. 3
( 7)


the ability to return goodness, or generosity.
Whatever the impact of psychological factors, we should bear in mind
that from its inception gratitude is embedded in social relationships. One
might say that to give is to live, not only as an individual but also as a
member of society. Not being grateful ultimately means the discontinua-
tion of social bonds and community life and the termination of individual
well-being and satisfaction. This, then, is the third layer of gratitude; it is
the precondition for reciprocity and mutual exchange. As the anthropo-
logical literature on gift exchange amply demonstrates, gratitude keeps
social relations intact by being the driving force behind the return gifts.
Gratitude is the in-between connecting gift and return gift. Together the
three elements of gift, gratitude, and countergift form the chain that con-
stitutes the principle of reciprocity. The social view of gratitude may also
involve some negative aspects. Power can seriously threaten the capacity
to feel and express gratitude. Giving in return is not always inspired by

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

table 3.1. Manifestations and Layers of Gratitude

Manifestations of Gratitude Layers of Gratitude
Hau, the “spirit” of the gift, nature Spiritual/religious/magical/ecological
expecting returns
Joy and the capacity to receive Moral/psychological
Mutuality, reciprocity, power inequality, Social
fear of sanctions
Culturally varying expressions but also Societal/cultural
web of feelings connecting people

pure gratitude but can also be motivated by a fear of social sanctions or
of the discontinuation of pro¬ts ensuing from social relationships. Only
in more or less equally balanced relationships can gratitude unfold the
best of its powers.
The fourth layer consists of the societal and cultural meaning of grati-
tude. As Simmel stated, a culture or society deprived of all acts of gratitude
will inevitably break down. Just as gratitude is indispensable in the life of
one individual, who will face isolation and loneliness if his or her capacity
to feel grateful is impaired, gratitude is also a crucial ingredient of every
society and culture. Without the ties created by gratitude there would
be no mutual trust, no moral basis on which to act, and no grounds for
maintaining the bonds of community.
Table 3.1 summarizes the various ways gratitude may be expressed in
people™s experience and behavior, as well as the conceptual “layers” be-
longing to a particular manifestation of gratitude. The four layers or
meanings of gratitude are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they
are different formulations of the same force that compels people to re-
store the disequilibrium caused by having received a gift, whether from
a supernatural power, nature, or a fellow human being. In all these cases,
the failure to reciprocate acts as a boomerang to the recipients themselves,
because the fundamental principle of gift giving “ keeping gifts in motion
by passing them on “ is not heeded.

The Anatomy of Gratitude

The enormous psychological, social, and cultural effectiveness of grati-
tude is based on the same capacity of mutual recognition that was involved
in the act of gift giving itself (see Chapter 2). No gratitude can exist with-
out recognition of the entity “ person or nature “ that brought the feelings
of gratitude into existence. These insights play a crucial role in the theo-
retical model presented in Chapter 9.
In the words of Lewis Hyde (1983 [1979]: 50), “Those who will not
acknowledge gratitude or who refuse to labour in its service neither free
their gifts nor really come to possess them.”


Women, Gifts, and Power

It is not that agents “create” the asymmetry; they enact it. In
summary: being active and passive are relative and momentary
positions; in so far as the relevant categories of actors are “male”
and “female” then either sex may be held to be the cause of
the other™s acts; and the condition is evinced in the perpetual
possibility of the one being vulnerable to the exploits of the
other or able to encompass the other. The conclusion must be
that these constructions do not entail relations of permanent
(Marilyn Strathern 1988: 333“334)

Since Mauss and Malinowski the concept of “the gift” has been one of
the main issues in anthropological research in non-Western cultures.
An important question is whether gender plays any role in practices
of gift exchange and, if so, what the nature of this role might be. The
older anthropological contributions seem to be based on the assumption
that women do not have any signi¬cant role in gift exchange. While
Malinowski recognizes that women take a prominent part in certain
ceremonial actions (1950 [1922]: 37), he does not mention any active
female part in gift exchange; all his examples involve men. Writing some
decades after Malinowski, L´ vi-Strauss (1961 [1949]) draws attention to
the practice occurring in many non-Western societies, that of exchanging
women as the supreme gift. The prohibition of incest functions as a rule

Women, Gifts, and Power

of reciprocity among men offering their sisters as marriage partners to
other men outside their own clan. The exchange of women is described
by L´ vi-Strauss as being at the base of systems of kinship relations. Men,
in his account, primarily see women as objects of gift exchange but not as
subjects. Western anthropologists have usually interpreted the apparent
absence of women as autonomous actors in gift exchange as a sign of the
hierarchical dominance of men over women in Melanesia. As Marilyn
Strathern argues in The Gender of the Gift (1988), however, this interpre-
tation is biased by Western preconceptions. In Melanesia no permanent
relations of dominance exist between men and women. Rather, women
and men are alternatively subject or object for each other in their efforts
to create and sustain social relations by means of gift exchange.
This raises the question what the role of power is in women™s gift ex-
change. We already know from Chapter 2 that gifts are not exclusively
friendly acts, springing from sympathy or love, but may also be conscious
or unconscious vehicles to exercise power. How power is exactly involved
in acts of gift exchange is not entirely clear, though. Power comes to be
expressed in several facets of the phenomenon of gift exchange. I would
think of the following possibilities (certainly not an exhaustive enumer-
ation). First, giving extravagantly may be a means to obtain or af¬rm
power and prestige, as Malinowski™s ¬eldwork on the Trobriand Islands
has shown. Second, receiving a gift brings about feelings of dependence
and gratitude. Georg Simmel points to the fact that gratitude is not only
morally obliging but also opens up the possibility of moral or other dom-
inance by the giver over the recipient; for example, in gift giving power
may be exercised by keeping the other indebted, or by demanding favors
from the person in debt. Third, in the act of refusing or rejecting a gift,
power is at stake because the refuser™s de¬nition of the situation “ no
continuation of the gift relationship “ is imposed to the giver; not only
the gift is refused but also the identity of the giver.
These three instances of the exercise of power by means of gift giving are
mainly of a psychological nature, in that individual characteristics, assets,

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

or feelings are involved. But gift exchange may also include sociological
power characteristics. A fourth example, then, is that of reciprocal gift
exchange functioning as a principle of exclusion by “ consciously or
unconsciously “ af¬rming ties between the members of one™s own group,
and excluding others from participation within networks of mutual gift
giving. And, ¬fth, the structural characteristics of the gift relationship
may be such that reciprocity is not equivalent, for example, when one
party feels obliged to give much with low expectations of return, whereas
the other, more powerful party feels entitled to receive much without
having to give much in return. In such cases the resources both parties
dispose of are of unequal material or immaterial value.
From Annette Weiner™s book Women of Value, Men of Renown (1976)
it appears that this applies to women™s and men™s positions in Papua
New Guinea: women and men perform activities in different domains
and dispose of different types of resources from which their respective
power positions emanate. Weiner attempts to redress the picture arising
from Malinowski™s work, of women as playing no role of any impor-
tance in gift exchange. Like Malinowski, Weiner collected her data on
the Trobriand Islands. She shows that women are not exclusively the ob-
jects of gift exchange by men, as Claude L´ vi-Strauss had suggested, but
have an important and autonomous part in it. It appears from her re-
search that gift giving occurs not only within but also between genders.
Weiner clearly relates women™s role in gift exchange to power and seems
to conceive of power as a means of control over people and resources:
“We must push exchange beyond the level of our view of the social world
and seek to understand exchange as the means, however limited, of gain-
ing power over people and control over resources in the widest sense”
(1976: 220).
More recently, Weiner (1992) points to an important category of
possessions, which may shed a new light on theories of reciprocity,
and the role of power within these theories. She calls these possessions

Women, Gifts, and Power

inalienable because they must not be given or, if they are circulated,
must return ¬nally to the giver (see Chapter 3). According to Weiner,
“keeping-while-giving” is the fundamental drive underlying gift ex-
change, reciprocity merely being a super¬cial aspect of it. Inalienable
possessions invariably share a general symbolism associated with the cos-
mological domains of human reproduction and cultural reproduction of
the kin group. Cloth is an example of such an inalienable possession.
Women, being the main producers and owners of cloth in most Oceania
societies, play a pivotal part in the process of keeping-while-giving.
Women™s role in this domain is of key political signi¬cance, because
power, or the (re)production of rank and hierarchy, is intimately involved
in cultural reproduction. Women™s autonomous share in gift exchange,
their ownership of inalienable possessions, and their attendant strategical
power position have remained unrecognized by most anthropologists.
One notable exception is the Dutch anthropologist van Baal (1975),
who, as early as in the 1970s, attempted to redress the view shared by
many anthropologists “ and particularly L´ vi-Strauss “ of women as the
passive objects of exchange processes between men, denying them any
subjectivity of their own. Van Baal emphasizes the tremendous impor-
tance of women, not only as bearers of children but also as providers of
motherly care and succor. This makes women immensely valuable to so-
ciety in general and to men in particular. A woman, then, is not passively
given away but agrees to be given away in marriage to a man of another
group because she, being the “wife to the one and sister to the other,
has manoeuvred herself into an intermediary position allowing her to
manipulate. Two men protect her. The one owes a debt to the other and
the other owes one to her” (van Baal 1975: 76).
Women™s role in gift exchange in Western society has not been the focus
of much research. The few studies that do exist, however, show unequiv-
ocally that women not only give more gifts than men “ material as well as
nonmaterial ones “ but are also the greatest recipients. Which meaning

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

should be attached to women™s greater gift giving? How do these empirical
¬ndings relate to anthropological theories about women™s power posi-
tion in the domains of human and cultural reproduction? Can we learn
anything from these theories with regard to women, gifts, and power
in Western society? It is not immediately clear how we should interpret
Western women™s greater gift giving. To say that women are more al-
truistic than men is too simple and super¬cial. Empirical research does
not show any substantial gender differences in altruism (Schwartz 1993).
Gift giving by women is embedded in a network of social expectations,
norms, and rules regarding their societal rights and duties and their po-
sition within the family. On certain domains women™s social position in
Western societies is still subordinate to that of men. The embeddedness
of feminine liberality in persistent patterns of social inequality between
genders suggests that women, gifts, and power are somehow related
to each other. However, women™s gift giving might not be as unequivo-
cally or unambiguously related to power inequality as we are inclined to
think when we depart from women™s object status and subordinate posi-
tion in Western society. Anthropological theories like Weiner™s may con-
tribute to deemphasize this focus on women™s social subordination and to
create room for other, less one-dimensional and more sophisticated
In this chapter, the meaning of women™s greater gift giving in Western
society is explored by connecting it to social power inequality between
genders. First, some of our own empirical results are presented insofar
as they concern gender (Komter and Schuyt 1993a; 1993b). On the ba-
sis of these results, I argue that altruism is not a plausible explanation of
women™s more active role in gift giving. Second, I try to clarify the relation-
ship between women™s gift giving and power by suggesting four different
models of reciprocity, in which the relative bene¬ts from women™s gift
giving accruing to men and women differ. The outcome of this analysis
proves to be more ambiguous than the power perspective suggests in the
¬rst place.

Women, Gifts, and Power

table 4.1. Gifts Given or Received
according to Gender (%)


Women Men
Presents 90/75 84/55
Money 85/58 84/49
Food 74/62 66/56
Stay 71/42 59/39
Care/help 73/62 58/48

Source: Komter and Schuyt (1993b).

Empirical Research on Women™s Gift Giving

From both Caplow™s and Cheal™s studies discussed in Chapter 2, it ap-
pears that women are the greater givers, a ¬nding that is corroborated
by our own research. Our results show that small but consistent gender
differences exist in the percentages of women and men who report having
given presents, food, stay, and care or help to others; as to the amount of
money gifts, women and men do not differ (see Table 4.1). The average
time spent in devising and choosing a present, whether it was bought or
made at home, was about half an hour; men take nine minutes longer
than women to ¬nd the right gift. Furthermore, men more often have
the feeling that they are giving more than they receive (49% and 26%, re-
spectively). Men experience less reciprocity in their gift exchange rela-
tionships than women do. An interesting ¬nding is that the discontent
about the balance of giving and receiving is greatest with those categories
of respondents who report to have given the least “ men, those with less
education, and elderly people. They do indeed receive less compared with
the other categories of respondents, but the difference with respect to what
they give is not necessarily greater than it is among the other categories.
In a secondary analysis of the research data, we controlled for gender
differences in income, education, and occupational level. Women keep

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

giving more than men, regardless of socioeconomic differences. Also
there are no differences among women themselves: women who do not
live in a traditional family situation and women who are employed give
as much as women who have children, live with a partner, and do not
have a paid job (unpublished data).

Presents and Money Gifts

As concerns the amount of gifts given and received during the preceding
month, again women appear to give and receive more than men do. In
one month women give an average amount of 3.5 gifts while receiving
2.8 gifts on average. The corresponding ¬gures for men are 2.6 (given)
and 2.2 (received). The majority of our respondents give and receive

gifts, the value of which does not exceed C 9. Expensive gifts, though
given, are rather exceptional. To be sure, men give fewer but more expen-

sive gifts compared with women. On average men have spent almost C 27

on gifts during the preceding month, whereas women spent around C 17.
Although men receive fewer gifts than women, these gifts are more expen-
sive. The average monetary value of gifts received by men during the pre-

ceding month amounts to C 59.4; for women, the value is about half this

amount: C 31.4.
More than two-thirds of our respondents have given money gifts to
the church, acquaintances, family, partner, or children, with children,
church, and partners receiving the greatest amounts. With money gifts,
the same pattern shows up as with “normal” gifts: men usually give
fewer gifts, but their monetary value is greater than that of women™s
“ “
money gifts (C 61.2 and C 49.9, respectively). Again, men appear to receive

fewer gifts but ones of greater value compared with women (C 126.3 and

C 107.3, respectively).
A remarkable ¬nding for which no easy interpretation is at hand is that
the monetary value of gifts received (both monetary and nonmonetary)
is higher than the value of the gifts given; this seems to contradict the

Women, Gifts, and Power

outcome that the number of gifts received is smaller than the number
of gifts given. Are we inclined to forget or underestimate what we spend
on gifts ourselves, or do we overestimate the monetary value of gifts
received? But how would that connect to the smaller number of received
gifts? Unfortunately, on the basis of our research data it is not possible to
answer these questions. An obvious explanation for the fact that women™s
gifts have a lower monetary value compared with men™s gifts is that men
have a higher average income than women so that they have more to


Women more often invite other people to dinner than men do, and are
invited more frequently by others as well. The same pattern applies to
offering a stay in one™s house and staying with others oneself: women
offer and receive more of this type of hospitality than men. Offering
one™s house to other people temporarily is for most people a matter of
course, if enough space is available. With dinners this is different. Some
dinners are merely serving sociable ends by offering the opportunity for
the exchange of friendly feelings, or moral or practical support to other
people. On other occasions, however, feelings of being obliged to others
prevail: many dinners serve to keep family or friendship ties alive, or to
ful¬ll one™s duty to reciprocate. Hospitality, then, is not a purely altruistic
giving activity. Nothing is more obliging than being invited to dinner. It
is therefore very unlikely that the cycle of gift and return gift is closed
after one round.

Care and Help

We distinguished the following types of care and help: doing small jobs
for others, caring for the sick or the elderly, giving psychological sup-
port, helping people to move, helping with transport (e.g., transporting

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

children to and from school), and participating in (unpaid) manage-
ment or administrative activities. Again, women are the ones who care
and help the most. Doing small jobs and helping people to move are
activities more often performed by men, but women offer all other types
of care or help more frequently than men do. As was the case with hos-
pitality, offering care or help does not necessarily or mainly spring from
altruistic motives. The motives lie scattered on an imaginary scale of
altruism: from sel¬‚essly wanting to contribute to the well-being of other
people, without any expectations of return, to reciprocally exchanging
help or helping as a compensation for being helped oneself, to keeping a
sharp eye as to whether the debt balance is not pending too much to one
side. You are helping other people, knowing that you will be helped in

Blood and Organs

Of our respondents 31% have given blood. More men than women have
given blood (38% and 25%, respectively), whereas women are the greater
recipients of blood. We should be aware of the fact that men are allowed to
give blood more often than women for medical reasons “ four and three
times a year, respectively. That women receive more blood may be related
to their greater needs as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. However,
more women than men have considered giving blood: 49% and 30%,
respectively. Apparently, women™s willingness to give blood is relatively
great but the restrictions to donation reduce participation. Of our re-
spondents 26% have made up an organ codicil, with female respondents
outranking their male counterparts (31% and 21%, respectively).
There are some doubts about Titmuss™s view of blood donations as the
“free” and altruistic gift par excellence (Titmuss 1970). For some of our
respondents the main motive to give blood was “having a free afternoon
from military service.” Often a kind of postponed reciprocity is involved.
One respondent says: “It can happen to me too, such an accident. You

Women, Gifts, and Power

may be in need of blood yourself, at some time, and then you are lucky
that there are some other people who have given their blood.” Perhaps
the bearers of an organ codicil are the true altruists.
It is justi¬ed, on the basis of these data, to claim that women are the
greater givers compared with men. Even though the monetary value of
the gifts they give is lower compared with that of men™s gifts (women
have less to spend), women give not only more normal gifts but also more
nonmaterial gifts than men do. Women™s liberality is consistent over all
gift objects we distinguished in the research. Moreover, the results of our
study are con¬rmed by the ¬ndings concerning women™s larger share in
gift giving, reported by Caplow and Cheal. However, women appear to
be the greatest recipients as well. The principle of reciprocity is the most
likely explanation for this. Motives to give seem to be mainly a mixture of
altruistic feelings and expectations of return, as discussed in Chapters 1
and 2. And even when gifts are given altruistically, it is assumed that
people end up with some self-reward from their unsel¬sh gift giving, for
example a positive feeling about themselves “ a phenomenon that has
been called the altruistic paradox.
How are we to explain women™s greater liberality compared with men™s?
It is unlikely that women are simply blessed with a greater level of altru-
ism than men are. Gifts may convey symbolic meanings that do not so
much harmonize with altruism but rather express thoughtlessness, indif-
ference, criticism, a need for attention, or an attempt to seduce. In fact,
the results of our research showed that gifts of this type are no exceptions.
Altruism and gift giving are often very indirectly related, if at all. As we
will see in Chapters 6 and 7, motives to offer care or help to other people
are often disinterested as well as sel¬sh. The explanation for women™s lib-
erality should rather be sought in different sets of expectations regarding
women and men, normative conceptions of what gender roles should
consist of, and in differences in the cultural and social value attributed
to women™s and men™s main domains of activity. All this should then be
considered against the background of factual inequality in women™s and

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

men™s social positions, which becomes manifest in their differing mate-
rial and nonmaterial resources (e.g., participation in paid work, income,
participation in informal networks, occupying leading positions, amount
of free time).
There are good reasons to assume that power inequality between gen-
ders is implied in women™s gift giving, but the question is what this
relationship looks like: who is bene¬ting most from women™s greater gift
giving? Are women af¬rming their own status or power position, or even
gaining in power by means of their giving, just like the inhabitants of the
Trobriand Islands? Or are women the net losers of their own gift giving
because it is merely what is expected from them as females and amounts
to the reproduction of their subordinate position in society?

Four Models to Interpret Women™s Gift Giving

The focus of the four models to be presented here is on the structural
inequality in social power between women and men, their different types
of resources, and the differential social value attributed to these. Women™s
gift exchange in our Western society might be related to power in the
four following ways: asymmetrical reciprocity in favor of men, in which
men are supposed to bene¬t most from women™s liberality; equivalent
reciprocity, in which women and men bene¬t equally by their respective
giving, albeit on different domains; asymmetrical reciprocity in favor of
women, in which women themselves bene¬t most by their important
role in gift giving; and alternating asymmetry, in which women and
men pro¬t alternatively from the dominant and gendered pattern of gift

Asymmetrical Reciprocity in Favor of Men

Reciprocal exchange is often mistaken for symmetrical exchange in the
sense that both parties exchange goods of about equal value. Under the

Women, Gifts, and Power

surface of reciprocity, however, very asymmetrical forms of exchange and
even pure exploitation may be hidden: “[E]verywhere in the world the
indigenous category for exploitation is ˜reciprocity™” (Sahlins 1972: 134).
Reciprocity, then, is not synonymous with symmetry or equivalence.
One can speak of equivalent exchange only when both parties in an
exchange relationship have rights as well as duties toward each other and
exchange goods of about equal value. Many anthropological studies about
gift exchange seem to con¬rm the model of “asymmetrical reciprocity in
favor of men”: men are the dominant parties in gift giving, and prevailing
patterns of gift exchange bene¬t men more than women; men are reported
to assert dominance over women by demanding obedience and ignoring
women™s concerns (Strathern 1988).
When women do not, or barely, take part in gift exchange (as
Malinowski wrongly assumed), this may be a manifestation of their sub-
ordinate role in a certain society. But also when women do have a sub-
stantial share in gift giving, as in our own society, this may be interpreted
as a sign of their subordination. Women™s liberality in Western society
may be explained in terms of asymmetrical reciprocity in favor of men
because it reinforces and reproduces the hierarchically ordered division of
labor and the unequal power relationship between genders. The domain
of the market economy with its formally regulated patterns of exchange
prevails over the domain of the informal gift economy in terms of power
and prestige. In this model women™s greater share in giving gifts is related
to their position within the family and their traditional responsibility for
maintaining social contacts. As “kinkeepers” (Rosenthal 1985) women
are expected to keep a good record of birthdays, wedding days, and other
festivities, or to visit ill people, and to buy the appropriate presents. Be-
cause of these expectations, women can barely escape their gift giving
duties, whether they like them or not. Historically speaking, there are
good reasons to assume that the signi¬cance of women™s gift giving has
even increased during the past decades: the relative stability of social
and familial networks is diminishing as a consequence of an increased

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

divorce rate and of the growing geographical distances that separate peo-
ple™s domiciles (van Leer 1995). From this perspective reinforcing social
ties through gift giving is more needed than ever.
Up to a certain extent the dominant gender relationships and stereo-
types force women™s liberality upon them. In this model giving is a form
of “ not entirely voluntary “ labor performed by women merely serving
to af¬rm their inferior social position.

Equivalent Reciprocity

It is also possible that exchange relationships imply different but com-
plementary power resources to women and men. What women and men
give is different but yet equivalent. This would be a case of equivalent
reciprocity. Weiner (1976) gives an example of such an interpretation of
gift exchange by women in a non-Western society. She shows that the
Trobriand women were especially active as givers of gifts on the occasion
of rituals concerning the cycle of life and death. Women play an outstand-
ing role in the regeneration of dala, the transmission of the identity of the
nameless and anonymous ancestors who are assumed to have “the same
blood” and come from the same place and the same country (Weiner
1976: 253). Women envelop their child in a towel, bind it to a stick, and
put the stick in the soil where they are laboring. They hope that the an-
cestors™ spirit will thus enter into the child through the soil and the stick.
In the experience of the Trobriand inhabitants the essence of persons
and their spirit is transmitted by women. According to Weiner, women
therefore dispose of an important form of power and control, namely
the control over the ahistoric, cosmic, timeless phenomena of life and
death. Men derive their power and control from another domain, that of
material possessions and wealth, concrete gifts like yams, arm shells, and
necklaces “ the famous Kula gifts described by Malinowski “ to concrete
persons. This domain is, much more than that of women, situated in
historical time and space. The gifts men give to each other derive their

Women, Gifts, and Power

value, among others, from the fact that they inherited them from famous
and respected persons. By giving precious goods to each other, men cre-
ate relationships between speci¬c individuals over different generations.
Weiner concludes that women as well as men dispose of important power
resources, but each does so in a different domain.
Are these ideas relevant to our own culture? Of course, our market
economy has replaced the former gift economy to a certain extent (not
completely, though, as the gift economy still exists alongside the market
economy). And, of course, our culture radically differs from the one of
the Trobriand inhabitants. Nevertheless, some parallels with Weiner™s
¬ndings may be drawn. The market is the domain where men still are in
possession of most power resources: they are playing the most active role
in the exchange of money and commodities. The informal exchange of
gifts outside the market is mainly the domain of women. Arguing from
the model of symmetrical reciprocity, men and women derive equivalent
power from their respective exchange transactions. By means of their
giving gifts, women function as the guardians of social relationships.
Women and their gifts are, so to speak, the “greasing oil” of our society,
without which the human machinery would certainly break down. In
contrast, men are in large part responsible for economic transactions.
The big money is mainly circulating through their hands, and also the
“greasing money” “ monetary bribery “ is still predominantly a male
affair. The economic domain of commodity production and exchange
offers many possibilities to acquire power and prestige. Analogously to
Weiner™s reasoning, however, women would have another but equally im-
portant domain of exchange transactions from which to derive power: in-
terpersonal interaction, the social machinery where everything has to run
smoothly as well. The exchange of economically not “useful” but symbol-
ically rich and socially indispensable gifts by women would, then, equal
the economically useful exchange of commodities performed mainly by
men. In the latter type of exchange, the social and symbolic meaning is
subordinate to the economic one.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

Asymmetrical Reciprocity in Favor of Women

Although Weiner interprets her own ¬ndings as a case of what I called
“symmetrical reciprocity,” another interpretation is possible as well. The
symbolic control the Trobriand women were exerting over the cosmic cy-
cle of life and death may be regarded as a much more fundamental source
of power than the kind of power that ensues from men™s historically,
temporally, and spatially restricted, concrete, and speci¬c forms of gift
exchange. The transmission of dala is, in the end, a precondition of all
other forms of gift exchange. When one is insecure about the continuity
of the ancestral spirit, actual, competitive gift exchange between men
may not even be possible at all. The preservation of existing ties and the
formation of new ones may become problematic in that case.
In our Western world, too, one might consider women™s important role
in gift exchange as an indispensable investment in the social fundament of
our society. This social fundament can be considered as being more basic
than the economic fundament. Without a certain amount of kindness and
benevolence in relationships between people, at home, at work, and in
other kinds of social contexts, the survival chances of the market economy
are in jeopardy. Economic life can simply not dispense with forms of
institutionalized or noninstitutionalized kindness: the “human factor”
cannot be left out.
Without suggesting that this role is, or should be, the exclusive pre-
rogative of women, the well-known gender differences do play a role
here. Not every woman has social skills, and many men are as socially
skilled as women, but in everyday practice concern for the human factor
and the capacity to transform this concern into concrete acts of benev-
olence are often found in women. They are the ones who buy ¬‚owers
for ill colleagues and toys for newborn babies. They are the binding fac-
tor on the yearly “day out” with one™s colleagues. They keep an eye on
the personal well-being of the people surrounding them and often act
as intermediaries in case of con¬‚icts. These acts of symbolic or material

Women, Gifts, and Power

kindness toward others, in considerable part performed by women, are
indispensable for maintaining a livable world.
Women™s greater share in gift giving may, therefore, imply a relative
advantage in terms of the social resources it offers them. Women indeed
often have more and longer-lasting friendships than men, start new con-
tacts more easily through school or neighborhood, are more often con-
cerned about their family members, and therefore develop more intensive
family ties compared with men. Although business connections bene¬t
men more in terms of economic resources, women™s personal relations
offer them more social and human advantage. In the end, this last type of
advantage might prove to be more important than any economic pro¬t:
in times of personal problems, illness, death, or other misery, a business
connection is of no great use. After all, our personal happiness is more
dependent on interpersonal than on economic factors, if a certain level
of economic resources is guaranteed.
In this third model, women™s liberality brings the greatest bene¬t to
themselves. The asymmetric pattern of gift exchange existing between
genders advantages women more than men, not only because they re-
ceive the greatest amount of gifts but also, and mainly, because of the
benevolence and kindness symbolized in these gifts, and the social bene-
¬t this implies. Giving by women turns back to themselves as a pleasurable
kind of boomerang.

Alternating Asymmetry

None of the models discussed thus far is entirely satisfying. Women do
not give exclusively because their traditional role urges them to do so
(the ¬rst model) but also because they want to give and derive pleasure
from it. Another problem is that the forms of power women and men
can derive from their respective domains are not equivalent (the second
model). The two domains are associated with different possibilities for
societal participation, different socioeconomic positions, and differences

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

in acquired jobs, incomes, and prestige. Informal gift exchange by women
may certainly be an important complement to formal market exchange by
men, but the type and amount of power associated with these two forms
of exchange are not necessarily equal or equivalent. Although women™s
gift giving undeniably yields them some social bene¬ts (the third model),
the big question is again what this ¬nally amounts to in terms of economic
and political power. In order to be able to share in these types of power,
a greater part in economic exchange seems necessary.
In devising the fourth model I took my inspiration from Marilyn
Strathern (1988). Strathern criticizes the usual Western interpretation
of the relationship between women and men in Melanesian culture in
terms of hierarchical patterns of dominance. In Western thinking the
collective and the familial sphere are ordered hierarchically. Melanesian
people experience these as equivalent. Western people regard humans as
internally consistent entities, whereas Melanesian men and women con-
sider persons as composed of different parts. Melanesians do not think
in terms of “structures” or “values” determining the behavior of indi-
vidual men and women: “[I]t is agents, not systems who act” (Strathern
1988: 328). A person interprets only the concrete behavior or actions of
another person, and not cultural conventions, as the cause of his or her
own behavior. The idea that masculine values in a certain culture are
the cause of feminine subordination is at odds with this way of thinking
and experiencing the surrounding world. Our familiar oppositions be-
tween object and subject, passive and active, and the idea of persons as
consistent entities do not apply in the Melanesian context. According to
Strathern, then, it is a mistake to regard men and women as either active
object or passive subject of interpersonal transactions. Melanesian men
and women experience each other as the cause of their own actions. Men
and women take themselves, as it were, as an aspect of the social identity
of the other sex. A woman who is exchanged by men is not necessar-
ily reduced to an object by this act. Rather, she is a link in the chain of
relationships, while preserving her own autonomy.

Women, Gifts, and Power

These more or less equivalent acts of exchange may exist alongside
evident forms of male dominance such as violence against women (and
other men) that, according to Strathern, also exist in Melanesian culture.
Her conclusion is, however, that in Melanesia no permanent relations of
dominance exist between men and women. Rather, women and men are
alternatively subject or object for each other in their continuing efforts to
create and sustain social relations. Although every act contains an element
of inherent force in its consequences for other people and does, therefore,
generate temporary asymmetry in the interaction, this asymmetry is not
permanent but is alternated by a form of asymmetry where the roles of
object and subject, of active and passive, are reversed.
Even though Strathern™s conception of women™s autonomy in
Melanesia may sound overly optimistic in view of the patterns of male
dominance and force that she describes as well, her contention that our
traditional Western schemes of one-sided, hierarchical dominance of men
over women are not valid when applied to Melanesian culture should be
taken seriously. It might also prove useful to abandon these schemes “
characteristic of many feminist analyses of the 1970s “ when thinking
about women™s status in Western society.
Strathern developed her views in order to understand the essence of
Melanesian culture. Nevertheless, these views may also be applicable to
gift exchange by women in Western society. The relationship between
women, gifts, and power might be interpreted as characterized by al-
ternating asymmetry. I mean by this that the ¬rst and the third models
are alternating: women and men alternatively bene¬t from the fact that
women are the greater givers. The second model “ which presupposes
symmetry of domains “ is not valid because the different kinds of ex-
change transactions of women and men are not equivalent with regard
to the societal power associated with them. However, the ¬rst model “
men bene¬t the most from women™s informal giving “ cannot be rejected
so easily. Men are indeed often relatively well off as a result of women™s
liberality but this is not the whole and not necessarily the only correct

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

story. Also the third model “ giving by women is the most pro¬table for
themselves “ contains some truth.
With alternating bene¬ts, I do not mean a sort of chronological
alternation “ ¬rst model 1, and then model 3, or the reverse. The concept
rather points to the fact that the bene¬ts of gift giving alternate from one
party to the other, depending on the perspective that is chosen and on
the speci¬c circumstances in which the giving occurs. As concerns the
perspective, women™s (and men™s) social reality has different faces. Being
constrained by the burden of traditional household tasks and duties is
one; deriving pleasure from giving gifts to other people, receiving much in
return, and having ample social relations constitute another face. The for-
mer does not exclude the latter, and both can even exist simultaneously.
Regarding the circumstances, although giving in extreme amounts and
with extreme intensity is probably not psychologically healthy because of
the risk of losing one™s self (gift giving is giving “something of one™s own
self”), some women want or are actually obliged to do this. A constel-
lation of psychological tendencies to be self-sacri¬cing and to obliterate
oneself, particularly when combined with a strongly asymmetric power
relationship between genders, certainly promotes the dominance of the
¬rst model. In that case women™s liberality mainly bene¬ts others (for
instance, men) and predominantly impacts their own costs. On the con-
trary, the third model becomes prevalent when women already dispose
of certain important power resources, for example, in the form of eco-
nomic independence and psychological autonomy. When this is the case,
the traditionally female caring for the quality of social relationships by
means of gift giving may turn out to be advantageous for women because
the social capital it generates tends to accumulate: the more one has, the
more one gets. This applies to relationships as well as to gifts, which prove
to be inextricably linked.
The fact that women in Western society are the greatest givers, then,
cannot be disentangled, on the one hand, from their more vulnerable
societal and economic position compared with that of men and, on the

Women, Gifts, and Power

other hand, from the power they are invested with by being society™s
prime intermediaries in creating and recreating social relationships by
means of gift giving.
If this fourth model has some validity, it means that different interpre-
tations of the meaning of women™s gift exchange are needed for different
categories of women. Moreover, even within one woman™s life gift giving
may have different meanings. That women in our society have such a sub-
stantial share in gift giving should not too easily be attributed to either
some altruistic disposition or to their social subordination. Although the
amount of women™s gift exchange may strongly correlate with their tra-
ditional feminine role as Cheal (1988) has suggested, the meaning of their
gift giving seems to vary with their personal and social circumstances.

The Paradox of Female Gift Giving

In contrast to our usual thinking, giving is inherently asymmetrical.
Power may be involved in gift giving in several ways. Gifts may enhance
personal status or power. They create a relationship of debt and depen-
dency between giver and recipient in which the possibility of power abuse
is always present. Gifts, and with them the identity of the giver, may be
refused. Gift giving to some people excludes others from the material and
immaterial bene¬ts implied in this practice. In gift exchange structural
inequality of resources may be involved; on the basis of power inequal-
ity some people feel obliged to give much while receiving little, whereas
others, though poor givers themselves, are endowed with abundant gifts.
How do women, as the greatest givers and recipients, come into this
picture? In the light of the many possibilities to exercise power by means
of gift giving, it is too easy and even misleading to consider women™s
greater liberality as the mere expression of noble feeling. In addition to
affection, respect, or gratitude, also manipulation, ¬‚attering, or being
in need of personal attention are common motives to give (of course,
this applies to both genders). Women seem to be no exception when

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

painful, hurting, or offending gifts are given and, after all, are not the
most notorious poisoners in history of the female sex?
Another explanation draws upon structural power asymmetries be-
tween women and men and upon the difference in resources from which
power may be derived. It is not clear which gender bene¬ts most from
women™s liberality. On the one hand, women™s gift giving may be consid-
ered as a manifestation of gendered power inequality, because this is what
they are expected to do as housewives. Their liberality may turn against
them, for example, when they sacri¬ce their own autonomy for the sake
of others. On the other hand, giving by women entails many attractive
bene¬ts to themselves as well: closer relationships and more extended so-
cial networks, and, therefore, a greater chance to receive attention, care,
or help from others when necessary. Moreover, women receive relatively
many material gifts themselves, which is also a pleasant aspect. How the
balance of bene¬ts or disadvantages for women as greatest givers will
exactly weigh out depends on their personal power resources and social
Women™s gift giving is caught in a fundamental paradox. On the one
hand, their gift exchange may be considered a powerful means of af¬rm-
ing social identities and of creating and maintaining social relationships.
Women™s activity in this domain might be interpreted as an effort “to
secure permanence in a serial world that is always subject to loss and
decay” (Weiner 1992: 7). On the other hand, given their unequal soci-
etal and economic power compared with that of men, women incur the
risk of losing their own identity by giving much to others. In the act
of giving, women are simultaneously creating the opportunity to keep
or gain power, and making themselves vulnerable to the loss of power
and autonomy. Weiner™s idea about “keeping-while-giving” “ exchanging
things in order to keep them “ is a perfect illustration of this paradoxical
tension in women™s gift giving: to overcome the threats of loss “ of their
own selves, of their power vis-` -vis men, and of important social bonds “
they give away abundantly. And, as a consequence of giving abundantly,

Women, Gifts, and Power

they are facing the threat of losing their autonomy. It is as though men™s
greater societal and economic power not only renders it less urgent for
them to engage in substantial gift giving but also protects them from loss
of autonomy through giving to other people.
The gender difference in gift giving illustrates the substantial role of
women in creating the social cement of society. Although many forms of
solidarity are not gendered at all, this applies neither to gift giving nor to
informal care, a type of solidarity that is discussed in Chapters 6 and 7.
Despite their increased emancipation, women still have the largest share
in informal care. In these cases solidarity is clearly related to gender.


Solidarity and Selectivity

Social Theory and Social Ties

As to the question which gave rise to this work, it is that
of the relations between the individual personality and social
solidarity. What explains the fact that, while becoming more
autonomous, the individual becomes more closely dependent
on society? How can he simultaneously be more personally
developed and more socially dependent? For it is undeniable
that these two developments, however contradictory they may
seem, are equally in evidence. That is the problem which we
have set ourselves. What has seemed to us to resolve this
apparent antinomy is a transformation of social solidarity
due to the steadily growing development of the division of
(Emile Durkheim 1964a [1893]: 37“38)

How is social order created? How is social order maintained? What
makes people live together in peace and initiate mutual ties? What are
the origins of the trust that is needed to be able to exchange goods
and services? What are the psychological, social, and cultural condi-
tions for the development of social ties? Those are the old questions to
which social science “ as advanced by its classical as well as its more
modern authors “ has attempted to ¬nd answers. The theme of so-
cial order has not exclusively been a central focus in the sociological

Solidarity and Selectivity

discipline, but also in anthropology. In addition to Durkheim, Weber,
and Parsons, who took primarily (but not exclusively) Western society
as point of departure for their analyses, ethnologists and anthropolo-
gists such as Malinowski and L´ vi-Strauss have studied the conditions
for the genesis of a common culture. Processes of reciprocal exchange “
of gifts, goods, and services “ and the sense of moral obligation origi-
nating in these processes proved to be the basis of many non-Western
In speaking of social order as a “problem,” Talcott Parsons identi-
¬es two conditions at its root. First, people have limited capacities to
sympathize with their fellow human beings: there is a constant ten-
sion between the moral obligations they feel toward other people and
the impulse to promote their own interests. What is desirable from
a normative perspective does not necessarily correspond to our actual
needs, wishes, and desires; this may be called a moral shortage. Second,
people inhabit an environment that provides insuf¬cient resources to
ful¬ll the needs of all members of society; here, a material shortage,
a problem of scarcity, is involved. “The problem of order is . . . rooted
in inescapable con¬‚ict between the interests and desires of individu-
als and the requirements of society: to wit, the paci¬cation of vio-
lent strife among men and the secure establishment of co-operative
social relations making possible the pursuit of collective goals” (Wrong
1994: 36).
The more society is in a process of change, the more social science
is concerned with the concepts of cohesion and solidarity. Therefore, it
is not surprising that at the end of the nineteenth century sociologists
were analyzing the consequences of the transition from traditional to
modern society for social cohesion and solidarity and anthropologists
were wondering on which principles culture and order in non-Western
societies were based. Which were their main ideas, and what can we
still learn from them? Why is the theory of the gift a theory of human

Social Theory and Social Ties

Classical Theory: Unity of Generosity and Self-Interest

Affective and Instrumental Bases of Solidarity

According to Durkheim the nature of solidarity is the central problem
of sociology. This is the thread that runs through his whole work: what
are the ties uniting people to each other, he wondered in 1888, ¬ve years
before he wrote De la division du travail social, where he elaborates his
theory of solidarity (Lukes 1973).
Durkheim™s predecessors had already developed some ideas about the
social texture of society. In a work that predates Durkheim by a few
decades, Auguste Comte, for instance, describes the social equilibrium in
modern society as the result of the division of labor and occupational
specialization. But to Comte the principle of differentiation and special-
ization also is a threat to feelings of community and togetherness. In con-
trast to Comte, Herbert Spencer emphasizes the element of self-interest
involved in solidarity. In accordance with the tradition of British utili-
tarianism and the thinking of Adam Smith, he regards social cohesion as
the result of the undisturbed interplay of individual interests; no shared
beliefs, norms, or state regulations are needed to realize cohesion and sol-
idarity. T¨ nnies, the ¬rst to analyze the transformation of solidarity in the
nineteenth century, describes how in the transition from Gemeinschaft to
Gesellschaft the traditional community values as they were embodied in
the small-scale social unities of family, neighborhood, and village were
substituted by individualized feelings and needs. In the large-scale cen-
tralized nation-state, social relationships had become dominated by eco-
nomic rationality and free competition between individual interests. In
contrast to Spencer, T¨ nnies presents a gloomy picture of the rising cap-
italist society, which could only be kept under control by a strong state.
Durkheim agrees with T¨ nnies™s division into two types of society,
and also with his global characterization of Gemeinschaft. But while
T¨ nnies describes Gesellschaft as a mechanical aggregate, Durkheim does

Solidarity and Selectivity

not conceive of premodern societies as more “organic” than contempo-
rary ones. According to him collective activity in more modern societies
is as spontaneous and natural as in more small-scale communities. In
the end Durkheim reverses T¨ nnies™s terminology: he reserves the term
“mechanical solidarity” for the human ties that characterize traditional
societies, while using “organic solidarity” to describe modern forms of
community. He explains his choice for these terms as follows: mechanical
solidarity “does not signify that it is produced by mechanical and arti¬cial
means. We call it that only by analogy to the cohesion which unites the
elements of an inanimate body, as opposed to that which makes a unity
out of the elements of a living body.” In the case of mechanical solidarity
“the social molecules . . . can act together only in the measure that they
have no actions of their own, as the molecules of inorganic bodies” (1964a
[1893]: 130).
Mechanical solidarity corresponds to a “system of homogeneous seg-
ments that are similar to one another” (1964a [1893]: 181). Society com-
prises such segments (families, clans, and territorial districts), which
are characterized by a very low degree of interdependence. There is no
fundamental distinction between individuals. Individual conscience is
dependent on the collective conscience, and individual identity is a part
of group identity. In mechanical solidarity human behavior is regulated
by the shared norms, sentiments, and values that form together the con-
science collective. This type of solidarity is re¬‚ected in the application of
severe penal sanctions “ “repressive law” “ to deviant behavior or the
violation of norms. Religion is a dominant factor in social life, and the
codes of morality are concrete and speci¬c.
In more modern societies organic solidarity is gradually replacing me-
chanical solidarity. Organic solidarity is based on individual difference.
The increased division of labor and occupational specialization at the
end of the nineteenth century brought about a differentiation in societal
tasks and functions comparable to the different functions of the bodily or-
gans, which analogy explains Durkheim™s “organic solidarity.” Durkheim

Social Theory and Social Ties

assumes a direct relationship between the degree of specialization of soci-
etal functions and the extent of social cohesion: the more labor is divided
and the activity of each is specialized, “the stronger is the cohesion which
results from this solidarity” (1964a [1893]: 131). Or, in his organ termi-
nology, “the unity of the organism is as great as the individuation of the
parts is more marked” (131). There is a high level of mutual dependency.
Legal regulations determine the nature of and relationships between the
different societal tasks and functions. As the division of labor extends,
the conscience collective weakens: its content becomes increasingly sec-
ular and human-oriented, and morality is becoming more abstract and
universal. It is important to bear in mind that Durkheim regards the
distinction between the solidarity types as an analytical one and, in fact,
as two aspects of the same reality that are rarely entirely separate.
In line with T¨ nnies™s distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesell-
schaft Max Weber distinguishes between communal and associative social
relationships. When people™s action “ either individual or collective “ is
based on the subjective feeling of togetherness, Weber speaks of commu-
nal relationships. This feeling may stem from affection or from tradition,
but it is essential that more than the mere feeling of togetherness is in-
volved. “It is only when this feeling leads to a mutual orientation of their
behaviour to each other that a social relationship arises between them”
(1947 [1922]: 138). Associative relationships are at issue when the ori-
entation of action springs from a rationally motivated correspondence
between interests. This rationality may be inspired either by certain ab-
solute values or by instrumental and utilitarian considerations. An ex-
ample is market exchange, consisting of a compromise between opposed
but complementary interests. Another example is the purely voluntary
association between individuals on the basis of their self-interest; or the
voluntary association of individuals sharing certain values.
Different from associative relationships, communal relationships
have an affective, emotional, or traditional basis “ for example, religious
fraternities, erotic relationships, personal loyalty, or the esprit de corps

Solidarity and Selectivity

within the military. The most typical communal relationship is the fam-
ily, according to Weber. Most social relationships possess this affective
component but are at the same time determined by associational factors.
“No matter how calculating and hard-headed the ruling considerations
in such a social relationship “ as that of a merchant to his customers “
may be, it is quite possible for it to involve emotional values which tran-
scend its utilitarian signi¬cance” (1947 [1922]: 137). Like Durkheim Weber
stresses the impossibility of a strict distinction between the different types
of social relationship: they are ideal types. In everyday practice any so-
cial relationship that transcends the pursuit of immediate interests and
is of a longer duration generates enduring social bonds, which cannot
be reduced to mere utilitarian considerations. The reverse is also true:
within communal relationships actions may sometimes be inspired by
utilitarian motives.
The American sociologist Talcott Parsons is clearly inspired by these
founding fathers of sociology (1952, 1977). For instance, Durkheim™s em-
phasis on the contribution of common values to the integration of so-
cial systems can be recognized in The Social System (1952). In this book
Parsons distinguishes loyalty from solidarity. He considers loyalty the
noninstitutionalized precursor of solidarity: the individual motivation
to conform to the interests or expectations of another person. Only
when these expectations have become an institutionalized obligation
can we speak of solidarity. Inasmuch as these roles are institutional-
ized, solidarity with the collectivity of which one is a part is involved.
Also Parsons returns to T¨ nnies™s terminology in his differentiation be-
tween certain types of collectivity: “A collectivity in which expressive
interests have primacy in its orientation to continual action in concert
may . . . be called a Gemeinschaft; one in which instrumental interests
have primacy is an ˜organization™” (1952: 100). Like Durkheim and Weber,
Parsons acknowledges the possibility of mixtures between Gemeinschaft
and Gesellschaft, for instance, in relationships between the incumbents
of certain professional roles and their clients: universalism, functional

Social Theory and Social Ties

speci¬city, and affective neutrality “ characteristics of Gesellschaft “ go
along with the obligation implied in the profession to serve the commu-
nity, irrespective of any ¬nancial considerations.
Parsons does not develop a full-blown theory of solidarity. However,
he does have a clear-cut opinion on the basis of solidarity: “I should like
to suggest that the primary ˜cement™ which makes such groups solidary is
affective ties” (1952: 157). In the process of socialization within the family
the child develops its ¬rst affective ties. This is the basis of the formation
of an internalized capacity to affectivity that can be transferred to objects
outside the family. Affectivity is, according to Parsons, a “generalized
medium” comparable with money, power, and in¬‚uence.
From these various sociological accounts two main types of solidarity
come to the fore, whose bases are only seemingly in opposition to each
other. They are brought together in the following scheme:

Gemeinschaft Gesellschaft
mechanical solidarity organic solidarity
communal relationships associative relationships
expressive relationships instrumental relationships

One may feel tempted to associate the left column with preindustrial
society in which small homogeneous communities are tied together by
strong feelings of solidarity, and to regard the right column as the pro-
totype of modern solidarity as it has evolved in industrialized society.
The underlying assumptions about human nature involve, on the one
hand, homo sociologicus, the individual as embedded in small-scale so-
cial relationships, and whose solidary behavior is based on internalized
moral obligations and, on the other hand, homo economicus, the rational,
market-oriented individual, whose moral codes are abstract and univer-
sal. Solidarity is synonymous, here, with promoting the collective interest
of mutually dependent individuals.
As we have seen, such a simpli¬ed dichotomy is not found in the
works of the classical authors just discussed. Although most of them

Solidarity and Selectivity

distinguish different types of solidarity, they all emphasize that these
types are not mutually exclusive and, indeed, often occur together in
varying combinations. The idea that the two types of solidarity do not
exclude each other seems to have been lost in more modern theories, as I
argue in a moment, after discussing some other classical anthropological
and sociological contributions.

Reciprocity and Morality as Bases of Social Ties

Malinowski™s detailed account of the Kula ritual “ the pattern of ceremo-
nial gift exchange among the population of the Trobriand archipelago
discussed in Chapter 3 “ describes a continuous gift exchange that takes
place between the inhabitants of these islands. It follows a ¬xed pattern
with articles of two kinds constantly traveling in opposite directions and
constantly being exchanged. Every detail of the transactions is ¬xed and
regulated by a set of rules and conventions. Most important is that the
gifts keep moving through the archipelago: a gift should never stagnate.
The issue is not the durable possession of certain articles but the princi-
ple of exchange itself. The ever continuing movement of the objects from
one (temporary) owner to the next is crucial in the process of acquiring
a personal and social identity, status, and prestige and of creating social
Malinowski proposes a continuum of feelings involved in gift giving.
Pure gifts, altruistic gifts for which nothing is expected in return, and gifts
that can be characterized as barter or forms of exchange where personal
pro¬t is the dominant motive, are the exceptions. Most typical are motives
that lie in between these extremes. More or less equivalent reciprocity,
attended by clear expectations of returns, is the general rule underly-
ing gift exchange. According to Malinowski this economic dimension
of gift giving corresponds with the sociological dimension of kinship:
gifts to kin and partners are more often given disinterestedly, whereas
more or less direct expectations of returns and elements of barter are

Social Theory and Social Ties

more characteristic of gifts given to persons farther away in the kinship
Like his master Durkheim, Marcel Mauss takes a critical stance to-
ward the then prevailing utilitarian strands in political theory by em-
phasizing the values of altruism and solidarity. However, he goes beyond
Durkheim™s conceptions of solidarity as based on collective representa-
tions or on the mutual dependency implied in the division of labor, by
discovering gift exchange as the mechanism that reconciles individual in-
terests and the creation of a social system. Mauss radicalizes Malinowski™s
insights by stating that do ut des is the principal rule in all gift giving. In
his view, there are no free gifts: “Generosity and self-interest are linked in
giving” (1990 [1923]: 68). He considers gift exchange as a subtle mixture
of altruism and sel¬shness. Customs of potlatch “ rivalrous gift giving in
order to gain status and power (see Chapter 1) “ illustrate this mixture
in its most extreme form. Giving is not only a material act but also a
symbolic medium involving strong moral obligations to give in return.
By means of giving mutually it becomes possible to communicate with
other people, to help them, and to create alliances. Gift exchange is at
the basis of a system of mutual obligations between people and, as such,
functions as the moral cement of human society and culture, according
to Mauss.
In a work written some decades later, L´ vi-Strauss (1961 [1949]) de-
velops these insights further by considering the principle of reciprocity
as a social structure determining our values, feelings, and actions. This
is illustrated, for example, by the exchange of women by men in some
non-Western societies. The principle of reciprocity is not limited to so-
called primitive societies but also applies to Western society, according to
L´ vi-Strauss. He mentions examples in the sphere of offering food and
the exchange of presents at Christmas. Forms of potlatch occur in our
own society as well; for instance, the exhibition of Christmas cards on our
mantelpiece and the vanity of much gift giving exemplify the destruction
of wealth as a means to express or gain prestige. Far from being neutral

Solidarity and Selectivity

objects without any special symbolic value, gifts are “vehicles and instru-
ments for realities of another order: in¬‚uence, power, sympathy, status,
emotion; and the skilful game of exchange consists of a complex totality
of manoeuvres, conscious or unconscious, in order to gain security and
to fortify one™s self against risks incurred through alliances and rivalry”
(1965: 86).
L´ vi-Strauss makes the important distinction between “restricted ex-
change,” involving only two partners, and “generalized exchange,” which
refers to a more complex structure of exchange relationships. The concept
of generalized exchange has been reconsidered by Sahlins (1972), who dis-
tinguishes between “generalized,” “balanced,” and “negative” reciprocity
and richly illustrates these different forms with ethnographic materials.
In generalized reciprocity “ the disinterested extreme “ the expectation
of returns is inde¬nite, and returns are not stipulated by time, quantity,
or quality. Like Gouldner and Malinowski, Sahlins mentions the circle of
near kin and loved ones as an example. Feelings of altruism and solidarity
supposedly accompany this type of exchange. Balanced reciprocity is less
personal and refers to direct and equivalent exchange without much delay.
It is more likely in relationships that are more emotionally distant. Feel-
ings of mutual obligation go together with balanced reciprocity. Sahlins
describes negative reciprocity “ the unsociable extreme “ as the “attempt
to get something for nothing” (1972: 195). He summarizes his model as
“kindred goes with kindness,” and “close kin tend to share, to enter in
generalized exchanges, and distant and nonkin to deal in equivalents or
in guile” (Sahlins 1972: 196, quoting Tylor).
Conscious or unconscious expectations of reciprocity not only bring
social relations about; they also stabilize already existing relations by mak-
ing them predictable to a certain extent. In his essay “Faithfulness and
gratitude,” Simmel (1950 [1908]) analyzes the moral and social impor-
tance of these two feelings for sustaining reciprocity in human relation-
ships. The different psychological motives on which social relations can
be based, such as love, hate, and passion, are in themselves not suf¬cient

Social Theory and Social Ties

to keep these relations alive. Simmel considers faithfulness “ a kind of
loyalty or commitment “ a necessary feeling contributing to the continu-
ity of an already existing social relationship. Faithfulness is what he calls
a “sociological feeling,” oriented to the relation as such, in contrast to the
more person-oriented feelings like love, hate, or friendship. Gratitude is,
just like faithfulness, a powerful means to establish social cohesion, as
has been argued in Chapter 3. This is why Simmel calls gift giving “one of
the strongest sociological functions”: without it society would not come
Also Alvin Gouldner explores the “norm of reciprocity” as a mech-
anism to start social relationships. This norm helps to create social in-
teraction “for it can reduce an actor™s hesitancy to be the ¬rst to part
with his valuables and thus enable exchange to get underway” (1973a:
255). Although equivalence and mutuality can be powerful motives to
exchange gifts, Gouldner, following Simmel, points to the fact that reci-
procity does not necessarily mean equivalence. However, Gouldner goes
further than Simmel by re¬‚ecting more explicitly on the complicat-
ing role of power in reciprocity relations and by elaborating it theo-
retically. As we have seen in Chapter 3, reciprocal exchange relation-
ships may be very asymmetrical. In addition to the norm of reciprocity,
Gouldner distinguishes the “norm of bene¬cence,” or the norm of giv-
ing “something for nothing” (Malinowski™s “free gift”): the expression
of real altruism. This kind of giving is not a reaction to gifts received
from others. It is a powerful correction mechanism in situations where
existing social relationships have become disturbed, or where people
need care or help. Paradoxically, says Gouldner, “There is no gift that
brings a higher return than the free gift, the gift given with no strings
attached. For that which is truly given freely moves men deeply and
makes them most indebted to their benefactors. In the end, if it is reci-
procity that holds the mundane world together, it is bene¬cence that
transcends this world and can make men weep the tears of reconciliation”
(1973b: 277).

Solidarity and Selectivity

Despite clear-cut differences in approach, Simmel, Malinowski, Mauss,
L´ vi-Strauss, Gouldner, and Sahlins all seem to stress the same point: gifts
are the moral cement of culture and society. Although power may compli-
cate the principle of reciprocity, the primordial meaning of gift exchange
is to start or to stabilize social relationships. An interesting parallel with
the ideas of Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons, who do not so much oppose
but rather juxtapose communal and instrumental relationship types, is
that self-interest and the creation of social order are not regarded as con-
tradictory. Generosity and self-interest go hand in hand in gift exchange,
and it is exactly this combination that fosters the development of social

Modern Theory: Splitting Up Affection and Utility

In more modern conceptualizations of solidarity, two approaches have
come into existence, the one stressing instrumental and utilitarian mo-
tives, the other considering norms, values, and emotions as the bases
of solidarity. Authors like Hechter (1987), Coleman (1986), Elster (1989),
Raub (1997), Lindenberg (1998), and (very differently) de Swaan (1988)
are representatives of the ¬rst tradition, whereas scholars such as Mayhew
(1971) and Etzioni (1988) can be said to advance the second approach.

Solidarity and Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theorists differ with regard to the centrality of the role of
self-interest in their theories. Some allow for other motivations as well.
John Elster (1989), for instance, thinks that, in addition to self-interest,
altruism, envy, and social norms are also contributing to social order,
stability, and cooperation. Other rational choice theorists, though, regard
self-interest as the prevailing motivation in determining an actor™s choices
between various action possibilities. One of the best-known theories of
solidarity based on this latter view of rational choice is Michael Hechter™s.

Social Theory and Social Ties

In his Principles of Group Solidarity (1987) he objects to three sociological
traditions of thinking about solidarity: the normativistic, functionalist,
and structuralist vision.
The ¬rst perspective, embodied in the work of Durkheim and Parsons,
considers order as the result of internalized group norms. From the func-
tionalist perspective that Hechter associates, for instance, with Elster,
solidarity is explained by the survival value of certain forms of solidary
behavior, whereas in the structuralist vision certain societal structures “
for instance, patterns of strati¬cation “ are seen as the cause of group soli-
darity. Marx and Simmel provide examples of this approach. In Hechter™s
view, none of these approaches can explain differences in the degree to
which people feel tied to the group or under which conditions group
members will or will not conform to their obligations toward the group.
The starting point of his own rational choice approach of solidarity is
that individuals are “bearers of sets of given, discrete, nonambiguous, and
transitive preferences” (1987: 30). In a situation where they can choose
between alternative possibilities of action, they will always choose that
alternative that presumably brings them the greatest pro¬t. As pro¬t max-
imizers, rational individuals are supposed to behave coherently and to
be goal-oriented; they are, in brief, “rational egoists.” Institutions play
a regulating role, because they keep control of individual behavior by
means of the rules they have developed.
An important factor explaining the extent to which people feel tied
to a group is their dependency on the group for the satisfaction of their
needs. In its turn, dependency is in¬‚uenced by the availability of alter-
native resources for need satisfaction, the available information about
these resources, the costs involved in leaving the group, and the strength
of the personal ties among group members. The greater the dependency
of the members, the stronger the group ties and obligations felt toward
the group. The strength of group ties, however, is not enough to explain
solidary behavior. Solidarity presupposes that people are in fact com-
mitting themselves to the group™s ends and do not become “free riders.”

Solidarity and Selectivity

Compliance requires formal controls, a group™s means to counteract free
riding. The group must have suf¬cient resources in order to be able to
punish or reward its members effectively depending on their contribution
to the group.
A similar perspective is found in the work of Coleman (1986). How
can individual interests be reconciled with collective rationality? Coleman
and Fararo (1992: xi“xii) describe as the principal aim of rational choice
theory “to understand how actions that are reasonable or rational for
actors can combine to produce social outcomes, sometimes intended by
actors, sometimes unintended, sometimes socially optimal, sometimes
non-optimal.” The Dutch tradition of theoretical sociology also departs
from a rational choice perspective in its focus on the interdependency of
actors and the intended and unintended consequences of their behavior.
Raub (1997: 23) argues, for instance, that, if we assume that “actors act
according to their interests and that the interests of actors are their own
interests,” people will coordinate their actions while acknowledging in-
terdependency with other actors in order to reach their economic and
social goals.
The tension between individual and collective interests and rationality
is also central to de Swaan™s study about the rise of collective forms of
solidarity in Europe and the United States (1988). Which are the indirect
consequences of the misfortunes of some people for others who do not
suffer directly from these misfortunes? Using diverging theoretical per-
spectives like Elias™s civilization theory and Olson™s theory on the logic of
collective action, de Swaan analyzes the historical process in which people
have become more and more dependent on each other, and the implica-
tions of this process for social solidarity. As interdependency networks
became more extended, rami¬ed, and complex, the in¬‚uence of people™s
actions on others who took part in the same networks increased. Greater
mutual dependency implies that the needs of some “ caused by poverty,
illness, or a lack of education “ come to represent a threat to others who
suffer less from these misfortunes. Poverty, for instance, meant a threat to

Social Theory and Social Ties

public order, epidemics were threatening the lives of healthy individuals
as well, and low education involved the risk of social exclusion of some,
and therefore social instability for all. Therefore, it was in the rational
self-interest of the privileged citizens to contribute ¬nancially and to ar-
range collective welfare facilities. The general access of these collective
goods and the risk of free riding and abuse were the reasons for the de-
velopment of the system of state-based care where everybody is equally
obliged to contribute to the collective good.

Norms, Values, and Emotions as Bases of Solidarity

A very different approach of solidarity states that people come to feel
committed to each other because they experience mutual attraction and
want to identify with others and act loyally toward them. Solidarity starts
with feelings of mutual connectedness. This view can be found in the
work of Mayhew (1971). According to him solidary behavior is often
organized in certain institutions, which he calls “systems of solidarity.”
An example is the family. Its function is “encouraging, stabilising, and
regulating patterns of attraction, repulsion, loyalty, and identity within a
population” (1971: 68). But solidarity is not restricted to kinship systems.
People feel solidarity with all sorts of communities, ethnic groups, groups
of colleagues, religious groupings, or even nations. Mayhew distinguishes
between four forms of solidarity. First is the primary ties of affection
between people, or attraction. When a group member not only feels
attracted to the group but also cares for the unity of the group and the
group ends, loyalty is involved. The other two forms of solidarity are


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