<< . .

. 8
( : 23)

. . >>

from what we are used to. What feelings toward the giver does a poor
person have on receiving a loaf of bread, and what kind of expectations
does the giver have? In analyzing this example, taken literally from her
own life, Tsvetajeva claims that the actors here are not a real giver and a
real recipient, each with their own person re¬‚ected in their actions, but
merely a giving hand and a receiving stomach. When a stomach receives
bread, this has nothing to do with the personal being of either the giver
or the recipient. It is merely two pieces of ¬‚esh that are involved in the
act of exchange, and it would be absurd for one piece of ¬‚esh to demand
gratitude from the other. Gratitude, in that case, would degenerate into
paid love, prostitution, and be an outright offense to the giver as well as
the recipient.
As Tsvetajeva says, only souls can be grateful, “but only because of other
souls. Thank you for your existence. Everything else is offense” (2000:
201). Ultimately only silent gratitude, gratitude not expressed in words
or acts, is acceptable because the mere expression of gratitude already
implies some reproach or humiliation for the giver: he has something
the recipient does not have, a painful confrontation between having and
not-having. The best solution is to give, to receive, and then rapidly to
forget about it, so as to preclude any feelings of gratitude at all: to give and
withdraw, to receive and withdraw, without any consequences. In such
an unequal power relationship, the moral obligation to express gratitude
is derogatory and an obstacle to the development of lasting ties.
In gift exchange, a subtle balance of dependence and independence
is involved, causing power and control to be deeply ingrained. Schwartz
called this the balance of debt, as we saw in Chapter 2. Depending on
the personal biography and speci¬c psychological makeup, people react
differently to this balance of debt. Some have great dif¬culty receiving
help or material goods from others, because they cannot deal with feel-
ings of gratitude or being indebted to another person. The balance of

The Anatomy of Gratitude

debt may be disturbed in several ways. One means to exercise power is
to keep another person indebted by way of overreciprocation. Another
offense is to return a gift too quickly. Giving immediately in return can be
interpreted as a sign of ingratitude. As Seneca stated, “a person who wants
to repay a gift too quickly with a gift in return is an unwilling debtor and
an ungrateful person” (quoted in Gouldner 1973a: 258, n. 46). A certain
period between the gift and the return gift is also needed, because the
resources to be able to return the gift properly have to be found and mobi-
lized. The reason why, according to Schwartz, the balance of debt should
never be brought into complete equilibrium connects to gratitude: “The
continuing balance of debt “ now in favour of one member, now in favour
of the other “ insures that the relationship between the two continues,
for gratitude will always constitute a part of the bond linking them”
(1967: 8).
Not only a disequilibrium on the debt balance but also rivalry may
disturb the “normal” development of feelings of gratitude, as is demon-
strated in the potlatch. Gift giving in this practice should not be confused
with acting on the grounds of a moral obligation to return gifts. What is
seemingly an act of gratitude is ultimately one of power and greed.
In the preceding sections, gratitude appears as a personal asset as well as
a moral virtue: a capacity one has to learn. Moreover, gratitude has been
analyzed as the moral basis of reciprocity. By acting as a moral obligation
to give in return, gratitude not only serves to reinforce bonds at the level
of social relationships, but is also a means for establishing social cohesion
and creating a shared culture. It is important, at this point, to emphasize
that indebtedness is not in any way contrary to gratitude but rather is its
moral core.

Gratitude Dissected

Five conclusions can be drawn at this point. First, a theory on gratitude
should integrate its psychological, moral, social, and cultural dimensions.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

Like “the gift” itself, gratitude proves to be a truly interdisciplinary sub-
ject. Views from anthropology, psychology, and sociology each highlight
different aspects and add different emphases. Second, gratitude is part of
a chain of reciprocity and has “survival value”: it is sustaining the reci-
procity of service and counterservice, and it is universal. Third, gratitude
is a response to a voluntary gift but is itself “imperative”: not showing
gratitude when it is appropriate leads to social disapproval and exclusion.
Fourth, gratitude derives its social importance and effectiveness from the
moral obligation implied in it. Fifth, gratitude can be a positive as well
as a negative force “ for instance, in a context of dependency and power
Where do the various re¬‚ections on gratitude presented in this chapter
bring us? Is it possible to formulate a tentative theory that integrates the
various insights and pays justice to the enormous richness of the theme
of gratitude? All of the views discussed have a strong and inescapable
force in common, one that compels recipients to give in return, and
it is this mysterious force that lies at the heart of gratitude. The force is
alternatively thought to reside in the given object, in nature, in the person
of the recipient, or in the social relationship existing between the giver and
the recipient. A theory on gratitude should offer us some understanding
of the speci¬c nature of this force. Let us, therefore, scrutinize more
closely the various layers that are embedded in the views outlined here.
The ¬rst layer of gratitude is a spiritual, religious, or magical one.
Related to this view is an ecological level, since in any case, the origin
of the force asking for restoration of the equilibrium is located outside
human beings, in nature or in spiritual essences. At a very fundamental
level of human existence, gratitude seems to be the symbolic way to make
people understand that they are part of nature, actors in natural cycles
of taking riches from the earth and giving back the appropriate returns.
Throughout history people have had some understanding that what na-
ture gives them is in¬‚uenced by what they give nature. The ecological idea
often takes on religious, spiritual, or magical connotations. Whether it is

The Anatomy of Gratitude

nature, hau, or God, the essential concept is gratitude, or the need to
restore some equilibrium. The notion of a cycle of gifts that have to be
kept in motion by passing them on or the idea of abundance returning
only if due respect is paid is indicative of the same basic idea that life can
only be safeguarded if we pass on what we have received. To come and
remain alive means to give away.
The moral and psychological aspects of gratitude constitute the second
layer. Gratitude can be conceived as a feeling of moral indebtedness as a
consequence of what has been received. We have seen that this feeling has
its roots in early childhood, where its ¬rst manifestation is the experience
of a child™s joy, comparable with the celebration of de Waal™s chimps. Joy
is the child™s reaction to the ¬rst gift of motherly care and love and paves
the way for gratitude. Although in later life the experience of gratitude
may vary according to the extent to which one is dependent on others for
the satisfaction of one™s needs, the talent for gratitude can be considered
an enduring personality trait and a moral virtue. Interestingly, the ability
to receive and be grateful seems intrinsically related to its counterpart,
the ability to return goodness, or generosity.
Whatever the impact of psychological factors, we should bear in mind
that from its inception gratitude is embedded in social relationships. One
might say that to give is to live, not only as an individual but also as a
member of society. Not being grateful ultimately means the discontinua-
tion of social bonds and community life and the termination of individual
well-being and satisfaction. This, then, is the third layer of gratitude; it is
the precondition for reciprocity and mutual exchange. As the anthropo-
logical literature on gift exchange amply demonstrates, gratitude keeps
social relations intact by being the driving force behind the return gifts.
Gratitude is the in-between connecting gift and return gift. Together the
three elements of gift, gratitude, and countergift form the chain that con-
stitutes the principle of reciprocity. The social view of gratitude may also
involve some negative aspects. Power can seriously threaten the capacity
to feel and express gratitude. Giving in return is not always inspired by

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

table 3.1. Manifestations and Layers of Gratitude

Manifestations of Gratitude Layers of Gratitude
Hau, the “spirit” of the gift, nature Spiritual/religious/magical/ecological
expecting returns
Joy and the capacity to receive Moral/psychological
Mutuality, reciprocity, power inequality, Social
fear of sanctions
Culturally varying expressions but also Societal/cultural
web of feelings connecting people

pure gratitude but can also be motivated by a fear of social sanctions or
of the discontinuation of pro¬ts ensuing from social relationships. Only
in more or less equally balanced relationships can gratitude unfold the
best of its powers.
The fourth layer consists of the societal and cultural meaning of grati-
tude. As Simmel stated, a culture or society deprived of all acts of gratitude
will inevitably break down. Just as gratitude is indispensable in the life of
one individual, who will face isolation and loneliness if his or her capacity
to feel grateful is impaired, gratitude is also a crucial ingredient of every
society and culture. Without the ties created by gratitude there would
be no mutual trust, no moral basis on which to act, and no grounds for
maintaining the bonds of community.
Table 3.1 summarizes the various ways gratitude may be expressed in
people™s experience and behavior, as well as the conceptual “layers” be-
longing to a particular manifestation of gratitude. The four layers or
meanings of gratitude are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they
are different formulations of the same force that compels people to re-
store the disequilibrium caused by having received a gift, whether from
a supernatural power, nature, or a fellow human being. In all these cases,
the failure to reciprocate acts as a boomerang to the recipients themselves,
because the fundamental principle of gift giving “ keeping gifts in motion
by passing them on “ is not heeded.

The Anatomy of Gratitude

The enormous psychological, social, and cultural effectiveness of grati-
tude is based on the same capacity of mutual recognition that was involved
in the act of gift giving itself (see Chapter 2). No gratitude can exist with-
out recognition of the entity “ person or nature “ that brought the feelings
of gratitude into existence. These insights play a crucial role in the theo-
retical model presented in Chapter 9.
In the words of Lewis Hyde (1983 [1979]: 50), “Those who will not
acknowledge gratitude or who refuse to labour in its service neither free
their gifts nor really come to possess them.”


Women, Gifts, and Power

It is not that agents “create” the asymmetry; they enact it. In
summary: being active and passive are relative and momentary
positions; in so far as the relevant categories of actors are “male”
and “female” then either sex may be held to be the cause of
the other™s acts; and the condition is evinced in the perpetual
possibility of the one being vulnerable to the exploits of the
other or able to encompass the other. The conclusion must be
that these constructions do not entail relations of permanent
(Marilyn Strathern 1988: 333“334)

Since Mauss and Malinowski the concept of “the gift” has been one of
the main issues in anthropological research in non-Western cultures.
An important question is whether gender plays any role in practices
of gift exchange and, if so, what the nature of this role might be. The
older anthropological contributions seem to be based on the assumption
that women do not have any signi¬cant role in gift exchange. While
Malinowski recognizes that women take a prominent part in certain
ceremonial actions (1950 [1922]: 37), he does not mention any active
female part in gift exchange; all his examples involve men. Writing some
decades after Malinowski, L´ vi-Strauss (1961 [1949]) draws attention to
the practice occurring in many non-Western societies, that of exchanging
women as the supreme gift. The prohibition of incest functions as a rule

Women, Gifts, and Power

of reciprocity among men offering their sisters as marriage partners to
other men outside their own clan. The exchange of women is described
by L´ vi-Strauss as being at the base of systems of kinship relations. Men,
in his account, primarily see women as objects of gift exchange but not as
subjects. Western anthropologists have usually interpreted the apparent
absence of women as autonomous actors in gift exchange as a sign of the
hierarchical dominance of men over women in Melanesia. As Marilyn
Strathern argues in The Gender of the Gift (1988), however, this interpre-
tation is biased by Western preconceptions. 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 efforts
to create and sustain social relations by means of gift exchange.
This raises the question what the role of power is in women™s gift ex-
change. We already know from Chapter 2 that gifts are not exclusively
friendly acts, springing from sympathy or love, but may also be conscious
or unconscious vehicles to exercise power. How power is exactly involved
in acts of gift exchange is not entirely clear, though. Power comes to be
expressed in several facets of the phenomenon of gift exchange. I would
think of the following possibilities (certainly not an exhaustive enumer-
ation). First, giving extravagantly may be a means to obtain or af¬rm
power and prestige, as Malinowski™s ¬eldwork on the Trobriand Islands
has shown. Second, receiving a gift brings about feelings of dependence
and gratitude. Georg Simmel points to the fact that gratitude is not only
morally obliging but also opens up the possibility of moral or other dom-
inance by the giver over the recipient; for example, in gift giving power
may be exercised by keeping the other indebted, or by demanding favors
from the person in debt. Third, in the act of refusing or rejecting a gift,
power is at stake because the refuser™s de¬nition of the situation “ no
continuation of the gift relationship “ is imposed to the giver; not only
the gift is refused but also the identity of the giver.
These three instances of the exercise of power by means of gift giving are
mainly of a psychological nature, in that individual characteristics, assets,

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

or feelings are involved. But gift exchange may also include sociological
power characteristics. A fourth example, then, is that of reciprocal gift
exchange functioning as a principle of exclusion by “ consciously or
unconsciously “ af¬rming ties between the members of one™s own group,
and excluding others from participation within networks of mutual gift
giving. And, ¬fth, the structural characteristics of the gift relationship
may be such that reciprocity is not equivalent, for example, when one
party feels obliged to give much with low expectations of return, whereas
the other, more powerful party feels entitled to receive much without
having to give much in return. In such cases the resources both parties
dispose of are of unequal material or immaterial value.
From Annette Weiner™s book Women of Value, Men of Renown (1976)
it appears that this applies to women™s and men™s positions in Papua
New Guinea: women and men perform activities in different domains
and dispose of different types of resources from which their respective
power positions emanate. Weiner attempts to redress the picture arising
from Malinowski™s work, of women as playing no role of any impor-
tance in gift exchange. Like Malinowski, Weiner collected her data on
the Trobriand Islands. She shows that women are not exclusively the ob-
jects of gift exchange by men, as Claude L´ vi-Strauss had suggested, but
have an important and autonomous part in it. It appears from her re-
search that gift giving occurs not only within but also between genders.
Weiner clearly relates women™s role in gift exchange to power and seems
to conceive of power as a means of control over people and resources:
“We must push exchange beyond the level of our view of the social world
and seek to understand exchange as the means, however limited, of gain-
ing power over people and control over resources in the widest sense”
(1976: 220).
More recently, Weiner (1992) points to an important category of
possessions, which may shed a new light on theories of reciprocity,
and the role of power within these theories. She calls these possessions

Women, Gifts, and Power

inalienable because they must not be given or, if they are circulated,
must return ¬nally to the giver (see Chapter 3). According to Weiner,
“keeping-while-giving” is the fundamental drive underlying gift ex-
change, reciprocity merely being a super¬cial aspect of it. Inalienable
possessions invariably share a general symbolism associated with the cos-
mological domains of human reproduction and cultural reproduction of
the kin group. Cloth is an example of such an inalienable possession.
Women, being the main producers and owners of cloth in most Oceania
societies, play a pivotal part in the process of keeping-while-giving.
Women™s role in this domain is of key political signi¬cance, because
power, or the (re)production of rank and hierarchy, is intimately involved
in cultural reproduction. Women™s autonomous share in gift exchange,
their ownership of inalienable possessions, and their attendant strategical
power position have remained unrecognized by most anthropologists.
One notable exception is the Dutch anthropologist van Baal (1975),
who, as early as in the 1970s, attempted to redress the view shared by
many anthropologists “ and particularly L´ vi-Strauss “ of women as the
passive objects of exchange processes between men, denying them any
subjectivity of their own. Van Baal emphasizes the tremendous impor-
tance of women, not only as bearers of children but also as providers of
motherly care and succor. This makes women immensely valuable to so-
ciety in general and to men in particular. A woman, then, is not passively
given away but agrees to be given away in marriage to a man of another
group because she, being the “wife to the one and sister to the other,
has manoeuvred herself into an intermediary position allowing her to
manipulate. Two men protect her. The one owes a debt to the other and
the other owes one to her” (van Baal 1975: 76).
Women™s role in gift exchange in Western society has not been the focus
of much research. The few studies that do exist, however, show unequiv-
ocally that women not only give more gifts than men “ material as well as
nonmaterial ones “ but are also the greatest recipients. Which meaning

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

should be attached to women™s greater gift giving? How do these empirical
¬ndings relate to anthropological theories about women™s power posi-
tion in the domains of human and cultural reproduction? Can we learn
anything from these theories with regard to women, gifts, and power
in Western society? It is not immediately clear how we should interpret
Western women™s greater gift giving. To say that women are more al-
truistic than men is too simple and super¬cial. Empirical research does
not show any substantial gender differences in altruism (Schwartz 1993).
Gift giving by women is embedded in a network of social expectations,
norms, and rules regarding their societal rights and duties and their po-
sition within the family. On certain domains women™s social position in
Western societies is still subordinate to that of men. The embeddedness
of feminine liberality in persistent patterns of social inequality between
genders suggests that women, gifts, and power are somehow related
to each other. However, women™s gift giving might not be as unequivo-
cally or unambiguously related to power inequality as we are inclined to
think when we depart from women™s object status and subordinate posi-
tion in Western society. Anthropological theories like Weiner™s may con-
tribute to deemphasize this focus on women™s social subordination and to
create room for other, less one-dimensional and more sophisticated
In this chapter, the meaning of women™s greater gift giving in Western
society is explored by connecting it to social power inequality between
genders. First, some of our own empirical results are presented insofar
as they concern gender (Komter and Schuyt 1993a; 1993b). On the ba-
sis of these results, I argue that altruism is not a plausible explanation of
women™s more active role in gift giving. Second, I try to clarify the relation-
ship between women™s gift giving and power by suggesting four different
models of reciprocity, in which the relative bene¬ts from women™s gift
giving accruing to men and women differ. The outcome of this analysis
proves to be more ambiguous than the power perspective suggests in the
¬rst place.

Women, Gifts, and Power

table 4.1. Gifts Given or Received
according to Gender (%)


Women Men
Presents 90/75 84/55
Money 85/58 84/49
Food 74/62 66/56

<< . .

. 8
( : 23)

. . >>