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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

Things and Social Relationships

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

Four Different Types of Social Relationship

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

The Four Basic Meanings of Gifts

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

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