Gratitude, Power, Dependence

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Thus far, I have spoken about gratitude only as a positive emotion and a

social force bringing about community and cohesion.However, gratitude

is not always the positive and unproblematic phenomenon we would like

it to be but may be complicated by issues of power and dependence. For

instance, the principle of reciprocity can be disturbed if returns are not

equivalent. One party may not have enough resources to meet the other’s

expectations of what counts as proper returns. Power may be involved in

reciprocity, causing asymmetry, with one party feeling it should give, or

being actually obliged to give, much more than the other. In such cases,

gratitude looks different than in situations dominated by more or less

symmetrical reciprocity.

The sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1973a) was the first to elaborate upon

the role of power in situations of asymmetrical reciprocity. The respective

levels of the resources of giver and recipient should be taken into account,

as well as the needs of the recipient and the freedom the giver has either

to give or not. Giving may be compelled by other people or by strong

normative expectations to do so, thus restricting the spontaneity and

voluntariness of the gift giving. This probably affects the way gratitude

is experienced. Unfortunately Gouldner, like most of his sociological

and anthropological colleagues, does not elaborate upon that particular


As is often the casewith really fundamental issues, literatureofferssome

interesting insights that are notoriously absent in the social science field.

The Russian writer and poet Marina Tsvetajeva, who wrote most of her

work just after the Russian Revolution in 1917, has a very uncommon but

enlightening view on the vicissitudes of gratitude. She deeply mistrusted

the Bolshevik rulers and their oppressive political tactics. This distrust

was reciprocal. The Bolshevik regardedTsvetajeva as a hostile element and

obstructed publication of her work, necessitating her to live with her two

small children in one icy room at her parents’ house. Poverty and hunger

made her dependent on alms offered to her by friends and acquaintances

fromtime to time. In this type of situation, gratitude looks quite different

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 reflected 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 flesh that are involved in the

act of exchange, and it would be absurd for one piece of flesh 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.

AsTsvetajeva 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 specific psychological makeup, people react

differently to this balance of debt. Some have great difficulty receiving

help or material goods from others, because they cannot deal with feelings

of gratitude or being indebted to another person. The balance of

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 personwho wants

to repay ag ift too quickly with ag ift 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 mobilized.

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 – nowin favour of one member, nowin 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 demonstrated

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 aswell 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.