Patterns of Giving and Receiving

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Gifts may reflect unfriendliness in at least two final ways. First,

the gold watch presented at retirement is normally more representative

of a feeling of good riddance than of recognition for

achievement; it is indeed a gilded “pink slip.” Lastly, psychoanalytic

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 unselfish. We expect that our gift will be reciprocated by a suitable

return gift; otherwise we have the feeling that there is something

wrong with our relationship to the recipient of our gift. Anthropologists

likeMalinowski,Mauss, and Lґevi-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 important

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 notmuch empirical research

on gift giving has been done, although recently this tendency seems to

shift (Otnes and Beltramini 1996). As concerns theory, the main sources

of inspiration are still found in the classical anthropological and sociological

literature on gift exchange. Although the theme of the gift has

great psychological significance – it is related to human identity and to a

multitude of positive aswell 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 reflect 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 affirms

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 psychological

functions of gift giving. Then the psychological motives that

may underlie gift giving are connected to the four basic meanings of gifts

as distinguished inChapter 1. Ifwe want to understand the meaning of the

gift for the disruption aswell 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:Empir ical Research

Although there is almost no psychological research into gift giving, the related

disciplines of sociology and social psychology offer some interesting

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 first empirical studies into gift giving inWestern 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 theUnited 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

morewealthy compatriots. In view of the higher mortality and morbidity

of the lower social strata, one would have expected the reverse. Apparently,

class-related factors like better access to and benefit fromhealth 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

Americab y the sociologist Caplow (1982a, 1982b). He interviewed 110

adults in “Middletown” on Christmas gifts. One of his main findings

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,

while receiving 61%. Men gave only 16%. Of all gifts 4%went frommen

to men, against 17% of gifts from women to women.Men gave the more

expensive gifts, but there was no significant difference in the financial

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 whenwe 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 giftswithin

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 flowers rather than cake or champagne. The rules

surrounding gift giving are complex.Most often things run smoothly, but

sometimeswemake mistakes, for instance, giving awrong-sized garment.

As Caplowobserves, “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 approach

of gift giving within the sociological discipline: exchange theory

(Emerson 1902 [1844]; Blau 1964). Exchange theorists assume that people

give toother people exclusively because they expect a direct or indirect recompense.

Cheal, however, conceives of gifts as a symbolic means to establish

or maintain social ties. Gift giving is not merely the exchange of more

or less useful objects but also, and predominantly, a process of “emotion

management,” to useArlieHochschild’s term(1979), concernedwith

the emotional aspects of social relationships. Characteristic of a gift is its

redundancy, according to Cheal. Giving a gift is not strictly “necessary.”

Unlike the political economy, where the redistribution of necessary resources

and profit 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 andwedding 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 “giftwork.” Cheal attributes this finding towomen’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 forwomen’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 thanwomen 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

the methodology of this research, some remarks about the definition of

a “gift” are in order. What exactly is to be considered as a gift? Using

the respondents’ own definition of what they experience as gifts is apparently

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 underlying

these patterns, and not primarily in the subjective definitions 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 fit 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 economized

form. A possible definition of gift giving, then, goes as follows.

Although gift giving in most cases objectively conformsto the principle of

reciprocity, subjectively it is felt to be an essentially noneconomic, spontaneous,

and altruistic activity, meant to communicate personal feelings

instead of being an exchange transaction.

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 example,

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 fromthe Register ofAddresses 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 reflection of the

general Dutch population. However, no pretensions of complete representativeness

can be upheld because of the rather lowresponse rate,which

is not uncommon with this research procedure. In addition to the questionnaire,

99 respondents fromAmsterdam or its near surroundingswere

interviewed extensively. The same set of questions as in the questionnaire

was posed, but more probing was done on subjective feelings surrounding

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 first question was, Have you

given or received any . . . during . . .? For presents and dinners the period

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 respondents

report having received one or more of these gifts from others

(see Table 2.1).

table 2.1. Hav e You Giv en or Receiv ed

Any Gift during the PrecedingMonth

(presents and dinner) or the Preceding

NineMonths (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.

Thosewho 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 reflects a

factual truth and notsomeperceptual 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

table 2.2. Hav e YouGiv en or Receiv ed

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

final explanation might be what Pahl has called “the general concern of

people not to appear too dependent on others” (1984: 250). His finding

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 finding 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 thinking

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 responsibilities

with kin (Finch and Mason 1993). As said before, a more

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 financial resources but also to their often less traditional

and less stabilized relational patterns, compared with less educated

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 andWillmott 1973;Douglas and Isherwood 1979).

Within these extended networks, gift exchange probably serves to stabilize

and sustain social relationships. The same reasoningmay explain why

younger people give more than elderly people: because patterns of relationships

are not yet stabilized, any change brings new flows of material

and nonmaterial gifts.

Psychological Functions of Giving

The first 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 themutual 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 flower

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,

affirmation, or denial of identities of giver aswell 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

disclose something of our own identity, our own feelings toward the

recipient: our own being, personal taste, cultural values, and financial

resources. The gift is, as it were, a “looking-glass-self,” to use Charles

Cooley’s concept: acting like a mirror, the gift reflects 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 ageandgender often determinethe 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 shownot only our investment in terms ofmoney and time but

also, andmore important, our emotional involvementwith this particular

person, including his or her idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. This gift

confirms 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

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 apr esent. On being ag iver 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 farreaching

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?