and in¬‚uence
each other equally. In relationships of this type people have reciprocal
exchange patterns, in which quid pro quo, or tit-for-tat, is the prevailing
motivation. Rights, duties, or actions are conceived as balancing each
other. People are interchangeable in the sense that it does not matter who
gets or gives which share or who takes which turn, because everyone is
equal and things come out even. The equality-matching model orients
exchange in such a way that nobody bene¬ts or loses disproportionally.
Considerations in exchange are in¬‚uenced neither by need nor by merit,
status, or power. The items exchanged can often be aligned, weighted,
or otherwise compared, enabling the participants to achieve equality by
concrete operations of matching. Things exchanged in equality-matching
relationships are tokens of balance.
In “market pricing” the relationship is dominated by values derived
from the market. Rational choices and utility considerations determine
how and when people will interact with others. People give and get in
proportion to a common standard, re¬‚ecting market-pricing values like
money, time, or utility. Market pricing and equality matching may be
con¬‚ated or confused, when the pro¬t-oriented element in quid pro quo
reasoning gets too much emphasis. There is, however, a clear difference
between the two: in market pricing, unlike commodities are exchanged
in proportion to their market value, whereas in equality matching the
same or equivalent things are exchanged. People™s main preoccupation
in exchange within the market-pricing model is: do I bene¬t from the
transaction, do the costs involved outweigh the pro¬ts? People™s relation-
ships to others are instrumental, and often characterized by competition
and struggle. One gives to those from whom one may expect some di-
rect or future bene¬t. Things are tokens of utility or material (economic)
value. It is important to bear in mind, says Fiske, that the distinction
between the models is analytical in kind. Actual interpersonal relation-
ships will, in most cases, be built out of a combination of these four basic
psychological models. People use these models in the same way as they

The Social Meaning of Things

use grammatical rules, without necessarily being able to describe them
re¬‚ectively, or even being aware of their existence. “My hypothesis is that
these models are fundamental, in the sense that they are the lowest or
most basic-level ˜grammars™ for social relations” (1991: 25).
Fiske emphasizes that the four models are not in any intrinsic way re-
lated to speci¬c domains, as the work of some anthropologists suggests.
Whereas both Malinowski and Sahlins presume that kinship distance is
the primordial factor in determining the mode of exchange, Fiske argues
that this is not necessarily the case: the same four patterns may emerge
in any type of social relationship and in any domain, whether it be work,
decision making, the meaning of time, social in¬‚uence, the constitution
of groups, the experience of self and identity, moral judgment, or dealing
with things. Communal sharing may be the most typical within-group
form of transaction, whereas exchanges between groups may often take
the form of equality matching. Fiske™s theory allows for other possibilities,
although he does not re¬‚ect explicitly on these himself. For example, au-
thority patterns and equality and market considerations may creep into
interpersonal relationships. We might think here of sexually exploitative
relationships, or of modern spouses or partners who, in the spirit of
equality, share rights and duties in work and leisure, or who, like par-
ticipants in market exchange, bargain meticulously about the division of
household chores. Inversely, the community mode of relationship may
penetrate the domain of the market and of institutional relationships, for
example, when teachers or psychiatrists have love affairs with their pupils
or patients, or when clients start having a personal relationship with pros-
titutes. That community is not necessarily restricted to the sphere of close
kin and intimate friends is also exhibited in public charity behavior, in
forms of empathic involvement with strangers in need, in situations in
which people care disinterestedly for others as well as their own family
or intimate friends, or when people offer hospitality to refugees.
A ¬nal word on Fiske™s models may be in order. Within and across
cultures, social relations are enormously intricate and varied; how can

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

a general theory such as Fiske™s encompass all this? Fiske takes great
pains to demonstrate “how the set of four simple models can generate
complex social relationships, roles, groups, institutions, and societies.
People produce complex social relations by applying the models at a
variety of levels (lower levels embedded “ nested “ within higher levels)
and concatenating the models together in various combinations” (1991:
139). He offers theoretical as well as empirical answers to the question of
how a few universal models can generate the great cultural diversity of
social systems that can be seen around the world and throughout history.
An attractive aspect of his theory is that it is not biased by a speci¬cally
Western view: the bulk of his illustrations are not from Western society
but from ethnographic materials on the Moose of Burkina Faso.
In the next section I apply Fiske™s models to research data from a study
on gift giving in the Netherlands. My aim is to illuminate how a certain
category of things, namely gifts, comes to be invested with meaning within
the context of different types of human relationships.

The Four Basic Meanings of Gifts

In the study Gift Giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt 1993a)
a questionnaire as well as in-depth interviews were used (the methods
and design of the study are discussed more extensively in Chapter 2). In
the interviews several of the basic meanings are revealed. For instance,
gifts re¬‚ecting community are frequently mentioned. They symbolize the
unique, highly valued, personal, and durable character of relationships.
These gifts are not intended to evoke return gifts and seem mainly to be
given out of sympathy, love, or the need to support another person. A
single mother living on social security said: “I gave to my parents my little
son™s ¬rst shoe in silver as a Christmas present. It is a personal present in
a double way, I think. Because I know that they have a small table with
only silver objects on it, and on that table is also my own ¬rst shoe and my
sister™s ¬rst shoe silvered. So, I thought: I add my son™s little shoe to that.

The Social Meaning of Things

Because he is their ¬rst grandchild.” A young woman mentions another
example of such a precious personal gift: “I once asked my parents for
my birthday to write in a booklet what had been important for them in
their lives. I said that they were entirely free to decide what to write. And
I asked them to return the booklet full, a year later for my birthday. And
so they did. I valued this present enormously.”
Within families money is sometimes given by (grand)parents to their
grown-up children, just to offer some momentary relief or to make up for
some more structural shortage of money. These gifts are unidirectional:
no returns are expected, and even when the gift is given in the form of
a loan, the expectation of return is vague and not speci¬ed in time. For
example, a woman received C 150 from her parents: “They said: don™t

worry, we™ll pay it for you. So I will return it at some time. If I happen to
have some money, I may return it, but if I don™t for some time to come,
well, okay, then I don™t pay it back.”
Gifts re¬‚ecting community are not always material; also help offered
disinterestedly, without any felt obligation, may illustrate community, as
shown by a female respondent: “My daughter has to work many hours.
Sometimes she has a day off, and then she has that enormous pile of
clothes to be ironed. And then I say: come on, I will help you.” Asked if
she feels obligated to help, she says “No. If I would feel it as an obligation,
then I wouldn™t do it anymore. I simply do it because it™s normal.”
Authority, power, and dependency are very common aspects of rela-
tionships. However, people are not inclined to interpret gifts in these
terms. Nevertheless, the interviews re¬‚ect those aspects in different ways.
One way to emphasize one™s superior position vis-` -vis another person
and the rights and privileges that go with it is to give gifts that symbolize
the subordinate position of the other person in a relationship, for exam-
ple, by pointing to the role and tasks to be expected of this person: “When
we were starting a family, I received some aprons from my husband. I
wasn™t happy with them at all. I was used to something more spiritual.”
Another female respondent told us: “My mother-in-law gave me some tea

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

towels for my birthday, as if she were saying: your place is in the kitchen.”
These answers may be interpreted as re¬‚ecting “displaced meaning” in
McCracken™s terms (1990: 117): goods that tell us not who we are but how
others wish we were.
Another illustration of authority and power is related to the phe-
nomenon of the potlatch. The potlatch is a ceremony of competitive gift
giving and the collective destruction of wealth in order to acquire per-
sonal status and prestige. The ceremonial illustrates how abundant and
excessive gift giving puts the recipient in a position of almost impossible
indebtedness. Mauss (1990 [1923]) describes how the North American
Indians went so far as to destroy their wealth publicy instead of giving it
away “ wasting one™s riches as a sign of ultimate superiority and power.
Apart from the more caricatural examples in our own culture “ the swim-
ming pool ¬lled with champagne, the bank manager lighting his cigar
with a thousand dollar note “ excessive gift giving as a sign of power is
also a common practice in Western society. Our interviews revealed many
examples of gifts that were too many, too large, or too expensive, placing
the recipient in a position of undesired dependency. A male respondent
said: “I gave an expensive present to a woman from whom I expected
somewhat more than mere friendship in return, but she didn™t feel like
that.” Another example of gift giving causing dependency in the recip-
ient is giving abundantly to a person who, for some reason, is not able
to reciprocate at some future time. A divorced woman living on social
security and being severely ill told us how dif¬cult it was for her to accept
the lack of balance between gifts given and received by her: “I think that
it is more dif¬cult to receive than to give. It is, uh, yes, it is sometimes a
bit of a burden. Then I think: gee, how can I ever make up for that, for
all the help that is given to me.”
Equality is re¬‚ected in the expectations of reciprocity common to most
gift giving. Although the expectation of a return gift is very often not
consciously realized, the empirical pattern is that of reciprocal gift giving:
most gifts appear to be followed by a return gift at some point in time;

The Social Meaning of Things

moreover, those who give many gifts receive many in return, and those
who do not give much also receive the least (see Chapter 6 for more
details). The underlying motivation is tit-for-tat “ inviting others because
they invited us, helping one™s neighbor because he helped us, doing odd
jobs for friends because you are expected to do so. A male respondent
said: “I repaired the hallstand for her. She is old and, you know, a lamp
was out of order. I repaired a plug, that sort of thing. And then the old
woman said: here, take this; it belonged to my husband. It™s Beethoven; he
loved Beethoven, and now this complete Beethoven collection is yours,
because you did all those jobs for me. . . . I appreciated that so much, that
she gave her husband™s favorite music to me.”
Between parents and children reciprocity is often experienced in a
special way: adult children often feel obliged to give their parents attention
by visiting them or inviting them to dinner, because of what their parents
have done for them when they were small children. A young man said:
“I regularly visit my mother, every two weeks one afternoon. Then we
talk together. She needs attention, she has just left the hospital. I ¬nd that
okay: she has also given attention, extra attention to me when I needed
it. Now she needs it. It is quite normal that I go to visit her.” A Moroccan
respondent emphasized the social and cultural necessity of the principle
of reciprocity in a more general way: “Giving and receiving. In our society
people have to give and receive. That™s how it is. We ourselves receive as
well as give. Otherwise life cannot continue, when one is not giving and
not receiving.”
Market pricing is shown, for example, in gifts that function as bribes.
Although these gifts are more characteristic of the public sphere than
the sphere of personal relationships, they are not totally absent there.
Examples are gifts given to general practitioners by the pharmaceu-
tical industry, gifts to political parties or politicians, or gifts meant
as more or less subtle blackmail. But also in the interaction between
friends, lovers, partners, and family members, instrumentality and calcu-
lation, an orientation toward personal bene¬t, may be re¬‚ected. A female

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

respondent said: “My parents-in-law always give us very expensive gifts,
as a kind of blackmail to visit them more often, by forcing us to be
grateful.” Although an element of authority is clearly present in this
quotation “ the giver placing the recipient in a dependent position by
giving excessively “ the market pricing aspect is revealed in the parents™
attempt to “blackmail” their children.
Professional relationships are based on a market model: services are
offered in exchange for money. When an employer gives a standard
Christmas packet to his employees, this is not merely an expression of
his gratitude for performed services but also an attempt to strengthen
the employees™ commitment to the company. The employer™s motives to
give this gift remain within the con¬nes of the market model. However,
professional relationships may take on other connotations, for instance,
those deriving from the community model: university professors giving
more than normal attention to their students, barristers receiving more
than ¬nancial compensation for their services. A quotation from a barris-
ter illustrates the difference between economic and personal recompense:
“Yes, giving a present has a different connotation, because people have
to pay a bill as well, so if they give something extra, then it has often
a personal tinge. It has a different content. The economic value doesn™t
interest me at all, but it was special.”

Con¬‚icting Social Lives of Things

The potential use of Fiske™s typology may be further illustrated by at-
tempting to explain the con¬‚icts that may occur in the social life of things.
In interpersonal relationships people™s interpretations and valuations of
things may not correspond with each other. Things may lead con¬‚icting
social lives, in that the meanings people attach to them may not har-
monize. Differences between people™s attitudes toward things may be the
source of disagreeable misunderstandings and serious disputes. Con¬‚icts
may arise between people when things represent a different value to them

The Social Meaning of Things

or embody different sets of expectations and different courses of action
that need to be undertaken.
For example, things experienced by one party as markers of commu-
nity may be considered by another party as mainly interesting because
of their market value. Examples may be found in the often ¬erce and
long-lasting family disputes about legacies. We may think of an heirloom
cherished by one inheritor because of the inalienable and unique memo-
ries it embodies, whereas another relative emphasizes its monetary value
and wants to sell it on the market. In fact, what the surviving relatives are
quarreling about is the symbolic value of the object as it is experienced by
each of them. The inheritor who succeeds in imposing his will to sell the
object is in fact denying and even annihilating the special and personal
value the object had for the other relative.
Many other examples present themselves. A thing given out of love or
community sharing may be received with indifference and, in the long
run, be reciprocated with a return gift in the spirit of equality matching.
Humiliating gifts may degrade the recipient and destroy his or her expec-
tations of community or equality. Gifts given to mark the authority of the
giver over the recipient, for example, gifts consciously or unconsciously
meant to make the recipient somehow dependent upon the giver “ a
money gift to someone who is less wealthy, or a learned book to someone
with only rudimentary education “ may be misjudged as signs of love
and personal interest: community in Fiske™s terms. Even merely market-
inspired attempts to manipulate or bribe someone, or to induce him or
her to do a return favor by means of giving a gift, may be misinterpreted
as a token of community: a sign of personal attention and love.

Things: Markers as Well as Marks of Relationship

The transaction of things may be regarded, in the terms of Appadurai
(1986: 21), as a “tournaments of value”: a complex social process in which
the value of things is determined by developing “a broad set of agreements

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

concerning what is desirable, what a reasonable ˜exchange of sacri¬ces™
comprises, and who is permitted to exercise what kind of effective de-
mand in what circumstances” (1986: 57). These value tournaments not
only determine the economic value of things but also form the context
in which other symbolic and social meanings of things are developed.
The (economic) scarcity of things is only one of the relevant dimen-
sions within exchange relationships. Things may come to embody the
values of community, be used to emphasize authority, underscore equal-
ity between exchange partners, or express economic or market values.
These values are not inherent in the things. Neither is it merely the
form or ceremony of the transaction that renders meaning to a thing.
As Carrier states, it is, instead, “the relationship that exists between the
transactors and the relationship between them and what is transacted”
(1995: 19).
Things, then, far from being static, inert, and mute, may be compared
with other more current vehicles of meaning such as words. Like words,
things are part of an informational system, the meaning of which is cre-
ated within the context of social interaction and mutual communication
between people. Due to the various emotions they invoke in people, and
to the contests of value to which these emotions are exposed, things come
to embody differential meaning. Like words, things play a dynamic and
active role in creating, maintaining, disturbing, or destroying human
relationships (think of returning a wedding ring or throwing away or
destroying gifts received).
As Douglas and Isherwood have observed in their anthropological
theory of the consumption of goods, things work as markers or classi¬ers:
“Treat the goods then as markers, the visible bit of the iceberg, which is
the whole social process. Goods are used for marking in the sense of
classifying categories” (1979: 74). But the coin has another side as well:
goods are both the creators and the creations of the culturally constituted
world. Similarly, one might argue that relationships not only get meaning
by means of the trajectory of things, but, inversely, that things derive

The Social Meaning of Things

their meaning from their place and role within relationships. Things are
markers as well as marks of relationship.

In this chapter we have sketched the global framework in which the social
meaning of things comes into being. The meaning of things was found to
correspond to four models of human relationships. Focusing our analysis
on gifts as one important category of things, the four broad meaning
categories were con¬rmed by some empirical data on gift exchange. These
four meaning categories return in many of the following chapters, as they
represent general motivations that are pertinent not only to gift exchange
but also to solidarity.
A very important notion for the rest of this book is Simmel™s idea of the
“exchange of sacri¬ces.” In every exchange act something is sacri¬ced,
and the value of what is exchanged is determined by the participants™
beliefs of what represents a fair and reasonable exchange. The concept of
sacri¬ce will prove to be a crucial one for the gift as well as for solidarity.
Not only things but also people may be sacri¬ced in exchange. Human
beings may sacri¬ce their own self by giving away abundantly, whether
in material or nonmaterial form. Also other people may be sacri¬ced by
means of a gift “ think of the fatal poisoned cup Roman emperors used
to offer. Similarly, in solidarity self as well as others may be sacri¬ced.
These ideas are further elaborated in Chapter 9.
It is now time to explore some other patterns and meanings of giving
in more detail. Social and psychological patterns of giving and receiving
are the focus of Chapter 2. In Chapter 3 the role of feelings of gratitude
within the chain of reciprocity in gift giving is discussed, while Chapter 4
examines the gendered meanings of gift giving.


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