Gratitude:The MoralMemory ofMankind

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A sociological view on gratitude stresses the interpersonal relationships

and social interactions in which gratitude takes shape. Gratitude is always

embedded in a relationship between two parties. The capacity to

be grateful and generous develops within the context of a social relationship.

The primary function of gift giving – creating social ties – is clearly

demonstrated in the interaction between mother and child: the bond is

only kept alive and intact if there is some degree of positive reciprocity.

Gratitude plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining social relations.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the sociologist Georg

Simmel wrote his beautiful essay “Faithfulness and gratitude,” one of the

few texts to address the subject of gratitude directly. He called gratitude

“the moral memory of mankind” (1950 [1908]: 388). By mutual giving,

people become tied to each other by a web of feelings of gratitude. Gratitude

is the motive that moves us to give in return and thus creates the

reciprocity of service and counterservice. Although it has psychological

feelings at its base, its main function is social, according to Simmel. Gratitude

functions within the chain of reciprocity. Gift exchange and the

concomitant feelings of gratitude are at the basis of a system of mutual

obligations among people and, as such, function as the moral cement of

human society and culture. Simmel also refers to the role of gratitude

in fostering the continuity of social life. Gratitude connects people with

what has gone on before and gives them the continuity of interactional

life. He conducts a mental experiment by imagining what would happen

if every grateful action based on benefits received in the past were

suddenly eliminated: society would definitely break apart. Gratitude not

only creates and smooths interpersonal relationships; it also fulfills important

cohesive functions for society and culture as such.

The social nature of the principle of reciprocity is very clearly illustrated

in the fascinating animal research data collected by Frans deWaal

and his co-workers (1996). After having offered ample illustrations of

chimpanzees sharing and exchanging food, deWaal asks the crucial question

why. In his experiments, he observed chimpanzees when they see a

caretaker arrive with bundles of blackberry, sweet gum, beech, and tulip

branches. Characteristically, a general pandemonium ensues: wild excitement,

hooting, embracing, kissing, and friendly body contact, which

he calls a “celebration.” De Waal considers it a sign that indicates the

transition to a mode of interaction characterized by friendliness and

reciprocity. Celebration eliminates social tensions and thus creates a setting

for a relaxed sharing of the food. Perhaps the chimpanzees’ basic

feeling of delight preceding the sharing of food can be compared with the

joy of children receiving the good object from their mother, as described

by Melanie Klein. Perhaps celebration and joy are preconditions of the

harmonious being together in which the first acts of reciprocity can take

place. De Waal’s results clearly demonstrate that celebration is followed

by a pattern of reciprocal giving and receiving: those who share with others

will also receive from others, and those who are poor givers will be

poor recipients as well. Apparently, animals have the mental capacity to

keep track of what they have given and received and apply this capacity

whenever it is appropriate (deWaal 1996).

A sociological pattern of reciprocity is exactly what we found in our

study on gift giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt 1993). Although

certain categories of respondents appeared to be greater givers

than others – women, younger people, better-educated people – reciprocity

was the rule among all the categories in about the same degree.

The principle of reciprocity not only applied to material but also to nonmaterial

gifts, as we have seen in chapter 2 (Table 2.1).