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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

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