Sociology of Giving


Helmuth Berking

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

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    For Sabine, Laura and Bela


    Even a superficial observer of the contemporary world cannot help feeling that he is witness to a dramatic social turnaround, as painful as it is productive of crisis. Customary routines of everyday life are being threatened and basic entitlements of the Welfare State suspended; perceptions of the world and constructions of identity that not long ago were celebrated as avant-garde appear destined for the rubbish-tip of history.

    The collapse of the East European dictatorships, the return of religious civil war in the heart of Europe, deep worldwide recession, crisis of the parliamentary democracies, a dearth of ecological innovations – these are just a few of the global faults that offer little cause for optimism as the twentieth century draws to an end. We hear each day of mass redundancies; the end of social peace is just a question of time; and in a scene dominated by phenomena of psychosocial deprivation, regressive right-nationalist protest movements are forcibly undermining civilized standards with cheerful abandon, while educationalists can come up with nothing more than strained and impotent theorizing. Political apathy, disaffection and a fundamental utilitarianism cause the moral consensus of society, with its orientation to common welfare and collective responsibility, to dissolve in a mass of particular interests, whose normative demands seem to consist in nothing other than protection of one's own advantage.

    With such matters on the agenda of the day, it seems rather odd to be writing about giving. The suspicion may all too easily arise that here is someone who is shutting his eyes to the harshness of reality and taking refuge in the mawkish idyll of a hoary yet inconsequential form of interaction. Why should one concern oneself with a thoroughly ordinary and all too familiar practice, when the common home is bursting into flames on every corner? A provisional answer might be that the acts of free giving and taking are not only assuming greater quantitative and qualitative importance, but also undergoing forms of contextualization and norm attribution which are intimately bound up with the question of the moral foundations of modern society.

    To give means to acquire a power, to carry out a symbolic exchange, to initiate relationships and alliances, to attribute rights and duties, to objectify subjective meanings and systematically to classify alter egos. It means to dress up strategic orientations in altruistic motives, to make social challenges look like simple acts of charity, to honour and shame, to hierarchize and stratify, to solidarize, to knit forms of mutual recognition, to become equal and intimate. The main purpose of this book will be to analyse, within a cultural-historical perspective, the moral and integrative potential of this ambivalent structure of giving. It is to be hoped that interpretation and recollection of the all too familiar will bring to light something that directs our attention to something else.

    After a brief look in Part I at the motives, occasions and emotional norms of gift-giving in the present day, Part II examines the forgotten social-theoretical dimensions where the exchange of gifts is still the dominant structure of social reproduction. The subject here is giving and taking, guilt and debts, the cultural invention of reciprocities and relationships, bonds of symbolic violence and resulting modes of social integration – above all, as these occur in the archaic sacrifice and the sacralized distribution that serves to stabilize the sphere of sociability. Changing forms of intercourse with strangers and the institutionalization of the ‘guest’ finally provide the starting point for an anthropology of gift-giving, in which it is assumed that unconditional giving (and taking) is not only a basic and effective activity in the evolution from ape to man, but also the essential practical foundation for the symbolic order and the moral vocabulary of archaic sociality.

    Part III follows the traces of this ambivalent model of reconciliation within a perspective defined by the theory of civilization and the sociology of knowledge – up to the point where the threads of the traditional gift-morality come apart for ever and ‘individual interest’ begins its historical career. With the division of economics and culture intrinsic to the bourgeois world-picture, gift-giving definitively passes beyond the realm of necessity into a sphere where it is ‘not worth it’ economically because it is not supposed to be counted. Freed from traditional constraints, made transparent in its ambivalent structure through the reflexive cognitive components of interaction, the gift comes under suspicion either of being subordinate to the strategic orientations of individual interests, or else – given its normative character as duty – of conflicting with the personality ideals and subjectivity images of the bourgeois individual.

    In the early stages of bourgeois society, the split between economics and culture mainly served to limit individual interest and market calculation to the sphere of the economy by means of cultural norms and moral imperatives. Today, however, sociological diagnoses emphasize the very different image of a superordinate utilitarian morality no longer held in check by any cultural framework – a morality which has itself entered the subject's reference lifeworld with the power to shatter it into pieces. Against this background, the fourth and final part of the book attempts to sketch out the connection between individualization and an orientation to the common good, whose normative focus is the precondition for an ‘individualism of solidarity’. Behind the polysemy of conceptual orientations running through current discourse in the social sciences, behind the various attempts to conceptualize a civil religion, a civil society or to take the particularism of communities as a reference, something common to them all can be recognized. For the existential problem that used to be considered under the title of gift-giving is again unmistakably making itself felt, only now as the question of the moral economy of modern society, the forms of distributive justice, mutual recognition and social solidarity. It may be regretted that insights arising from the anthropology of giving have not been used enough for a critical look at interpretations of our contemporary situation. But that would have made this quite a different work.

    This study would never have materialized without Urs Jaeggi's interest and dogged persistence. Gaby Althaus and Joachim Moebus gave me the opportunity to discuss a first draft with them, and I am most grateful for their helpful criticisms. Hans-Ulrich Treichel and Sighard Neckel kept surprising me with little literary presents on the subject in question. Hannes Kammerlander converted electronic characters into readable sentences. And I would like to thank them all here for our long years of friendship and collaboration.

    Finally, I would like to express special thanks to Scott Lash, Robert Rojek and Patrick Camiller who made this English edition possible. My gratitude goes also to Inter Nationes for providing the financial backing for parts of the translation.

    Helmuth Berking
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