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More profound insights into the nature of solidarity and trust

ca n be expected fromapplying the theory of the gift to ourselves.

(Mary Douglas 1990: xv)

Is there asimila rity between giving abir thday presentanddoing volunteer

work? Between donating blood and being a unionmember?Inshort: what

do gifts and social solidarity have in common? Giving to a beggar or to

charity is an act of solidarity. When we are giving care or help to our

elderly parents, we are demonstrating social solidarity; at the same time

we are giving a (nonmaterial) gift to another person. The termsolidarity,

apart from its ideological use, for instance in the socialist and communist

jargon, and apart from its normative commonsense use by humanitarian

organizations, political parties, or the church, has traditionally been used

in a descriptive and analytic way, with the sociological approach of Emile

Durkheim providing the first scientific attempt at theory development.

Solidarity derives from the Latin solidare – to make firm, to combine

parts to form a strong whole. In contrast to the term solidarity, the word

gift has an agonistic origin: the German Gift came from the Greek dosis

andLatin dos,whichhadreplacedthe formervenenumbecause of the need

for a euphemism.Whereas solidarity is an abstract concept that remains

abstract even in its most common uses (one dictionary explanation of

solidarity is, for instance, a feeling of togetherness and willingness to take

the consequences of that), gift giving is often associated with concrete

and material objects exchanged on certain occasions between people

having a certain type of relationship to each other. This difference in

abstraction level may be one explanation of the fact that the scientific

histories of the concepts of solidarity and the gift have remained separate

to a large extent. Also the concept of solidarity may take very concrete

shape, as the preceding example demonstrates. Inversely, the concept of

the gift does not exclusively indicate certain material acts but has a wealth

of cultural, social, and psychological meanings as well, all referring to

the abstract, symbolic functions of gift giving. Despite their differing

etymological and scientific histories, both concepts are clearly related in

their most fundamental and characteristic manifestations and functions.

Giving gifts is an act that creates and maintains social ties by making

people feel mutually obliged to give in return. Similarly, social solidarity

is regarded as the glue that keeps people together, whether by mutually

identifying and sharing certain norms and values, or by contributing to

some common good, or both.

AsMary Douglas argues in her foreword to the translation ofMauss’s

Essai sur le don (1990 [1923]), the theory of the gift is atheor y of human

solidarity. Both theories – or, better, theoretical traditions – have as their

main subject the way social ties come into existence and are maintained,

in brief, “the problem of social order,” as Talcott Parsons called it. Given

their common subject matter it is surprising that both sets of theories do

not seem to have influenced each other in any significant way. On the one

hand, there is the anthropological and sociological tradition of thinking

about the gift and reciprocity, with authors such asMalinowski, Simmel,

Mauss, Lґevi-Strauss, Gouldner, and Sahlins. On the other hand stands

the sociological tradition of theories on solidarity and social order, in

particular the work of Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons. Where there is

some influence, it tends to take the formof a critical stance, for example,

Gouldner’s criticism of the functionalist approach within social theory,

orMauss’s radicalization of Durkheim’s views on the basis of social order.

Not immediately clear are how the theory of the gift and that of solidarity

relate to each other, what the similarities and the differences are, and

in which respects they may complete or enrich each other. Also, with

regard to empirical research both traditions are rather unconnected. The

bulk of empirical studies on gift giving are from non-Western societies,

although in recent years some “westernization” of the research has taken

place. Empirical research into solidarity has been scarce; its main focus

is on attitudes toward certain forms of solidarity (e.g., state support

of the socially weak, distribution of health care in view of risky lifestyles).

Besides some national surveys about volunteer work and money

donations, and the researchdonewithin theDutchtradition of theoretical

sociology (mainly inspired by rational choice theory), there have been

very few attempts to research concrete instances of solidary behavior.

During the past decade several scholarly works on the respective

themes of the gift and of solidarity have appeared. In Lesprit du don

(1992), for instance, Jacques Godbout analyzes the continuity between

the “archaic” and the modern gift. Between the various types of gift –

“normal” gifts, Christmas gifts, blood or organ donation, giving help to

unknown people – there are interesting similarities connecting them to

the gifts given in archaic society. Outside the sphere of the market, our

society is still firmly rooted in asyst em of gift exchange. It is impossible to

think of a societywithout gifts being circulated: gifts still create and maintain

social bonds, thereby continually contributing to the revitalization

of society. Some years laterMaurice Godelier published The Enigmaof the

Gift (1999 [1996]) in which he reopens the anthropological debate on the

meanings and functions of gift giving for the constitution of social ties and

community.Returning to the classicalworks byMarcelMauss and others,

he tries to disentangle the enigmas that kept surrounding the gift in the

eyes of many anthropologists. Drawing on the work of the late Annette

Weiner, he shows that a certain category of objects can be given and kept

simultaneously. Particularly objects deriving their meaning from birth,

death, ancestors, or sacred powers, and which are therefore associated

with human as well as cultural reproduction, are given as well as kept at

the same time: their ownership is inalienable in the end, while the right

of usage may be passed on to others. Another interesting publication is

The Sociology of Giving (1999) by the German sociologist-anthropologist

Helmuth Berking. Like Godbout he compares present-day giving with

gift exchange in “traditional” societies and also arrives at the conclusion

that giving and taking are elementary activities upon which the building

of community still rests. In addition to examining the motives, occasions,

and emotional norms of gift giving, he explores the historical, symbolic,

and linguistic roots of the moral vocabulary related to gift giving. The

concepts of hospitality, sacrifice, and gratitude are important elements

in this vocabulary.

A recent publication is the interdisciplinary collection of essays edited

by Mark Osteen, The Question of the Gift (2002). The volume comprises

contributions from anthropology, literary criticism, economics,

philosophy, and classics and poses questions such as: what is the role of

noncommercial gift exchange in creating communities, how do people

dealwith objects outside the sphere of consumption,what is the relationship

between gifts and commodities, to what extent are artworks gifts,

is a really free gift possible or desirable? Important elements in the book

are the concepts of power and reciprocity, and ample attention is given

to the ethical foundations of kinship, generosity, and gratitude. Osteen

feels that a too strong emphasis on (calculating) reciprocity and the implicitly

economic assumptions of classical gift theory underestimate the

spontaneous and sometimes altruistic character of the gift. He thus takes

a stance that is contrary toMauss’s classical view that in the end every gift

is based on the principle of do ut des (I give so that you give in return).

Remarkably the book’s index does not contain any reference to solidarity;

althoughDurkheim does figure in the book a number of times, his theory

on social solidarity is not mentioned.

Recent publications on solidarity are of a somewhat different nature:

more conceptual and theoretical, and frequently inspired by political,

social, andmoral philosophy. Their point of departure is often normative:

what future is left for solidarity, howcanwe conceptualize it in such a way

that it fits our modernized society? A German collection of essays edited

by Kurt Bayertz (1998), for instance, examines the moral and historical

context of solidarity, in addition to offering perspectives frompsychology

and biology. Solidarity is also analyzed as a social norm and a civil right.

Chapters on international solidarity and solidarity in the (post)modern

society are included in the volume as well. In another German study that

is mainly conceptual as well, Rainer Zoll (2000) discusses the juridical

and French origins of the concept. He traces the conceptual history of

solidarity and attempts to draw up the balance of contemporary social

solidarity, in particular worker solidarity, and some new forms of solidarity

in our society. He agrees with Habermas’s normative conception

of solidarity as tied to justice. In Zoll’s view a critical test for a new conception

of solidaritywould be the way itwould dealwith our relationship

to strangers.

In the Netherlands some studies have appeared that exhibit the same

theoretical and conceptual concern as the German publications. The volume

edited by deWit andManschot (1999), for instance, offers a critical

reconstruction of the traditional ways of conceptualizing solidarity. The

authors reflect upon how the ethical components of solidarity can still

be of value to our modern democratic societies. They present theoretical

arguments that connect solidarity to cosmopolitism, tolerance, and the

acceptance of cultural minorities. From the perspective of the lawDorien

Pessers (1999) offers an interesting analysis of the concept of reciprocity,

which she considers an essential aspect of solidarity. In her interdisciplinary

study she examines what this concept might mean for the various

domains of law.

A British study by Turner and Rojek (2001), finally, attempts to clarify

how (post)modern society deals with the principles of scarcity, on

the one hand, and solidarity, on the other. This study not only offers

an overview of existing social scientific theories on solidarity but also

presents a normative view on the way solidarity might be given shape in

amoder n society.

In the present book I attempt to bring together two rather unrelated

traditions of social scientific thinking about social ties: sociological theory

on solidarity and anthropological theory on the cultural and social

meanings of gift exchange. The purpose is to explore howboth theoretical

traditions may complete and enrich each other, and how these combined

insights may illuminate manifestations of contemporary solidarity. The

book’s main argument is that a theory of solidarity could gain significantly

from incorporating some of the core insights from the theoretical

and empiricalwork on the gift. This theoretical argument is supported by

empirical illustrations drawn from research on gift giving and on various

forms of solidarity.

The book consists of three parts. The focus of Part I is on the sociocultural,

social-psychological, and gendered meanings of gift exchange.

Chapter 1 starts at the most concrete level by investigating the trajectories

of things that pass between people and the different types of meaning

things become invested with as a consequence of their circulation between

people. In turn, these meanings can explain how things come to

play a role in gift exchange and, by that means, in creating social ties.

We are strongly inclined to regard things as mute and inert. In many

anthropological and sociological writings “mute” commodities are opposed

to gifts, which are supposed to have a “spirit” and to have rich

symbolic and social meanings. However, things also have “social lives”

that bestowthemwith symbolic value.While things derive their symbolic

meaning from exchange, the continuation of exchange is guaranteed by

means of the symbolic meanings of things. This chapter investigates the

social meanings of things by distinguishing four fundamental models

of people’s relationships to each other and to things; these models have

affection, power, equality, and utility as their respective bases. Empirical

research data on gift giving are used to illustrate the models.

The different patterns of giving and receiving and the meanings of

things-as-gifts are further explored in Chapters 2, 3, a nd 4. Chapter 2

presents some empirical data on social and psychological patterns of giving

and receiving. Dutch research shows a strong relationship between

giving and receiving: doing well has its reward. Apparently the principle

of reciprocity also applies toWestern society. In addition to its social and

cultural meanings the theme of the gift has great social-psychological

significance. The main psychological functions of gift giving are, first,

the creation of a moral bond between giver and recipient and, second,

the maintenance (or disturbance) of this bond. Gifts as “tie signs” disclose

the nature of the tie between giver and recipient. They reveal howwe

perceive the recipient while at the same time showing something about

our own identity. In gift giving a range of psychological motives may be

involved, varying from the desire to express love, gratitude, and friendship,

to motives related to insecurity and anxiety, and to the conscious

or unconscious need to offend, insult, or exploit another person. Gifts

may be deceptive insofar as their manifest and latent intentions do not

coincide. Empirical illustrations of offensive and embarrassing gifts are

also presented. Participants in reciprocal gift exchange are involved in a

psychological balance of debt, which should never be in complete equilibrium.

Someone has to remain in debt toward the other, but both parties

may have different ideas on the magnitude of the debt and on how long

it can last. The debt balance is therefore a source of relational risks.

Gratitude is the subject of Chapter 3. According to anthropologists

one of the main characteristics of the gift is that it should “move”: gifts

should be given and reciprocated. If a gift is kept too long, the recipient

will develop a bad reputation. Gifts are not inactive but possess something

of the original giver. This “spirit of the gift” wants to return to its place

of origin; only then is the gift cycle completed and can a new cycle be

set in motion. Gifts can only bear fruit if people show their gratitude

in a proper way through passing the gift along. Gratitude may also be

considered from apsy chological point of view – as amor al virtue, a

personality characteristic, or asset. It is something one has to learn, and

some people are better equipped to learn it than others. The quality of

the earliest contact with the primary caring figure seems to be at the

basis of the capacity to feel and to express gratitude. A sociological view

stresses gratitude as part of the chain of reciprocity, or “themoralmemory

of mankind,” as Simmel called it. As such, gratitude fulfills important

cohesive functions for society. A culture or society deprived of all acts

of gratitude will inevitably break down. Issues of power and dependence

may complicate gratitude. Only in more or less balanced relationships

can gratitude unfold the best of its powers.

In Chapter 4 the gendered meanings of gift giving are discussed. Although

Malinowski recognizes that women have a prominent role in

certain ceremonial actions, he does not mention any active female part

in gift exchange; all his examples are frommen. Lґevi-Strauss discusses the

practice occurring in many non-Western societies of exchanging women

as “the supreme gift.” The exchange of women as marriage partners is

supposed to be at the base of systems of kinship relations and thereby

forms the structural fundament of culture and society as such. More

recent work of Strathern and Weiner suggests that women’s role in gift

giving is not restricted to being merely the object of exchange but that

they have an important and autonomous part in gift exchange. Empirical

studies in Western society demonstrate that women, far from being

passive and insignificant, play a prominent role in gift exchange: they not

only give more gifts than men – material as well as nonmaterial ones –

but they are also the greatest recipients.Women’s gift giving seems to be

caught in a paradox. On the one hand, gift exchange is a powerful means

of creating social relationships and affirming ties; on the other, by giving

toomuch, women incur the risk of losing their own identities, given their

unequal societal and economic power compared with that of men.

In Part II the theories on gift giving and solidarity are brought together

and their strengths andweaknesses compared. Chapter 5 examines

how the theory of the gift can be connected to that of human solidarity.

Classical sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons highlight

the affective, normative, and instrumental foundations of social ties and

solidarity: people come to share norms regulating their interactions and

transactions, but they also develop functional relations based on more

instrumental and self-interested concerns. In the work of classical anthropologists

like Malinowski and Mauss, in addition to these motives,

still others come to the fore, for instance, giving based on feelings ofmutual

obligation. Lґevi-Strauss argues that power and prestige may also be a

driving force behind gift giving. In classical sociological and anthropological

theories on social ties, generosity and self-interest are not necessarily

opposites. In more modern theories, such as Hechter’s, Mayhew’s, or

Etzioni’s, this insight seems to have been lost. By combining sociological

and anthropological theory, four main motives behind both exchange

processes and solidarity come to the fore: affection, power, reciprocity,

and self-interest or utility. These motives correspond to the models presented

in Chapter 1. Yet another element connects the theories of solidarity

and the gift, although it has received less attention in sociology than

in anthropology: the ritual aspects inherent in the interaction processes

that generate solidarity and reciprocal obligation.

The fact that solidarity may also have more negative and excluding

aspects is addressed in Chapter 6. This chapter presents some empirical

data derived from Dutch research on giving money to charity, giving

time to volunteer work, and giving informal care to other people. In the

Netherlands during the past decade the amount of money given each

year to charity continues to rise. Since 1980 the portion of the Dutch

population active in some formof volunteerwork amounts to about onethird.

Giving care offers the same pattern: since the 1970s those giving

informal care to other people total about one-third. However, some inherent

failures are connected to these positive manifestations of solidarity.

For instance, research on gift giving shows that those who give many gifts

(material as well as nonmaterial) also receive many gifts in return, but

those who do not give much themselves – often because their social and

material conditions do not allow them to do so – are also the poorest receivers.

Informal giving mainly benefits those who already receivemuch;

those who need it most receive the least. Solidarity may thus act as “a

principle of exclusion.” Solidarity appears to be selective in yet another

way: those who offer care prefer their own family members and nearest

relations over other persons in need of care. Those who do not have many

family relations or near relatives are therefore at a disadvantage.

Traditionally the family has been considered one of the most important

cornerstones of a harmonious and solidary society. Therefore family

solidarity is the focus of Chapter 7. The combined demographic developments

of the growing number of old and very old people and the

decreasing number of young people have caused an increasing concern

about family solidarity. Changed relationships between genders have contributed

to this concern as well. Several theoretical dimensions of family

solidarity are distinguished, and some empirical data on attitudes, feelings,

and motives related to family solidarity are presented, as well as

data on the amount of care provided to elderly family members. Family

solidarity does not exist in a social void. The macrolevel of welfare state

provisions is influencing the microlevel of informal carewithin the family,

and vice versa, as some empirical findings have indicated.While intergenerational

care is still provided on a large scale, particularly by women, the

motives underlying it seem to be based on a kind of “prescribed altruism.”

Family solidarity is not necessarily or exclusively something positive, as is

shown is Chapter 6. Both the provider and the recipient may experience

it as a burden. Moreover, family solidarity cannot be isolated from the

ambivalent nature of family ties in general.

Part III addresses some changes in contemporary solidarity and attempts

to draw up the balance from the foregoing chapters. In Chapter 8

some broad societal changes supposedly having an impact on solidarity

are briefly sketched: individualization, diversification, and globalization.

Cultural critics often cherish a rather gloomy picture of the consequences

of these developments for the mutual concern and social commitment

of contemporary citizens. On the one hand, due to the individualization

process social tieswould have become more transitory and citizenswould

feel less committed to politics and societal concerns. A new personality

type more self-reliant than ever before would have come into existence.

On the other hand, the increased cultural and religious pluriformity

and the growing multiculturalism in Western societies are assumed to

have created much insecurity. Globalization is believed to create new

opportunities while at the same time generating new social inequality.

To counterbalance the views of these cultural critics, Chapter 8 presents

also a more factual, empirically based overview of contemporary solidarity.

Some traditional forms of solidarity have declined, others have been

maintained, and also new manifestations of global and local solidarity

have made their appearance. Civil solidarity as expressed in public behavior

toward fellow citizens and the public space itself seems to have


Chapter 9, finally, combines the insights derived from the previous

chapters in a theoretical modelwith various dimensions of solidarity.One

of these is the continuum of gift and sacrifice. The concept of sacrifice is

hardly encountered in sociological theories on solidarity. Nevertheless,

sacrifice is a characteristic aspect of some forms of solidarity. In anthropological

theories gift and sacrifice are conceived as two manifestations of

one underlying dimension. In the first case what is given is kept intact; in

the second it is “sacrificed” (destroyed, burned, slaughtered, killed, and

the like). In the theoretical model that is presented, the gift manifestation

of the supposed solidarity dimension relies on mutual recognition,

dependency, and reciprocity, whereas the sacrifice manifestation more

often involves denial of personal autonomy and “otherness.” Solidarity

in small-scale social units is more likely to exhibit characteristics of the

gift, whereas large-scale group solidarity is modeled more on sacrifice.

With the help of this model it becomes possible to understand under

which conditions solidarity will have positive or negative consequences

for those involved. Finally, an attempt is made to characterize the essence

of the transformation that solidarity has undergone in the course of the

past century: from Durkheim’s “organic” solidarity toward a solidarity

that could be called “segmented,” because the formermutual dependency

of individuals and groups for the fulfillment of their needs is increasingly

being replaced by autonomously operating segments that are showing

solidarity on a voluntary and self-chosen basis.

Two final remarks are in order here, the first one about my use of

concepts. It is obvious that the concept of solidarity harbors a multitude

of dimensionsand covers ar ange of phenomenaof avery different nature:

from giving to a beggar to organized worker solidarity, from offering

help to your neighbor to walking in a silent march, from doing volunteer

work to global networking. I deliberately refrain from attempts to give a

full-blown definition of the concept that includes some aspects and leaves

others out – whichiswhat definitionsamountto–because it renders every

attempt contestable by necessity. I therefore decided to include those

dimensions and manifestations of solidarity that are habitually accepted

as such. The gift seems to be a less contested concept, although one

might give some thought to what counts as a gift and why. This is done in

Chapter 2. In the remainder of this book “gifts” refer to material as well

as a nonmaterial gifts, like help or care.

Finally, my approach is analytical rather than normative. The conceptual

framework developed in Chapter 9 is meant as a tool to understand

why solidarity takes different forms and what these are, and why it may

have different consequences for the well-being of the individuals and

groups involved. It is not meant as a signpost for future solidarity. That

is the domain of social and moral philosophy, which is outside the scope

of the present work.