Things and Social Relationships

К оглавлению
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 
17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 
34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 
51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 
68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 
85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 

There are many different kinds of things. In addition to goods that are

transacted on the market, like utensils and food products, there are art

objects, buildings, means of transport, but also plants, trees, and stones.

Some of these things are suitable to give to other people as presents. A

common way of thinking in the scientific literature of the 1970s a nd 1980s

was to oppose commodities and gifts. Gifts were supposed to be personal

and inalienable and to create social ties between humans, whereas

commodities were thought to be alienable and to be exchanged between

people who do not relate to each other outside the context of the exchange

(Gregory 1982: Hyde 1983 [1979]). According to the logic that opposes

gifts to commodities, people’s relationships to things and to other

people seem to fall in two broad categories that are regarded as mutually

exclusive: either as impersonal, economic, or market relationships

with strangers, or as personal gift relationships with intimates, friends,

or relatives. Solidarity is, fromthis perspective, predominantly a matter of

altruistic motives and is restricted to the second type of relationships. As

wewill see inCha pter 5, this is a far too limited and one-sided conception

of solidarity.

The opposition between gifts and commodities is far less unequivocal

than was assumed previously (Miller 1995a, 1995b, 1998; Carrier 1995;

Davis 1996; Frow 1997). The distinction is mainly a matter of degree.

Inalienability is not exclusively a gift characteristic, and commodities are

not necessarily alienable objects. Goods may acquire cultural meaning in

the course of time (Kopytoff 1986); think of utensils that take on artistic

value later on. Commodities may become decommodified – a piece of

jewelry once bought can gain personal significance and value – and noncommodities

may become commodified, for instance, by selling one’s

blood or selling information (Corrigan 1997).

Many other parallels between gifts and commodities render an alltoo-

rigorous distinction dubious and put the concomitant distinction

between two kinds of human relationship into question. In modern societies,

the exchange of gifts as well as commodities is characterized by

ritual, social, and symbolic aspects.Whereas this may be obvious for gift

exchange (Komter 1996a, 1996b), the ritual elements in the consumption

of goods and in market transactions should not be underplayed. One

might think of modern consumption rituals, the ritual of trying to outbid

each other at auctions, conspicuous consumption among the rich

and powerful (Veblen 1934 [1899]), or customs of transacting business

in “disguised settings” such as concert halls or restaurants, where other

cultural and social aims – listening to music, having a meal together –

are used as a cover for economic transactions. The things themselves do

not possess some inherent meaning, but the trajectories in which they

move render meaning to things. The gift economy and the market economy

are interwoven in various ways, and gifts and commodities do not

exclude one another. As Frow (1997: 124) says, “There is nothing inherent

in objects that designates them as gifts; objects can almost always follow

varying trajectories. Gifts are precisely not objects at all, but transactions

and social relations.”

Which economic, cultural, social, and psychological processes are involved

in these transactions and how do these become embodied in

things? Remarkably, many explanations focus on commodities and ignore

the category of gifts. These, often Marxist explanations emphasize

social structures, relations of production, and ruling ideas as the determinants

of the meaning of things. Barthes (1973), for instance, argues that

commodities act as a kind of “myths” supporting the existing ideology,

thereby favoring those who are the most powerful in society. Similarly,

Baudrillard (1988 [1970]) links goods and consumption to the overall

economic order. Consumption is not tied to individuals but to the larger

system of objects within that order. People’s needs are not so much located

in the individual person but rather in the practices of marketing

and advertising. Manufacturers deliberately attempt to shape consumer

behavior through advertising. The sector of production has “total dictatorship”

over individual needs, according to Baudrillard. Whether the

sector of production alone has, in fact, such overwhelming power is

doubtful, but it is undeniable that advertising, marketing, and fashion

are important instruments that render meaning to things.

Bourdieu’s work (1984 [1979]) on the links between social class and the

practices of consumption is another example of explaining the meaning

of things by their role in sustaining existing social and economic power

structures: people distinguish themselves from each other by adopting a

certain life-style in which things or goods function as markers of their

(aspired) status (e.g., paintings, books, objects of art). Acts of consumption,

in his view, reproduce social difference because the consumption of

some goods is considered asig n of distinction whereas consuming others

signifies a lack of distinction. In a similar way McCracken (1990: 75)

analyzes the meaning of goods in terms of the sociocultural categories of

a certain society. Categories of class, gender, age, and occupation may be

represented in goods: “[T]he order of goods is modelled on the order of

culture.” But the process also works the other way around: goods do not

only embody cultural categories, but goods so charged “help make up

the culturally constituted word. . . . In short, goods are both the creations

and the creators of the culturally constituted world” (77).

The explanations presented so far refer to economic and social structures,

advertising and marketing strategies, the ideology cementing existing

power hierarchies, and sociocultural categories like class and gender.

The emphasis on market goods not only undervalues the category

of things transacted in nonmarket relationships, but at the same time

implicitly reinforces the too-categorical distinction between gifts and

commodities. No references to the specific trajectories of things between

people are found in these explanations. This is striking considering that

many different scholars have explicitly advocated this view (Appadurai

1986; Kopytoff 1986; Carrier 1995; Frow 1997). In the classical anthropology

literature, which is mainly occupied with nonmonetary societies,

the opposition between gifts and commodities is not yet visible.

Here the meaning of gift exchange has been mainly conceived in functional

terms:mutual gift giving serves to bring about social relationships,

which, in their turn, are the cement of a common culture (Malinowski

1950 [1922]; Mauss 1990 [1923]). This view can be recognized in more

recent contributions as well. For example, Titmuss (1970: 81–82), in his

study of blood donation, describes the meaning of gift giving as follows:

“The forms and functions of giving . . . may reflect, sustain, strengthen

or loosen the cultural bonds of the group.” In the same vein Cheal (1988:

40) describes the meaning of gift exchange as being a moral economy

in which “the social significance of individuals is defined by their obligations

to others, with whom they maintain continuing relationships. It

is the extended reproduction of these relationships that lies at the heart

of a gift economy, just as it is the extended reproduction of financial

capital which lies at the heart of a market economy.” Not fixed societal

structures but the ever changing context of human relationship is taken

as the point of departure to determine the meaning of gifts. It cannot

be known in advance whether things are gifts or commodities. It depends

on the nature of the social relationship within which things are


Four Different Types of Social Relationship

Drawing on a broad range of classical and modernwork in anthropology,

sociology, and psychology, AlanPage Fiske (1991) develops an encompassing

theory of the basic psychological motivations underlying social life.

Human activities as diverse as arranging a marriage, performing religious

rituals, making choices, judging what is morally right or wrong, or

dealingwith things can be ordered in four fundamental models: community

sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.

Integrating ethnographic, comparative, and experimental research with

classical theory, Fiske demonstrates that people use different combinations

and permutations of these models to shape their own identity,

their motives, and their norms; to structure the way they relate to their

environment; and to regulate their social roles and their participation in

groups and institutions. These models also enable people to make sense

of the way others behave toward them and to interpret their motives and

intentions. The four relational models do not only orient people to other

human beings in different ways; they also determine their relationships

to nature – plants, animals – and to material objects, or things. “People

can use each of the four fundamental models to organize transfers of

material and nonmaterial goods and services and to provide obligatory

or ideal standards for such transactions” (1991: 51).

According to Fiske homo economicus assumptions are predominant in

many social science theories, from psychological learning theories, economically

inspired game theories, and rational choice theories to equity

and exchange theories. Against this monolithic tendency, he offers amultitude

of examples fromWestern and non-Western cultures that demonstrate

sharing, ranking, matching, and pricing behaviors.His hypothesis,

supported by abundant cross-cultural, ethnographic illustrations, is that

these behaviors are universal, “being the basis for social relations among

all people in all cultures and the essential foundation for cross-cultural

understanding and intercultural engagement” (1991: 25).

“Communal sharing” is conceived as a relationship of equivalence in

which people attend to group membership, while the individuality and

separate identity of persons are not very marked. Key words are identification,

care, solidarity, and friendship. The experience of belonging

to, and identification with, the collectivity is primordial. The terms of

“kind,” “kindness,” and “kin,” having a common Indo-European root,

capture most of the features of communal sharing: “[I]t is a relationship

based on duties and sentiments generating kindness and generosity

among people conceived to be of the same kind, especially kin” (1991: 14).

In community sharing things are mainly exchanged on the basis of feelings

of connectedness to other people and out of a need to maintain

the quality of human relationships.What one gives is not dependent on

what one has received but springs from one’s perception of other people’s

needs. In this model the things given will often be food, care, or

services. Another category of giving within this model is not so much

based on perceived need but on identification with other people. An important

characteristic of things of this type is their sentimental value:

who wore it or used it, to whom are you connected by means of these

things?Onemay think of heirlooms,keepsakes,andany other objects, that

symbolize preciousmemories. In all these examples, things are markers of


In“authority ranking,” the social relationship is characterizedby asymmetry

and inequality. People construe each other as differing in social

importance or status. The highest-ranking people in a social relationship

often have the prerogative of being accorded the initiative in social action,

being the first who are allowed to make choices or to voice a preference.

Those of high rank are more salient because they get more attention compared

with their inferiors. Subordinates believe that their subordination

is legitimate (although they may come to resist their predicament at some

time). Purely coercive power in which people are dominated by force or

threat is more often the exception than the rule in authority-ranking relationships.

Within the authority-ranking model exchange is motivated

by a (conscious or unconscious) desire to emphasize one’s own status

or power position. The perception of other people’s relative power is

an important factor in the selection of persons with whom one decides

to transact. Power, fame, prestige, and merit are regarded as the most

relevant criteria within social relationships. Transactions over valuable

things are conducted with those high in the power hierarchy, whereas

sops are good enough for those in lower positions. In contrast to the

community model, the authority-ranking model also promotes showing

and exposing valuable objects, in addition to exchanging items or giving

such items to other people. Examples are conspicuous consumption,

exhibition of prestige items, or symbols of rank and status. Clothes may

function to symbolize status or group membership (think of children

forcing their parents to buy exclusively branded articles like Nike shoes

or Levi’s jeans for them). Formen cars are often symbols of status, power,

virility, and sportsmanship. Women’s jewelry seems to perform similar

functions. In this model, things possessed (and exhibited) or exchanged

are markers of superiority in power relations.

“Equality matching” refers to egalitarian relationships between peers.

People have distinct identities but are in other respects each other’s equals.

People share with each other, contribute to each other, and influence

each other equally. In relationships of this type people have reciprocal

exchange patterns, in which quid pro quo, or tit-for-tat, is the prevailing

motivation. Rights, duties, or actions are conceived as balancing each

other. People are interchangeable in the sense that it does not matter who

gets or gives which share or who takes which turn, because everyone is

equal and things come out even. The equality-matching model orients

exchange in such a way that nobody benefits or loses disproportionally.

Considerations in exchange are influenced neither by need nor by merit,

status, or power. The items exchanged can often be aligned, weighted,

or otherwise compared, enabling the participants to achieve equality by

concrete operations of matching.Things exchanged in equality-matching

relationships are tokens of balance.

In “market pricing” the relationship is dominated by values derived

from the market. Rational choices and utility considerations determine

how and when people will interact with others. People give and get in

proportion to a common standard, reflecting market-pricing values like

money, time, or utility. Market pricing and equality matching may be

conflated or confused, when the profit-oriented element in quid pro quo

reasoning gets too much emphasis. There is, however, a clear difference

between the two: in market pricing, unlike commodities are exchanged

in proportion to their market value, whereas in equality matching the

same or equivalent things are exchanged. People’s main preoccupation

in exchange within the market-pricing model is: do I benefit from the

transaction, do the costs involved outweigh the profits? People’s relationships

to others are instrumental, and often characterized by competition

and struggle. One gives to those from whom one may expect some direct

or future benefit. Things are tokens of utility or material (economic)

value. It is important to bear in mind, says Fiske, that the distinction

between the models is analytical in kind. Actual interpersonal relationships

will, in most cases, be built out of a combination of these four basic

psychological models. People use these models in the same way as they

use grammatical rules, without necessarily being able to describe them

reflectively, or even being aware of their existence. “My hypothesis is that

these models are fundamental, in the sense that they are the lowest or

most basic-level ‘grammars’ for social relations” (1991: 25).

Fiske emphasizes that the four models are not in any intrinsic way related

to specific domains, as the work of some anthropologists suggests.

Whereas both Malinowski and Sahlins presume that kinship distance is

the primordial factor in determining the mode of exchange, Fiske argues

that this is not necessarily the case: the same four patterns may emerge

in any type of social relationship and in any domain, whether it be work,

decision making, the meaning of time, social influence, the constitution

of groups, the experience of self and identity, moral judgment, or dealing

with things. Communal sharing may be the most typical within-group

form of transaction, whereas exchanges between groups may often take

the formof equality matching. Fiske’s theory allows for other possibilities,

although he does not reflect explicitly on these himself. For example, authority

patterns and equality and market considerations may creep into

interpersonal relationships.We might think here of sexually exploitative

relationships, or of modern spouses or partners who, in the spirit of

equality, share rights and duties in work and leisure, or who, like participants

in market exchange, bargain meticulously about the division of

household chores. Inversely, the community mode of relationship may

penetrate the domain of the market and of institutional relationships, for

example, when teachers or psychiatrists have love affairs with their pupils

or patients, orwhen clients start having a personal relationshipwith prostitutes.

That community is not necessarily restricted to the sphere of close

kin and intimate friends is also exhibited in public charity behavior, in

forms of empathic involvement with strangers in need, in situations in

which people care disinterestedly for others as well as their own family

or intimate friends, or when people offer hospitality to refugees.

A final word on Fiske’s models may be in order. Within and across

cultures, social relations are enormously intricate and varied; how can

a general theory such as Fiske’s encompass all this? Fiske takes great

pains to demonstrate “how the set of four simple models can generate

complex social relationships, roles, groups, institutions, and societies.

People produce complex social relations by applying the models at a

variety of levels (lower levels embedded – nested – within higher levels)

and concatenating the models together in various combinations” (1991:

139). He offers theoretical as well as empirical answers to the question of

how a few universal models can generate the great cultural diversity of

social systems that can be seen around the world and throughout history.

An attractive aspect of his theory is that it is not biased by a specifically

Western view: the bulk of his illustrations are not from Western society

but from ethnographic materials on the Moose of Burkina Faso.

In the next section I apply Fiske’s models to research data from a study

on gift giving in the Netherlands. My aim is to illuminate how a certain

categoryof things, namely gifts, comestobe investedwith meaningwithin

the context of different types of human relationships.

The Four BasicMeanings of Gifts

In the study Gift Giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt 1993a)

a questionnaire as well as in-depth interviews were used (the methods

and design of the study are discussed more extensively in Chapter 2). In

the interviews several of the basic meanings are revealed. For instance,

gifts reflecting community are frequently mentioned. They symbolize the

unique, highly valued, personal, and durable character of relationships.

These gifts are not intended to evoke return gifts and seem mainly to be

given out of sympathy, love, or the need to support another person. A

single mother living on social security said: “I gave tomy parentsmy little

son’s first shoe in silver as a Christmas present. It is a personal present in

a double way, I think. Because I know that they have a small table with

only silver objects on it, and on that table is alsomy own first shoe andmy

sister’s first shoe silvered. So, I thought: I add my son’s little shoe to that.

Because he is their first grandchild.” A young woman mentions another

example of such a precious personal gift: “I once asked my parents for

my birthday to write in a booklet what had been important for them in

their lives. I said that they were entirely free to decide what to write. And

I asked them to return the booklet full, a year later for my birthday. And

so they did. I valued this present enormously.”

Within families money is sometimes given by (grand)parents to their

grown-up children, just to offer some momentary relief or to make up for

some more structural shortage of money. These gifts are unidirectional:

no returns are expected, and even when the gift is given in the form of

a loan, the expectation of return is vague and not specified in time. For

example, a woman received C–

– 150 from her parents: “They said: don’t

worry, we’ll pay it for you. So I will return it at some time. If I happen to

have some money, I may return it, but if I don’t for some time to come,

well, okay, then I don’t pay it back.”

Gifts reflecting community are not always material; also help offered

disinterestedly, without any felt obligation, may illustrate community, as

shown by a female respondent: “My daughter has to work many hours.

Sometimes she has a day off, and then she has that enormous pile of

clothes to be ironed. And then I say: come on, I will help you.” Asked if

she feels obligated to help, she says “No. If I would feel it as an obligation,

then I wouldn’t do it anymore. I simply do it because it’s normal.”

Authority, power, and dependency are very common aspects of relationships.

However, people are not inclined to interpret gifts in these

terms.Nevertheless, the interviews reflect those aspects in different ways.

One way to emphasize one’s superior position vis-`a-vis another person

and the rights and privileges that go with it is to give gifts that symbolize

the subordinate position of the other person in a relationship, for example,

by pointing to the role and tasks to be expected of this person: “When

we were starting a family, I received some aprons from my husband. I

wasn’t happy with them at all. I was used to something more spiritual.”

Another female respondent told us:“My mother-in-lawgavemesome tea

towels formy birthday, as if she were saying: your place is in the kitchen.”

These answers may be interpreted as reflecting “displaced meaning” in

McCracken’s terms (1990: 117): goods that tell us not who we are but how

others wish we were.

Another illustration of authority and power is related to the phenomenon

of the potlatch. The potlatch is a ceremony of competitive gift

giving and the collective destruction of wealth in order to acquire personal

status and prestige. The ceremonial illustrates how abundant and

excessive gift giving puts the recipient in aposition of almost impossible

indebtedness. Mauss (1990 [1923]) describes how the North American

Indians went so far as to destroy their wealth publicy instead of giving it

away – wasting one’s riches as a sign of ultimate superiority and power.

Apart fromthe more caricatural examples in our own culture – the swimming

pool filled with champagne, the bank manager lighting his cigar

with a thousand dollar note – excessive gift giving as a sign of power is

also a commonpractice inWestern society. Our interviews revealed many

examples of gifts that were too many, too large, or too expensive, placing

the recipient in aposition of undesired dependency. A male respondent

said: “I gave an expensive present to a woman from whom I expected

somewhat more than mere friendship in return, but she didn’t feel like

that.” Another example of gift giving causing dependency in the recipient

is giving abundantly to a person who, for some reason, is not able

to reciprocate at some future time. A divorced woman living on social

security and being severely ill told us how difficult it was for her to accept

the lack of balance between gifts given and received by her: “I think that

it is more difficult to receive than to give. It is, uh, yes, it is sometimes a

bit of a burden. Then I think: gee, how can I ever make up for that, for

all the help that is given to me.”

Equality is reflected in the expectations of reciprocity commonto most

gift giving. Although the expectation of a return gift is very often not

consciously realized, the empirical pattern is that of reciprocal gift giving:

most gifts appear to be followed by a return gift at some point in time;

moreover, those who give many gifts receive many in return, and those

who do not give much also receive the least (see Chapter 6 for more

details). The underlying motivation is tit-for-tat – inviting others because

they invited us, helping one’s neighbor because he helped us, doing odd

jobs for friends because you are expected to do so. A male respondent

said: “I repaired the hallstand for her. She is old and, you know, a lamp

was out of order. I repaired a plug, that sort of thing. And then the old

woman said: here, take this; it belonged tomy husband. It’s Beethoven; he

loved Beethoven, and now this complete Beethoven collection is yours,

because you did all those jobs for me. . . . I appreciated that somuch, that

she gave her husband’s favorite music to me.”

Between parents and children reciprocity is often experienced in a

specialway: adult children often feel obliged to give their parents attention

by visiting them or inviting them to dinner, because of what their parents

have done for them when they were small children. A young man said:

“I regularly visit my mother, every two weeks one afternoon. Then we

talk together. She needs attention, she has just left the hospital. I find that

okay: she has also given attention, extra attention to me when I needed

it. Now she needs it. It is quite normal that I go to visit her.” AMoroccan

respondent emphasized the social and cultural necessity of the principle

of reciprocity in amor e generalway: “Giving and receiving. In our society

people have to give and receive. That’s how it is. We ourselves receive as

well as give. Otherwise life cannot continue, when one is not giving and

not receiving.”

Market pricing is shown, for example, in gifts that function as bribes.

Although these gifts are more characteristic of the public sphere than

the sphere of personal relationships, they are not totally absent there.

Examples are gifts given to general practitioners by the pharmaceutical

industry, gifts to political parties or politicians, or gifts meant

as more or less subtle blackmail. But also in the interaction between

friends, lovers, partners, and family members, instrumentality and calculation,

an orientation toward personal benefit, may be reflected. A female

respondent said: “My parents-in-law always give us very expensive gifts,

as a kind of blackmail to visit them more often, by forcing us to be

grateful.” Although an element of authority is clearly present in this

quotation – the giver placing the recipient in a dependent position by

giving excessively – the market pricing aspect is revealed in the parents’

attempt to “blackmail” their children.

Professional relationships are based on a market model: services are

offered in exchange for money. When an employer gives a standard

Christmas packet to his employees, this is not merely an expression of

his gratitude for performed services but also an attempt to strengthen

the employees’ commitment to the company. The employer’s motives to

give this gift remain within the confines of the market model. However,

professional relationships may take on other connotations, for instance,

those deriving from the community model: university professors giving

more than normal attention to their students, barristers receiving more

than financial compensation for their services.Aquotation froma barrister

illustrates the difference between economic and personal recompense:

“Yes, giving a present has a different connotation, because people have

to pay a bill as well, so if they give something extra, then it has often

a personal tinge. It has a different content. The economic value doesn’t

interest me at all, but it was special.”

Conflicting Social Lives of Things

The potential use of Fiske’s typology may be further illustrated by attempting

to explain the conflicts thatmay occur in the social life of things.

In interpersonal relationships people’s interpretations and valuations of

things may not correspond with each other. Things may lead conflicting

social lives, in that the meanings people attach to them may not harmonize.

Differences between people’s attitudes toward things may be the

source of disagreeable misunderstandings and serious disputes. Conflicts

may arise between people when things represent a different value to them

or embody different sets of expectations and different courses of action

that need to be undertaken.

For example, things experienced by one party as markers of community

may be considered by another party as mainly interesting because

of their market value. Examples may be found in the often fierce and

long-lasting family disputes about legacies.We may think of an heirloom

cherished by one inheritor because of the inalienable and unique memories

it embodies, whereas another relative emphasizes its monetary value

and wants to sell it on the market. In fact, what the surviving relatives are

quarreling about is the symbolic value of the object as it is experienced by

each of them. The inheritor who succeeds in imposing his will to sell the

object is in fact denying and even annihilating the special and personal

value the object had for the other relative.

Many other examples present themselves. A thing given out of love or

community sharing may be received with indifference and, in the long

run, be reciprocated with a return gift in the spirit of equality matching.

Humiliating gifts may degrade the recipient and destroy his or her expectations

of community or equality. Gifts given to mark the authority of the

giver over the recipient, for example, gifts consciously or unconsciously

meant to make the recipient somehow dependent upon the giver – a

money gift to someone who is less wealthy, or a learned book to someone

with only rudimentary education – may be misjudged as signs of love

and personal interest: community in Fiske’s terms. Even merely marketinspired

attempts to manipulate or bribe someone, or to induce him or

her to do ar eturn favor by means of giving ag ift, may be misinterpreted

as a token of community: a sign of personal attention and love.

Things:M arkers asWell asMarks of Relationship

The transaction of things may be regarded, in the terms of Appadurai

(1986: 21), as a “tournaments of value”: a complex social process in which

the value of things is determined by developing “a broad set of agreements

concerning what is desirable, what a reasonable ‘exchange of sacrifices’

comprises, and who is permitted to exercise what kind of effective demand

in what circumstances” (1986: 57). These value tournaments not

only determine the economic value of things but also form the context

in which other symbolic and social meanings of things are developed.

The (economic) scarcity of things is only one of the relevant dimensions

within exchange relationships. Things may come to embody the

values of community, be used to emphasize authority, underscore equality

between exchange partners, or express economic or market values.

These values are not inherent in the things. Neither is it merely the

form or ceremony of the transaction that renders meaning to a thing.

As Carrier states, it is, instead, “the relationship that exists between the

transactors and the relationship between them and what is transacted”

(1995: 19).

Things, then, far from being static, inert, and mute, may be compared

with other more current vehicles of meaning such as words. Like words,

things are part of an informational system, the meaning of which is created

within the context of social interaction andmutual communication

between people. Due to the various emotions they invoke in people, and

to the contests of value to which these emotions are exposed, things come

to embody differential meaning. Like words, things play a dynamic and

active role in creating, maintaining, disturbing, or destroying human

relationships (think of returning a wedding ring or throwing away or

destroying gifts received).

As Douglas and Isherwood have observed in their anthropological

theory of the consumption of goods, thingswork as markers or classifiers:

“Treat the goods then as markers, the visible bit of the iceberg, which is

the whole social process. Goods are used for marking in the sense of

classifying categories” (1979: 74). But the coin has another side as well:

goods are both the creators and the creations of the culturally constituted

world. Similarly, one might argue that relationships not only get meaning

by means of the trajectory of things, but, inversely, that things derive

their meaning from their place and role within relationships. Things are

markers as well as marks of relationship.

In this chapter we have sketched the global framework in which the social

meaning of things comes into being. The meaning of things was found to

correspond to four models of human relationships. Focusing our analysis

on gifts as one important category of things, the four broad meaning

categorieswere confirmedby some empirical data on gift exchange. These

four meaning categories return in many of the following chapters, as they

represent general motivations that are pertinent not only to gift exchange

but also to solidarity.

A very important notion for the rest of this book is Simmel’s idea of the

“exchange of sacrifices.” In every exchange act something is sacrificed,

and the value of what is exchanged is determined by the participants’

beliefs of what represents a fair and reasonable exchange. The concept of

sacrifice will prove to be a crucial one for the gift as well as for solidarity.

Not only things but also people may be sacrificed in exchange. Human

beings may sacrifice their own self by giving away abundantly, whether

in material or nonmaterial form. Also other people may be sacrificed by

means of a gift – think of the fatal poisoned cup Roman emperors used

to offer. Similarly, in solidarity self as well as others may be sacrificed.

These ideas are further elaborated in Chapter 9.

It is now time to explore some other patterns and meanings of giving

in more detail. Social and psychological patterns of giving and receiving

are the focus of Chapter 2. In Cha pter 3 the role of feelings of gratitude

within the chain of reciprocity in gift giving is discussed, while Chapter 4

examines the gendered meanings of gift giving.