TheMatthew Effect of Gift Giving

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Who are the poorest givers and recipients? Table 6.5 shows the results.

Unemployed people appear to give less to others than all other categories

of respondents, and this holds for all kinds of gifts. The unemployed also

appear to receive less than the other respondents on all kinds of gifts,

except staying at another person’s house. Many authors have pointed to

the restricted social networks of people living on minimum wages or

on unemployment benefits (Engbersen et al. 1993). Together with their

poor financial resources, this might explain the low level of gift exchange

among the unemployed. For those living on a retirement pension the

same pattern shows up as with the unemployed. With the exception of

money gifts, retired people give somewhat less to others, compared with

the other categories of respondents. Retired people, however, also receive

less than the other categories of all kinds of gifts, except presents; in

general, they are the lowest recipients of all categories of respondents.

To summarize: those who givemuch are also the ones to receive a great

deal; this is the positive side of reciprocity. The negative side manifests

itself with those categories of people who are not in the position to give

much themselves, the (long-term) unemployed and elderly people; they

prove to be the lowest recipients.When one’s social and material conditions

are such that it has become difficult – if not impossible – to give to

other people and, related to this, when one has become devoid of social

networks, one seems to receive in proportion very little.

Solidarity clearly has a selective character: people seem to choose –

probably mostly not in a conscious way – those social partners in their

gift relationships who are “attractive” to them, because they can expect

them to give in return at some time. The rule of reciprocity tends to disadvantage

those who are already in the weakest social position. Merton

has called the process of disproportionate accumulation of benefits to

those who already have much (in his case academic benefits, like recognition

and fame in the academic world) the “Matthew effect,” after Saint

table 6.6. Different Kinds of Help toward the Different Recipients

Different Kinds of Help, N (%)a

Daily Help Relational

Incidental (transport, (support,

(moving, gardening, comfort, Total

Recipients small jobs) shopping) talk) Childcare Other Amount

Parents (in-law) 29 (24.8) 64 (54.7) 10 (8.6) 2 (1.7) 12 (10) 117

Own children 20 (54) 5 (13.5) – 10 (27) 2 (5) 37

Extended family 54 (32.7) 34 (20.6) 23 (13.9) 39 (23.6) 15 (9.1) 165

Friends 53 (37) 21 (14.7) 29 (20.3) 27 (18.9) 13 (9.1) 143

Total amount 156 (33.8) 124 (26.8) 62 (13.4) 78 (16.9) 42 (9.1) 462

a Number of times that help was given and percentages of total amount of help given to this


Source: Komter and Vollebergh (2002).

Matthew – “. . . unto every one that hath shall be given” (Merton 1968).

The same process applies to gift exchange, as our research demonstrates.

Not being able to do good apparently has its own price.

Philanthropic Particularism

Another example of solidarity acting as a principle of exclusion can be

deduced from a secondary analysis of the same research data (Komter

and Vollebergh 2002). The focus of the analysis was on care as one of the

most clear-cut indications of solidary behavior toward other individuals.

In particular,we investigated the relative importance of familial solidarity

and solidarity toward friends. Therefore, we analyzed which categories of

respondents received the most care or help. We identified several kinds

of help or care: incidental help, for example, with moving to another

place or with odd jobs around the house; help related to daily activities

like shopping, gardening, or children’s transport; and emotional support,

such as offering sympathy or consolation. Table 6.6 shows that most help

is given to other family members, then to friends, and finally to parents

and children. Note that parents are probably a numerical minority: they

consist of at most four people (one’s own parents and parents-in-law),

whereas the number of other family members and friends may be much

greater. Furthermore, Table 6.6 indicates that help and care given to

other family members consists of all kinds of help, with a somewhat

stronger emphasis on incidental help or care. The same applies to friends.

Psychological help is given mostly to family and friends. The percentage

given to parents is considerably smaller and appears insignificant where

children are concerned: presumably, this kind of help is considered so

obvious that respondents do not care to mention it. The same probably

applies with giving help to one’s partner: this form of help is regarded

as so natural that it does not even enter the minds of respondents. For

this reason, help or care given to the partner has been omitted from our

analysis. This deletion colors our results to some extent; mentioning help

or care automatically entails some connotation of obligation: where help

is more natural and obvious, the sense of obligation disappears and will

no longer be perceived.

Nevertheless, it can be concluded that parents and other family members

combined receive more than twice as much help as friends do. Another

finding from our research is that people without children give

significantly more help and care than people with children, particularly

when help and care toward family and friends are concerned (Komter

and Vollebergh 2002).

Two conclusions can be drawn fromthe results. First, parents and other

familymemberscombinedareoverwhelmingly favoredover friendswhen

giving care or help is concerned. Second, those with children prove to be

less supportive toward their friends and wider family than those without

children. Both findings might be interpreted as manifestations of what

Salomon (1992) has called “philanthropic particularism,” an inherent

tendency of voluntary initiatives to favor those with whom one identifies

most. Our study demonstrates that solidarity in the formof offering care

or help has the same selective character: primary family and extended

family taken together do receive more care and help than friends. Those

who are deprived of family relationships are clearly at a disadvantagewith

respect to day-to-day solidarity in the form of care and help.

Fromour data it can be concluded that theamountofmaterialandnonmaterial

gift giving in theNetherlands is substantial and does not warrant

any serious worries concerning diminished solidarity or increased selfishness

and individualism: 65% of the respondents reports having given

care or help over the past nine months, while 55% has been a recipient

of care or help (see Table 2.1). This is the positive side of gift giving.However,

the practice of gift giving has a negative side as well. The gift economy

appears to possess a rather harsh regularity, which seems to confirm

social inequality: those who need it most receive the least. Douglas and

Isherwood’s observation that “reciprocity in itself is a principle of exclusion”

(1979: 152) has found empirical substantiation in our research data.

People whose social circumstances are deteriorating, for instance, by becoming

unemployed and dependent on state benefits, or by becoming

elderly, often face diminishing life chances, shrinking social networks,

and increasing isolation. In turn, growing social isolation means less participation

in gift exchange and diminishing opportunities to develop the

feelings of “faithfulness and gratitude,” as Simmel called them, that are

essential in bringing about the wish to return a gift.

The“Matthew effect” causes a substantial imbalance in the distribution

of gifts among different social categories, confirming the already existing

inequality in social resources. The mechanism of “philanthropic particularism”

implies that primarily one’s own family benefits from giving

care or help. The mechanism may have an evolutionary origin comparable

with the one underlying altruistic behavior: this behavior proves

to be primarily oriented toward relatives and near family (Wilson 1975;

Dawkins 1976; de Wa a l1996).

As Beck (1986) has argued in Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity,

the process of individualization leads to winners and losers. Some groups

profit from the process by securing themselves a greater autonomy and

more options to participate in society. Other groups become separated

from traditional support networks and are incurring increasing risks

of losing their jobs and incomes. Solidarity as expressed in gift giving

appears to have the same two-sided character as individualization: some

social categories are clearly benefiting more from it than others. Due to

the mechanisms inherent to gift giving that have been described here,

solidarity can be considered a two-edged sword (Waldinger 1995).

Inherent Failures of Solidarity

In the Netherlands more and more money is spent on charity. This can

partly be explained by the rise in net incomes; however, in combination

with the fact that a growing number of Dutch people have become members

of ideological (religious and other) organizations, one might as well

conclude that there is an increase in civic virtues and solidarity in this

respect. Since 1980 the Dutch are active participants in voluntary work,

and there have been no signs of decline until now: about one-third of all

adults spend some of their time in volunteer work. As concerns informal

care, a similar picture arises: the supply of informal care has not changed

considerably between 1975 and 1990. Again about one-third of the Dutch

provide care to others inside or outside the home.

Although in the common conception of solidarity positive connotations

prevail, it is not necessarily a positive concept. Whereas the data

from our national surveys do not warrant too pessimistic a view on the

level of solidarity as expressed in informal care, our own research on gift

giving demonstrates some inherent failures of solidarity. Those people –

often the socially weak – who participate less than others in circles of gift

exchange are less likely to receive help and care fromothers than do people

who formpart of these networks: the “Matthew effect.”Moreover, informal

care and help are characterized by the restrictions of “philanthropic

particularism,” a preference to care for family and relatives more than

for other people who might require care. Reciprocal solidarity acts as a

principle of exclusion in these cases. These inherent failures of solidarity

are an important reason why the government can not rely too much on

informal care without risking social inequality and exclusion.

In this chapter it has been argued and empirically demonstrated that

solidarity may have negative outcomes and consequences in addition to

its positive aspects. In public and political debates on social cohesion

and solidarity it is often overlooked that solidarity is not merely bonding

but also selective and excluding. The ideological and normative uses of

the concept of solidarity frequently supersede its analytical use, causing

the more negative manifestations of solidarity to disappear from the

picture. In the theoretical model to be discussed in Chapter 9, however,

these variations of solidarity are included. An important question to be

explored in that chapter is under which conditions solidarity is selective:

does this mainly apply to the small-scale social units of family and friends,

or also tolarge-scale groupsolidarity?But firstwe examinethe vicissitudes

of family solidarity in more detail. Is it really on the decline, as is feared

by many?