A Sociologist Looks at Gift-giving


The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

The New Republic looked back on a 1979 study by a University of Virginia sociologist named Theodore Caplow who interviewed 110 adults in Muncie, Indiana (AKA “Middletown, USA”) about their Christmas gift-giving experiences the previous year, and explained what he learned. Apparently it’s not just the thought that counts, but it’s also what the gift is and how it’s wrapped. “Money is an appropriate gift from senior to junior kin, but an inappropriate gift from junior to senior kin, regardless of the relative affluence of the parties,” Caplow wrote. That’s actually not how it works in my family, but then again, there’s no indication that Caplow spoke to any Asian American families where cash gifts are so common from junior to senior kin.

Photo: Queen Bee

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