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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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Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521841009

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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

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