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The Social Meaning of Things

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

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

Con¬‚icting Social Lives of Things

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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

Things: Markers as Well as Marks of Relationship

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

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

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

The Social Meaning of Things

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

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


Patterns of Giving and Receiving

Gifts may re¬‚ect unfriendliness in at least two ¬nal ways. First,
the gold watch presented at retirement is normally more repre-
sentative of a feeling of good riddance than of recognition for
achievement; it is indeed a gilded “pink slip.” Lastly, psychoan-
alytic theories of symbolism suggest that death wishes may be
expressed in such gift objects as electric trains, satin blankets,
ships, and other vehicles which take “long journeys.” Inasmuch
as such theories are valid, the popularity of electric trains as
Christmas gifts has enormous implications.
(Barry Schwartz 1996 [1967]: 75)

When giving something to another person, our intentions are often not
entirely unsel¬sh. We expect that our gift will be reciprocated by a suit-
able return gift; otherwise we have the feeling that there is something
wrong with our relationship to the recipient of our gift. Anthropolo-
gists like Malinowski, Mauss, and L´ vi-Strauss investigated the impact of
moral obligation for the creation of social bonds and a shared culture in
non-Western societies and showed that mutual gift giving is an impor-
tant mechanism behind social cohesion and solidarity. The focus of this
chapter is on some fundamental social patterns underlying gift giving in
Western societies and on some of the main social-psychological aspects
of giving.
From within the discipline of psychology not much empirical research
on gift giving has been done, although recently this tendency seems to

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

shift (Otnes and Beltramini 1996). As concerns theory, the main sources
of inspiration are still found in the classical anthropological and soci-
ological literature on gift exchange. Although the theme of the gift has
great psychological signi¬cance “ it is related to human identity and to a
multitude of positive as well as negative motives, emotions, and feelings “
psychologists have largely ignored the subject. Exceptions include Barry
Schwartz (1967), who has studied gift giving from the perspective of “bad
gifts,” or gifts that have unfriendly intentions. Offensive or embarrassing
gifts may cause psychological harm and seriously threaten social ties.
Gifts tell something about the identity of both the giver and the receiver.
Gifts mirror ourselves, but they re¬‚ect the identity of the recipient as well
because the gift symbolizes the way we perceive the recipient. In the act of
gift giving the giver pays respect to the person of the recipient and af¬rms
his personal identity. To the recipient the gift symbolizes that he or she
is recognized as a person having a special value to the giver. Feelings of
moral obligation and gratitude on the part of the recipient will be the
result, making him offer a return gift.
After a discussion of some empirical research results on giving and
receiving in some Western societies, this chapter explores the main psy-
chological functions of gift giving. Then the psychological motives that
may underlie gift giving are connected to the four basic meanings of gifts
as distinguished in Chapter 1. If we want to understand the meaning of the
gift for the disruption as well as the formation of social ties, we should also
pay attention to the less positive side of gift giving. Because social ties and
feelings of solidarity can be undermined as well as created by gift giving,
the chapter considers those offensive and embarrassing gifts reported by
the respondents of our study on gift giving in the Netherlands.

The Gift: Empirical Research

Although there is almost no psychological research into gift giving, the re-
lated disciplines of sociology and social psychology offer some interesting

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

research results. In general the principle of reciprocity is assumed to be
the rule in gift giving (Gouldner 1973a), but this principle does not apply
to certain types of gifts, such as organ or blood donation. If at all, in
these cases reciprocity is experienced in a very indirect and abstract way.
Reciprocity is, as it were, delayed: if, at some future time, we might come
to need blood or organs ourselves, we hope that other people will be as
willing to give as we were.
In one of the ¬rst empirical studies into gift giving in Western society
the sociologist Titmuss (1970) compared blood donation in Britain with
that in the United States. Almost all British donors appeared to donate
blood voluntarily, while at that time (toward the end of the 1960s) blood
donation in the United States occurred mainly on a commercial basis. The
corollary of this difference was that American donors had predominantly
a low education, were unemployed in most cases, and belonged to ethnic
minorities. In contrast, the British donors were a better representation
of the population at large. In the United States receiving blood proved to
be related to social class: the higher the social class, the more blood one
received. So, the poorer part of the population gave their blood to their
more wealthy compatriots. In view of the higher mortality and morbidity
of the lower social strata, one would have expected the reverse. Appar-
ently, class-related factors like better access to and bene¬t from health care
of the higher social classes play a role here. Finally, Titmuss™s study shows
that the risk of contaminated blood (at the time mainly hepatitis B, as the
AIDS era had not yet started) was substantially higher in the American,
commercial way of organizing blood donation than in the British
A second empirical study into gift giving has been conducted in
America by the sociologist Caplow (1982a, 1982b). He interviewed 110
adults in “Middletown” on Christmas gifts. One of his main ¬ndings
was a powerful gender effect: women proved to be very active as givers
in terms of thinking about what to give and then buying and wrapping
gifts. Alone or together with their husbands they gave 84% of all gifts,

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

while receiving 61%. Men gave only 16%. Of all gifts 4% went from men
to men, against 17% of gifts from women to women. Men gave the more
expensive gifts, but there was no signi¬cant difference in the ¬nancial
value of the gifts received by men and women. There was also an effect of
age: the majority of gifts goes to the younger generation. In his theoretical
interpretation Caplow stresses that we are particularly inclined to give to
others when we are not yet completely convinced of their good intentions
toward us.
Caplow (1984) also examined the unwritten rules regulating gift giving.
For instance, there are rules concerning the emotional value of gifts within
different types of relationships; the marriage relationship counts as most
valued, followed by parent-child relationships, and so forth. In intimate
relationships a different type of gift is given than in more businesslike
relationships: an envelope containing money is not appropriate for one™s
partner, whereas money gifts are acceptable when given to colleagues.
Particular occasions ask for particular categories of gifts: at funerals you
are supposed to bring ¬‚owers rather than cake or champagne. The rules
surrounding gift giving are complex. Most often things run smoothly, but
sometimes we make mistakes, for instance, giving a wrong-sized garment.
As Caplow observes, “Women are particularly resentful of oversized items
that seem to say the giver perceives them as ˜fat™” (Caplow 1984: 1314; see
also Shurmer 1971).
The Canadian sociologist Cheal (1986, 1988) has studied the practice
and meanings of gift giving and criticizes the dominant theoretical ap-

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