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proach of gift giving within the sociological discipline: exchange theory
(Emerson 1902 [1844]; Blau 1964). Exchange theorists assume that people
give to other people exclusively because they expect a direct or indirect rec-
ompense. Cheal, however, conceives of gifts as a symbolic means to estab-
lish or maintain social ties. Gift giving is not merely the exchange of more
or less useful objects but also, and predominantly, a process of “emo-
tion management,” to use Arlie Hochschild™s term (1979), concerned with
the emotional aspects of social relationships. Characteristic of a gift is its

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

redundancy, according to Cheal. Giving a gift is not strictly “necessary.”
Unlike the political economy, where the redistribution of necessary re-
sources and pro¬t making are the ruling principles, the gift economy is
not ruled by the iron law of necessity. The unexpected gift in particular
illustrates its redundancy. Upon receiving such a gift, we are inclined
to respond with: “Oh, you shouldn™t have!” indicating that the gift was
not strictly necessary. In his own empirical research Cheal combined
qualitative interviews among 80 adults with a large-scale survey among
573 adults in the Canadian city of Winnipeg in which he focused on
Christmas and wedding gifts. Gift giving again appeared highly gendered.
Inspired by Goffman, Cheal writes how men, by means of their gifts,
may reinforce existing power differences: “In particular, he described
˜the courtesy system™ through which men convey the belief that women
are precious, ornamental and fragile. Rituals of this sort have a place in
the social construction of female dependence” (Cheal 1987: 152).
In Winnipeg, as in “Middletown,” women appeared to do the largest
part of the “gift work.” Cheal attributes this ¬nding to women™s traditional
responsibilities for maintaining social contacts. This would mean that
women™s larger share in gift giving is explained by the traditional gender
roles and the gendered division of labor and care outside and within
the home. In Chapter 4, this explanation, together with a number of
alternative explanations for women™s generosity in gift giving, is reviewed
in more detail. Cheal™s research data show that women were not only the
greatest givers but the largest group of recipients as well. More than half
of all gifts recorded in this research went to women; it is likely, says Cheal,
that many of the gifts with joint male and female receivers were also given
to women. Between spouses there often existed an asymmetric pattern:
men gave more expensive gifts than women did, even when both partners
earned comparable incomes. According to Cheal, this may be interpreted
as a form of symbolic control of men over women.
In our own research into gift giving in the Netherlands we examined
giving as well as receiving (Komter and Schuyt 1993a). Before I review

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

the methodology of this research, some remarks about the de¬nition of
a “gift” are in order. What exactly is to be considered as a gift? Using
the respondents™ own de¬nition of what they experience as gifts is ap-
parently a good approach. However, this would imply another type of
research than we had in mind. Because we were mainly interested in the
sociological patterns of gift giving and in the psychological motives un-
derlying these patterns, and not primarily in the subjective de¬nitions of
“gifts” as opposed to “nongifts,” we distinguished several giving objects
or giving activities, material as well as nonmaterial: presents, monetary
gifts, hospitality (inviting people to dinner or letting them stay in one™s
house). Our idea was that, in spite of obvious differences between them,
practices such as ritual or spontaneous gift giving, offering help or care,
or hospitality to other persons have one very essential aspect in common:
all these gifts are imbued by the subjective experience of being given out
of free will and are not being dictated by any economic rule such as fair
exchange or barter. Although this experience may in many instances boil
down to an illusion because in the long run most acts of gift exchange do
seem to ¬t within a cycle of reciprocal exchange (Bourdieu 1990 [1980]),
its subjective validity is not undermined by this fact: most people do
honestly believe that they are acting freely and voluntarily when giving
gifts to other persons. Moreover, although many gifts in fact can take
on an economic aspect (care or help can be bought and sold, presents
can be stripped of any personal meaning and become merely a matter of
value, such as book tokens, coupons, and money gifts), many people, at
least when they have some material resources and enough time at their
disposal, seem to prefer the personalized form of gift giving “ giving as a
means to express personal feelings toward other people “ above the econ-
omized form. A possible de¬nition of gift giving, then, goes as follows.
Although gift giving in most cases objectively conforms to the principle of
reciprocity, subjectively it is felt to be an essentially noneconomic, spon-
taneous, and altruistic activity, meant to communicate personal feelings
instead of being an exchange transaction.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

Our main and very simple research question was: who gives what to
whom, and why? A series of questions, derived from this main question,
was posed as to the several kinds of gifts we had distinguished “ for ex-
ample, Did you give or receive any gift during the last month? To or from
whom did you give or receive this gift? What was the occasion? How did
you feel about giving or receiving this gift? A questionnaire with mostly
precoded and some open questions that was sent to 3,000 households
from all over the country was returned by 513 respondents, aged between
twenty and seventy (a response rate of 17%). The sample was drawn at
random from the Register of Addresses of the Dutch Postal and Telegraph
Service. On most relevant criteria (gender, age, education, religion, and
marital status) our sample appeared to be a reasonable re¬‚ection of the
general Dutch population. However, no pretensions of complete repre-
sentativeness can be upheld because of the rather low response rate, which
is not uncommon with this research procedure. In addition to the ques-
tionnaire, 99 respondents from Amsterdam or its near surroundings were
interviewed extensively. The same set of questions as in the questionnaire
was posed, but more probing was done on subjective feelings surround-
ing gift giving and on psychological motives to give. Here too, as many
women as men participated, but there was a slight overrepresentation of
the higher educational levels and incomes. Interviews were recorded and
transcribed verbatim. Research data were analyzed quantitatively as well
as qualitatively.
In the questionnaire and interview, the ¬rst question was, Have you
given or received any . . . during . . .? For presents and dinners the pe-
riod meant here was the preceding month, in our case September 1992;
for money gifts, hospitality, and care or help, the period comprised the
preceding nine months. More than three-quarters of our respondents
appeared to have given some of these gifts, and more than half of the re-
spondents report having received one or more of these gifts from others
(see Table 2.1).

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

table 2.1. Have You Given or Received
Any Gift during the Preceding Month
(presents and dinner) or the Preceding
Nine Months (money, stay, care)?
(%; N = 513)

Given Received
Presents 86 64
Money 84 53
Dinner 70 58
Stay 65 41
Care/help 65 55

Source: Komter and Schuyt (1993b).

A strong relationship appeared to exist between giving and receiving.
Those who gave most, were also the greatest recipients. Apparently, doing
well has its reward. Not only in Malinowski™s and Mauss™s non-Western
cultures but also in our own society the principle of reciprocity is the
underlying rule of gift giving. It is, however, striking that everybody feels
they give more than they receive. If we assume that this result re¬‚ects a
factual truth and not some perceptual bias, the most plausible explanation
is that an important category of gift recipients, children, is not included
in the sample. But other interpretations are possible too, for example,
the role of memory. Perhaps people have a greater consciousness of what
they have given themselves than of what they have received from others.
Furthermore, there might be a perceptional bias: because one wants to
leave a generous impression of oneself to the interviewer, one is inclined
to exaggerate one™s own liberality. Or, inversely, one™s discontent about
what one has received from others leads to underestimating it. Perhaps
people make unconscious or conscious comparisons between their own
resources and those of others, which might explain their experience of
discontent. Yet another interpretation might be that some forms of giving
are not recognized as such by their recipients; for example, some types

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

table 2.2. Have You Given or Received
Presents, according to Gender,
Education, and Age? (%; N = 513)

Given Received
Male 84 55
Female 90 75
Low 80 50
Middle 87 67
High 91 71
20“34 88 70
35“49 90 65
50“ 81 58

Source: Komter and Schuyt (1993b).

of received care may be overlooked, because they are so “normal.” A
¬nal explanation might be what Pahl has called “the general concern of
people not to appear too dependent on others” (1984: 250). His ¬nding
that people claim to do more for others than they receive in return seems
to correspond with our results concerning the experienced imbalance
between giving and receiving.
Certain categories of respondents appeared to be greater givers than
others, as is shown in Table 2.2. This ¬nding applies to all kinds of
gifts, material as well as nonmaterial (for more details, see Komter
1996b). Women, the more highly educated, and younger people give
more presents; the same categories give also more hospitality and more
care and help. How can these patterns be explained? As we have seen,
a possible explanation for women™s greater gift giving is that think-
ing about, buying, wrapping, and giving gifts traditionally belong to
women™s tasks and responsibilities within the home (Cheal 1988). Also,
women are more likely than men to develop sets of reciprocal respon-
sibilities with kin (Finch and Mason 1993). As said before, a more

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

elaborate theoretical discussion of women™s liberality is postponed to
Chapter 4.
The greater gift giving of the more highly educated might not only
relate to their greater ¬nancial resources but also to their often less tra-
ditional and less stabilized relational patterns, compared with less edu-
cated people. Contrary to what is often thought, and to what has been
found in earlier research (Bott 1957), the social networks of the more
highly educated people and those higher in the social hierarchy are often
more numerous and more extensive compared with the networks of the
lesser educated (Young and Willmott 1973; Douglas and Isherwood 1979).
Within these extended networks, gift exchange probably serves to stabi-
lize and sustain social relationships. The same reasoning may explain why
younger people give more than elderly people: because patterns of rela-
tionships are not yet stabilized, any change brings new ¬‚ows of material
and nonmaterial gifts.

Psychological Functions of Giving

The ¬rst psychological function of the gift is to create a moral tie between
giver and recipient. Gifts make people feel morally bound to one another
because of the mutual expectations and obligations to return the gift that
arise as a consequence. Gifts can perform this moral function because
they are “tie signs,” in Goffman™s terms. Almost anything can serve as a
gift, from expensive objects bought in fancy shops to a freshly cut ¬‚ower
or a small shell found on the beach. Gifts are endlessly variable resources
that help us to express our feelings toward other people and, particularly,
to inform them about the nature of the bond we have in mind.
A second psychological function of gift giving relates to the disclosure,
af¬rmation, or denial of identities of giver as well as recipient. As Schwartz
(1967) has argued, gifts are disclosing identities in a double way. On the
one hand, they reveal how we perceive the recipient, and how we evaluate
his or her taste, preferences, and needs. On the other hand, our gifts

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

disclose something of our own identity, our own feelings toward the
recipient: our own being, personal taste, cultural values, and ¬nancial
resources. The gift is, as it were, a “looking-glass-self,” to use Charles
Cooley™s concept: acting like a mirror, the gift re¬‚ects ourselves in the
picture we have formed of the recipient.
Both personal and social identities have their impact on the mutual
expectations that arise through gift giving. For instance, social identities
like age and gender often determine the type of gift that is given. Many gifts
are gendered, with women™s gifts including perfume, lingerie, or jewelry,
and men™s gifts including socks, neckties, or cuff links. Different types
of gifts for adults and children exist. In many gifts, however, the mark
of personal identity is more important than that of social identity. The
closer the relationship, the less one has to resort to the supra-individual
characteristics of the recipient, such as gender and age. By disclosing part
of our personal identity in our gift, we express our special feelings for
the recipient. We are somehow what we give. In giving something to
another person, we give something of ourselves, our own being (Mauss
1990 [1923]). Thanks to the enormous variety of possible gifts, we are able
to choose exactly that gift we think will cause the recipient the greatest
possible pleasure. A gift thus demonstrates our recognition, acceptance,
and estimation of the recipient. In our gift, particularly chosen for this
person, we show not only our investment in terms of money and time but
also, and more important, our emotional involvement with this particular
person, including his or her idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. This gift
con¬rms the identity and self-esteem of the recipient.
A respondent from our research told us, for instance, what it meant
to her to be invited for dinner: “I feel this is so important. And I think
it™s the same for other people. It™s a way of showing, eh, mutual respect.
That you are interested in what other people feel and think.” Another
respondent, who is a vegetarian, said: “Some people have tried so hard to
be creative in their cooking a vegetarian meal. I appreciate that so much.
Apparently they like me, then.” To indicate the feelings of self-esteem or

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

self-respect caused by receiving a gift, some authors have used the concept
of “honor” (Mauss 1990 [1923]; Bourdieu 1990 [1980]). A respondent told
us that she always felt somewhat “honored” when she receives something
from another person, because it shows that this person has spent some of
his time thinking about her and actually obtaining something she would
really like as a present. On being a giver herself, she told us: “I always
hope that they will feel honored as well, not because it™s me, but because
somebody has thought about you a lot. It also expresses something like:
you are worth it, that I do this for you.”
A gift, then, can be regarded as recognition of the other as a person and
as a sign of honor, respect, and appreciation. But, as becomes apparent in
the next two sections, the reverse is also possible: through gift giving we
may hurt another person by offending his or her personal identity and
self-esteem. The psychological consequences of such a gift may be far-
reaching and even result in the discontinuation of the relationship. The
gift is a psychological vehicle that may threaten or undermine identities.
Why are we doing this? What motives are underlying our gifts?

Motives to Give

It is not so much the content of the gift but its spirit that counts. Not
the object itself, but the motives and feelings of the giver determine its
impact on the recipient. The value of a gift is predominantly measured
according to the personal investment that has been put into it, and not
so much according to its monetary costs. Self-made presents to which
much personal attention, effort, and time are spent ¬gure among the most
valued gifts. One cherishes the gift of a piece of jewelry that belonged to
an ancestor, not so much because of its economic value but because of
the memory it embodies. The small shell from the beach that lovers give
to one another represents minimum economic but maximum symbolic
value. In that particular shell all the love of the world resides. The material
aspect of a gift is subordinate to the motives of the giver.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

What psychological motivations are involved in gift giving? In what
follows, an attempt is made to categorize motives. Where possible, illus-
trations from the Dutch study on gift giving are used. These illustrations
are drawn mainly from the ¬eld of care and help because these motives
were most clearly crystallized and more easily expressed than was the case
with the other giving activities (psychological motives to give are often
largely unconscious).

Positive Feeling

A ¬rst and most common category of motives expresses friendship, love,
gratitude, respect, loyalty, or solidarity. These gifts have as their main
purpose to communicate our positive feelings to the recipient. Some of
the motives reported by our respondents are strongly other-directed and
altruistic: one wants to contribute to another person™s well-being without
thinking about a return service; one helps or cares because one feels a
general moral obligation to do so. The most important moral criterion
in people™s considerations concerning their gift giving is related to need:
one gives because the other needs it, without expecting any return in
the ¬rst place. One example involves a female respondent who helps
her demented mother with her ¬nances: “Yes, you should do that as a
daughter, I think. You don™t receive in return so much anymore, but that
is not important.” And: “I am a human being, so I have to help a fellow
human. That™s how it is.”
However, even such gifts may (consciously or unconsciously) have
a strategic aim. For instance, gifts may express our desire to forgive,
to repair some wrong in the past, to ease our conscience, to ¬‚atter, to
attract attention, or to maintain our presence in someone™s life. Giving to
charity is another example of bene¬ting another person while at the same
time relieving our own conscience. The latter example clearly shows that
contributing to another person™s welfare may serve one™s own self-interest
at the same time.

Patterns of Giving and Receiving


A second and again very common class of motives relates to insecurity “
for instance, about the status of the relationship. By means of giving
a gift one may hope to reduce the uncertainty. As Caplow argues, the
majority of gifts are given in order to ascertain and fortify relationships
that are deemed important but have not yet been stabilized. In the same
vein, religious offerings may be regarded as attempts to reduce insecurity.
By means of offerings, humans express their gratitude toward the deity,
thereby reducing their insecurity about the hereafter and increasing their
hopes to obtain grace. Related to the insecurity motive but of a different
intensity and background is the motive of anxiety. We may give because
we are afraid to lose a cherished relationship, or as an attempt to ward
off a potential danger. Or we can give to show a potential or real enemy
that we have good intentions and want no harm.

Power and Prestige

Gifts may also be inspired by a need for power and prestige or by consid-
erations related to reputation and fame (Bailey 1971). By means of giving a
gift we are putting ourselves in a morally superior position; we may cause
the recipient to feel indebted, sometimes to such an extent that we even
claim some rights on the basis of our gift giving. In many non-Western
cultures gift giving was inspired by rivalry: givers try to surpass one an-
other in generosity, thereby asserting their power. The more one gives,
the more prestige, power, and honor one is accredited with. The most
extreme example of this is the earlier mentioned potlatch (see Chapter 1).
Offering exquisite banquets, giving expensive bouquets of ¬‚owers, or or-
ganizing fancy parties “ these are all modern examples of potlatch where
the recipient is, as it were, stunned by the gift. Giving an overly gen-
erous gift that cannot be reciprocated properly is humiliating. Giving
gifts may serve to dominate and to make others dependent upon our

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

benevolence and our willingness to share valuables and resources with

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