Solidarity, Gifts, and Exclusion

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A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.

(Mary Douglas 1990: vii)

The form of altruism closest to egoism is care of the immediate

family. In species after species, we see signs of kin selection:

altruism is disproportionally directed at relatives. Humans are

no exception.

(Frans deWaal 1996: 212)

Informal gift giving acts as the cement of social relationships because it

implies a principle of give-and-take or a norm of reciprocity, as we have

seen in the preceding chapters. This is why, according to Mary Douglas

(1990), gifts essentially contribute to solidarity. In this chapter we regard

a certain type of gift as an expression of solidarity. Gifts can be

material as well as nonmaterial. For instance, working as a volunteer for

the benefit of the community or providing care or help can be considered

gifts. But at the same time these are acts of solidarity toward other

people. The degree of directness of the solidarity varies with the social

distance involved: from the abstract and anonymous giving to charity, to

doing voluntary work for a social organization or for some good cause,

to offering concrete help or care to people with whom one is personally

involved. As gift giving is more abstract and anonymous, reciprocity will

be less. The more familiar one is with the recipient of the gift, the more

afor m of reciprocity is to be expected. This does not necessarily imply

that anonymous gift giving or performing volunteer work is more disinterested

than gift giving within the context of personal relationships.

As far as empirical data about motives underlying gift giving are available,

they show that a range of considerations may be involved, varying

from love and affection to self-interested, instrumental, or power-driven

motives (see Chapter 2). Although in giving to charitable organizations

purely instrumental motives are not very likely, it is not inconceivable

that soothing one’s conscience or tax deductibility are part of the giver’s


Just like gifts, solidarity is not always inherently positive in its intentions

or consequences. This chapter examines not only positive effects of

solidarity but some negative outcomes as well. Within a solidary group

pressures toward conformity and egalitarianism may occur. Ingroup solidarity

may have negative effects for those who are not participating in

the network. Moreover, solidarity may have a selective character in that

it promotes the well-being of some but does not contribute to or is even

hampering that of others. Initiating ties with some people by means

of gift giving implies by definition that others are excluded. Sociologically,

it is therefore interesting to investigate which social categories enter

into gift relationships and which groups are excluded from these


This chapter starts by presenting empirical data on some positive manifestations

of contemporary solidarity. Three forms of solidarity are examined

in detail: giving money, giving time to volunteerwork, and giving

care or help to persons in one’s own surroundings. Data from national

Dutch surveys are used to get an impression of the state of solidarity

in these respects. The chapter continues with a theoretical discussion of

some of the more negative aspects and outcomes of solidarity. In the

final section, a selection of data derived from the previously mentioned

research project on gift giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt

1993a; 1993b) is presented in order to demonstrate that solidarity is a twoedged

sword: in addition to strengthening human bonds, it may also act

as a principle of exclusion.