Reciprocity andMorality as Bases of Social Ties

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Malinowski’s detailed account of the Kula ritual – the pattern of ceremonial

gift exchange among the population of the Trobriand archipelago

discussed in Chapter 3 – describes a continuous gift exchange that takes

place between the inhabitants of these islands. It follows a fixed pattern

with articles of two kinds constantly traveling in opposite directions and

constantly being exchanged. Every detail of the transactions is fixed and

regulated by a set of rules and conventions. Most important is that the

gifts keep moving through the archipelago: a gift should never stagnate.

The issue is not the durable possession of certain articles but the principle

of exchange itself. The ever continuing movement of the objects from

one (temporary) owner to the next is crucial in the process of acquiring

a personal and social identity, status, and prestige and of creating social

ties.

Malinowski proposes a continuum of feelings involved in gift giving.

Pure gifts, altruistic gifts for which nothing is expected in return, and gifts

that can be characterized as barter or forms of exchange where personal

profit is the dominant motive, are the exceptions.Most typical are motives

that lie in between these extremes. More or less equivalent reciprocity,

attended by clear expectations of returns, is the general rule underlying

gift exchange. According to Malinowski this economic dimension

of gift giving corresponds with the sociological dimension of kinship:

gifts to kin and partners are more often given disinterestedly, whereas

more or less direct expectations of returns and elements of barter are

more characteristic of gifts given to persons farther away in the kinship

hierarchy.

Like his master Durkheim, Marcel Mauss takes a critical stance toward

the then prevailing utilitarian strands in political theory by emphasizing

the values of altruism and solidarity. However, he goes beyond

Durkheim’s conceptions of solidarity as based on collective representations

or on the mutual dependency implied in the division of labor, by

discovering gift exchange as the mechanism that reconciles individual interests

and the creation of a social system.Mauss radicalizesMalinowski’s

insights by stating that do ut des is the principal rule in all gift giving. In

his view, there are no free gifts: “Generosity and self-interest are linked in

giving” (1990 [1923]: 68). He considers gift exchange as a subtle mixture

of altruism and selfishness. Customs of potlatch – rivalrous gift giving in

order to gain status and power (see Chapter 1) – illustrate this mixture

in its most extreme form. Giving is not only a material act but also a

symbolic medium involving strong moral obligations to give in return.

By means of giving mutually it becomes possible to communicate with

other people, to help them, and to create alliances. Gift exchange is at

the basis of a system of mutual obligations between people and, as such,

functions as the moral cement of human society and culture, according

to Mauss.

In a work written some decades later, Lґevi-Strauss (1961 [1949]) develops

these insights further by considering the principle of reciprocity

as a social structure determining our values, feelings, and actions. This

is illustrated, for example, by the exchange of women by men in some

non-Western societies. The principle of reciprocity is not limited to socalled

primitive societies but also applies toWestern society, according to

Lґevi-Strauss. He mentions examples in the sphere of offering food and

the exchange of presents at Christmas. Forms of potlatch occur in our

own society aswell; for instance, the exhibition of Christmas cards on our

mantelpiece and the vanity ofmuch gift giving exemplify the destruction

of wealth as a means to express or gain prestige. Far from being neutral

objects without any special symbolic value, gifts are “vehicles and instruments

for realities of another order: influence, power, sympathy, status,

emotion; and the skilful game of exchange consists of a complex totality

of manoeuvres, conscious or unconscious, in order to gain security and

to fortify one’s self against risks incurred through alliances and rivalry”

(1965: 86).

Lґevi-Strauss makes the important distinction between “restricted exchange,”

involving only two partners, and “generalized exchange,” which

refers to a more complex structure of exchange relationships. The concept

of generalized exchange has been reconsidered by Sahlins (1972), who distinguishes

between “generalized,” “balanced,” and “negative” reciprocity

and richly illustrates these different forms with ethnographic materials.

In generalized reciprocity – the disinterested extreme – the expectation

of returns is indefinite, and returns are not stipulated by time, quantity,

or quality. Like Gouldner andMalinowski, Sahlins mentions the circle of

near kin and loved ones as an example. Feelings of altruism and solidarity

supposedly accompany this type of exchange. Balanced reciprocity is less

personal and refers to direct and equivalent exchangewithoutmuchdelay.

It is more likely in relationships that are more emotionally distant. Feelings

of mutual obligation go together with balanced reciprocity. Sahlins

describes negative reciprocity – the unsociable extreme – as the “attempt

to get something for nothing” (1972: 195). He summarizes his model as

“kindred goes with kindness,” and “close kin tend to share, to enter in

generalized exchanges, and distant and nonkin to deal in equivalents or

in guile” (Sahlins 1972: 196, quoting Tylor).

Conscious or unconscious expectations of reciprocity not only bring

social relations about; they also stabilize already existing relations by making

them predictable to a certain extent. In his essay “Faithfulness and

gratitude,” Simmel (1950 [1908]) analyzes the moral and social importance

of these two feelings for sustaining reciprocity in human relationships.

The different psychological motives on which social relations can

be based, such as love, hate, and passion, are in themselves not sufficient

to keep these relations alive. Simmel considers faithfulness – a kind of

loyalty or commitment – a necessary feeling contributing to the continuity

of an already existing social relationship. Faithfulness is what he calls

a “sociological feeling,” oriented to the relation as such, in contrast to the

more person-oriented feelings like love, hate, or friendship. Gratitude is,

just like faithfulness, a powerful means to establish social cohesion, as

has been argued in Chapter 3. This is why Simmel calls gift giving “one of

the strongest sociological functions”: without it society would not come

about.

Also Alvin Gouldner explores the “norm of reciprocity” as a mechanism

to start social relationships. This norm helps to create social interaction

“for it can reduce an actor’s hesitancy to be the first to part

with his valuables and thus enable exchange to get underway” (1973a:

255). Although equivalence and mutuality can be powerful motives to

exchange gifts, Gouldner, following Simmel, points to the fact that reciprocity

does not necessarily mean equivalence. However, Gouldner goes

further than Simmel by reflecting more explicitly on the complicating

role of power in reciprocity relations and by elaborating it theoretically.

As we have seen in Chapter 3, reciprocal exchange relationships

may be very asymmetrical. In addition to the norm of reciprocity,

Gouldner distinguishes the “norm of beneficence,” or the norm of giving

“something for nothing” (Malinowski’s “free gift”): the expression

of real altruism. This kind of giving is not a reaction to gifts received

from others. It is a powerful correction mechanism in situations where

existing social relationships have become disturbed, or where people

need care or help. Paradoxically, says Gouldner, “There is no gift that

brings ahig her return than the free gift, the gift given with no strings

attached. For that which is truly given freely moves men deeply and

makes them most indebted to their benefactors. In the end, if it is reciprocity

that holds the mundane world together, it is beneficence that

transcends thisworld and can make menweep the tears of reconciliation”

(1973b: 277).

Despite clear-cut differences in approach, Simmel,Malinowski,Mauss,

Lґevi-Strauss, Gouldner, and Sahlins all seem to stress the same point: gifts

are the moral cement of culture and society. Although powermay complicate

the principle of reciprocity, the primordial meaning of gift exchange

is to start or to stabilize social relationships. An interesting parallel with

the ideas of Durkheim,Weber, and Parsons, who do not somuch oppose

but rather juxtapose communal and instrumental relationship types, is

that self-interest and the creation of social order are not regarded as contradictory.

Generosity and self-interest go hand in hand in gift exchange,

and it is exactly this combination that fosters the development of social

order.

Modern Theory:Splitt ing Up Affection and Utility

In more modern conceptualizations of solidarity, two approaches have

come into existence, the one stressing instrumental and utilitarian motives,

the other considering norms, values, and emotions as the bases

of solidarity. Authors like Hechter (1987), Coleman (1986), Elster (1989),

Raub (1997), Lindenberg (1998), and (very differently) de Swaan (1988)

are representatives of the first tradition, whereas scholars such asMayhew

(1971) and Etzioni (1988) can be said to advance the second approach.

Solidarity and Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theorists differ with regard to the centrality of the role of

self-interest in their theories. Some allow for other motivations as well.

John Elster (1989), for instance, thinks that, in addition to self-interest,

altruism, envy, and social norms are also contributing to social order,

stability, and cooperation. Other rational choice theorists, though, regard

self-interest as the prevailing motivation in determining an actor’s choices

between various action possibilities. One of the best-known theories of

solidarity based on this latter view of rational choice isMichaelHechter’s.

In his Principles of Group Solidarity (1987) he objects to three sociological

traditions of thinking about solidarity: the normativistic, functionalist,

and structuralist vision.

The first perspective, embodied in the work of Durkheim and Parsons,

considers order as the result of internalized group norms. From the functionalist

perspective that Hechter associates, for instance, with Elster,

solidarity is explained by the survival value of certain forms of solidary

behavior, whereas in the structuralist vision certain societal structures –

for instance, patterns of stratification – are seen as the cause of group solidarity.

Marx and Simmel provide examples of this approach. InHechter’s

view, none of these approaches can explain differences in the degree to

which people feel tied to the group or under which conditions group

members will or will not conform to their obligations toward the group.

The starting point of his own rational choice approach of solidarity is

that individuals are “bearers of sets of given, discrete, nonambiguous, and

transitive preferences” (1987: 30). In a situation where they can choose

between alternative possibilities of action, they will always choose that

alternative that presumably brings them the greatest profit.As profit maximizers,

rational individuals are supposed to behave coherently and to

be goal-oriented; they are, in brief, “rational egoists.” Institutions play

a regulating role, because they keep control of individual behavior by

means of the rules they have developed.

An important factor explaining the extent to which people feel tied

to a group is their dependency on the group for the satisfaction of their

needs. In its turn, dependency is influenced by the availability of alternative

resources for need satisfaction, the available information about

these resources, the costs involved in leaving the group, and the strength

of the personal ties among group members. The greater the dependency

of the members, the stronger the group ties and obligations felt toward

the group. The strength of group ties, however, is not enough to explain

solidary behavior. Solidarity presupposes that people are in fact committing

themselves to the group’s ends and do not become “free riders.”

Compliance requires formal controls, a group’s means to counteract free

riding. The group must have sufficient resources in order to be able to

punish or reward its members effectively depending on their contribution

to the group.

A similar perspective is found in the work of Coleman (1986). How

can individual interests be reconciledwith collective rationality?Coleman

and Fararo (1992: xi–xii) describe as the principal aim of rational choice

theory “to understand how actions that are reasonable or rational for

actors can combine to produce social outcomes, sometimes intended by

actors, sometimes unintended, sometimes socially optimal, sometimes

non-optimal.” The Dutch tradition of theoretical sociology also departs

from a rational choice perspective in its focus on the interdependency of

actors and the intended and unintended consequences of their behavior.

Raub (1997: 23) argues, for instance, that, if we assume that “actors act

according to their interests and that the interests of actors are their own

interests,” people will coordinate their actions while acknowledging interdependency

with other actors in order to reach their economic and

social goals.

The tension between individual and collective interests and rationality

is also central to de Swaan’s study about the rise of collective forms of

solidarity in Europe and the United States (1988).Which are the indirect

consequences of the misfortunes of some people for others who do not

suffer directly from these misfortunes? Using diverging theoretical perspectives

like Elias’s civilization theory and Olson’s theory on the logic of

collective action, de Swaan analyzes the historical process in which people

have become more and more dependent on each other, and the implications

of this process for social solidarity. As interdependency networks

became more extended, ramified, and complex, the influence of people’s

actions on others who took part in the same networks increased. Greater

mutual dependency implies that the needs of some – caused by poverty,

illness, or a lack of education – come to represent a threat to others who

suffer less fromthese misfortunes. Poverty, for instance, meant a threat to

public order, epidemics were threatening the lives of healthy individuals

as well, and low education involved the risk of social exclusion of some,

and therefore social instability for all. Therefore, it was in the rational

self-interest of the privileged citizens to contribute financially and to arrange

collective welfare facilities. The general access of these collective

goods and the risk of free riding and abuse were the reasons for the development

of the system of state-based care where everybody is equally

obliged to contribute to the collective good.