Asymmetrical Reciprocity in Favor ofMen

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Reciprocal exchange is often mistaken for symmetrical exchange in the

sense that both parties exchange goods of about equal value. Under the

surface of reciprocity, however, very asymmetrical forms of exchange and

even pure exploitation may be hidden: “[E]verywhere in the world the

indigenous category for exploitation is ‘reciprocity’” (Sahlins 1972: 134).

Reciprocity, then, is not synonymous with symmetry or equivalence.

One can speak of equivalent exchange only when both parties in an

exchange relationship have rights as well as duties toward each other and

exchange goods of about equal value.Many anthropological studies about

gift exchange seem to confirmthe model of “asymmetrical reciprocity in

favor of men”: men are the dominant parties in gift giving, and prevailing

patterns of gift exchange benefitmenmore thanwomen;menare reported

to assert dominance over women by demanding obedience and ignoring

women’s concerns (Strathern 1988).

When women do not, or barely, take part in gift exchange (as

Malinowski wrongly assumed), this may be a manifestation of their subordinate

role in a certain society. But also when women do have a substantial

share in gift giving, as in our own society, this may be interpreted

as a sign of their subordination. Women’s liberality in Western society

may be explained in terms of asymmetrical reciprocity in favor of men

because it reinforces and reproduces the hierarchically ordered division of

labor and the unequal power relationship between genders. The domain

of the market economy with its formally regulated patterns of exchange

prevails over the domain of the informal gift economy in terms of power

and prestige. In this model women’s greater share in giving gifts is related

to their position within the family and their traditional responsibility for

maintaining social contacts. As “kinkeepers” (Rosenthal 1985) women

are expected to keep a good record of birthdays, wedding days, and other

festivities, or to visit ill people, and to buy the appropriate presents. Because

of these expectations, women can barely escape their gift giving

duties, whether they like them or not. Historically speaking, there are

good reasons to assume that the significance of women’s gift giving has

even increased during the past decades: the relative stability of social

and familial networks is diminishing as a consequence of an increased

divorce rate and of the growing geographical distances that separate people’s

domiciles (van Leer 1995). From this perspective reinforcing social

ties through gift giving is more needed than ever.

Up to a certain extent the dominant gender relationships and stereotypes

force women’s liberality upon them. In this model giving is a form

of – not entirely voluntary – labor performed by women merely serving

to affirm their inferior social position.