Alternating Asymmetry

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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 first 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

in acquired jobs, incomes, and prestige. Informal gift exchange bywomen

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 benefits (the third model),

the big question is again what this finally amounts to in termsof 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, whereasMelanesian men and women consider

persons as composed of different parts. Melanesians do not think

in terms of “structures” or “values” determining the behavior of individual

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 between

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 necessarily

reduced to an object by this act. Rather, she is a link in the chain of

relationships, while preserving her own autonomy.

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 inMelanesian culture.

Her conclusion is, however, that inMelanesia 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. Althoughevery 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

traditionalWesternschemesof one-sided, hierarchicaldominanceofmen

over women are not valid when applied toMelanesian 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 inWestern 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 alternating

asymmetry. I mean by this that the first and the third models

are alternating: women and men alternatively benefit 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 exchange

transactions of women and men are not equivalent with regard

to the societal power associated with them. However, the first model –

men benefit 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

story. Also the third model – giving by women is the most profitable for

themselves – contains some truth.

With alternating benefits, I do not mean a sort of chronological

alternation – first model 1, and then model 3, or the reverse. The concept

rather points to the fact that the benefits of gift giving alternate from one

party to the other, depending on the perspective that is chosen and on

the specific 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 fromgiving gifts to other people, receivingmuch in

return, and having ample social relations constitute another face. The former

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 constellation

of psychological tendencies to be self-sacrificing and to obliterate

oneself, particularly when combined with a strongly asymmetric power

relationship between genders, certainly promotes the dominance of the

first model. In that case women’s liberality mainly benefits others (for

instance, men) and predominantly impacts their own costs. On the contrary,

the third model becomes prevalent when women already dispose

of certain important power resources, for example, in the form of economic

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 aswell 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

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 interpretations

of the meaning of women’s gift exchange are needed for different

categories of women.Moreover, even within one woman’s life gift giving

mayhave different meanings. Thatwomen in our society have such a substantial

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 traditional

feminine role as Cheal (1988) has suggested, the meaning of their

gift giving seems to vary with their personal and social circumstances.