The SocialMeaning of Things

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In any case all these things are always, and in every tribe, spiritual

in origin and of a spiritual nature. . . . Each of these precious

things . . . possesses . . . its individuality, its name, its qualities, its


(Marcel Mauss 1990 [1923]: 44)

Things are things, and people are people. Things are mute and inert;

people speak and act with each other and are involved in the construction

of shared meanings. This way of conceiving the distinction between

people and things, common in Western society, is often contrasted with

the views of non-Western societies, where things are supposed to possess

alife of their own (Appadurai 1986). In some tribal societies described

byMarcelMauss in his classical Essai sur le don (1990 [1923]), things were

considered as animated, or having a spirit (hau), communicating messages

from the person originally in possession of the thing to its recipient.

The spirit of the thing would not come to rest until it was returned to the

place where its giver was born.

The opposition between Western and non-Western conceptions of

things is clearly too simplistic. Many people will recognize that things

may have a personal, often highly idiosyncratic meaning to them. For

example, it is impossible for some people to throw anything away: for

them the things with which they have surrounded themselves represent

inalienable and highly cherished memories.We may also think of lovers

who endow each other with little shells or stones found on the beach,

symbolizing their affection. Small children suck at pieces of cloth, taking

them to their bed and cherishing them as if they were animated. They

get attached to their first teddy bears, sometimes developing such strong

bonds that they still take them to their bed as grown-ups. Adults may

worship some objects, such as the grail or religious items like icons, but

destroy others – burning letters, smashing pottery, or throwing jewelry

away. Both activities show that strong emotions may be connected to


Clearly, things may embody different kinds of personal meaning, varying

between attachment and aggression. In this chapter, I focus on things

as depositories of social and cultural meaning. Things are a way to define

who we are to ourselves and to others (Carrier 1995). Things convey symbolic

messages, referring to the nature and (actual or desired) status of

the relationship between human beings. Things are “tie signs,” or signs

of social bonds (Goffman 1971).

Social historians as well as social and economic anthropologists have

pointed to the ways in which people inscribe meaning in the forms, uses,

and trajectories of things. As Arjun Appadurai argues in The Social Life

of Things (1986), it is not merely things but things-in-motion that illuminate

their human and social context. Only the analysis of the trajectories

of things enables us to interpret “the human transactions and calculations

that enliven things” (1986: 5). In this view Appadurai is inspired by

Georg Simmel’s conception of (economic) value, as stated in his Philosophy

of Money (1907). Value is never an inherent property of objects but

is created in the process of exchange. An object gets value because one

party’s desire for it is fulfilled by the sacrifice of another object, which

is desired by the other party. Economic life might, then, be considered

as an “exchange of sacrifices.” Rather than being a kind of by-product

of the mutual valuation of objects, exchange engenders the parameters

of utility and scarcity. The relationships and transactions in which they

play a role create the value and identity of objects. This process not only

generates economic value but also extends to symbolic value, embodied

in the social and psychological meanings of objects.

The main question of this chapter is how things, in particular gifts,

come to embody meaning within the context of human relationships. A

specific focus on the meaning of things can clarify the differentiation

in the nature of human relationships. This is important in view of the

broader purpose of this book, which is to show that both motives to give

andmotives of solidary behavior dependonthe natureofhumanrelationships.

Things-as-gifts, social relationships, community, and solidarity are

inextricably tied to one another. First, I discuss different explanations of

how things become invested with meaning, emerging from the sociological

and anthropological literature. In those explanations, surprisingly,

an account of the way meaning derives from the nature of social relations

seems to be lacking. I present a model of the basic forms of human relations,

derived from Alan Page Fiske’s Structures of Social Life (1991). As

we will see, his model may also be helpful to categorize the meanings of

things. This model is then applied to some empirical data from a study

on gift giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt 1993). Finally, I

present a brief sketch of the complications that may occur when transactors

do not share the same frame of mind with respect to each other and

to the things that are transacted. When the meanings that things have

for different people are not in harmony, things may have different, even

conflicting, social lives.