Friday, January 18, 2008

The gift relationship

If I give you something are you better or worse for it?
In part this is decided by what the gift entails, is it wanted, needed, adventitious ... but another aspect is that in giving and receiving the process brings its own costs.

Rather than debating the goodness or badness of such cost, arguably the most wicked problem of left vs right politics, I intend to stay within an actor-network approach in describing the relationship. I will use the language of actor-network theory in describing what occurs, hence participants will be referred to as actors. This is not to imply any pretence or staged performance, simply put actors refer to participants with agency. This discussion is also informed by my reading of Titmuss' 'The gift relationship'.

The gift takes place with no ongoing relationship between the actors.
The norm in this voluntary telephone counselling relationship is that the actors have no prior and no ongoing relationship. The actors do not personally know each other and have never, and will never, meet. The policy of the organisation is to to maintain the confidential nature of the service and not establish dependent ongoing relationships.
However, exceptions might occur; by chance a caller and a counsellor may know each other; by chance a repeat call is made when the same counsellor is on; or if the caller is a longtime caller there may be a limited prior relationship where conversations have occurred previously or there have been notes made of the call. With email, txt and Internet postings there may be artefacts, transcripts, of prior conversations.

There is no reciprocity; there is no certainty of a gift in return, present or in the future. The counsellor neither requires or wishes for a gift in return. There is no obligation on the recipient to provide a gift in return. It may be that there is some expectation of the time spent having been worthwhile, but this is not a requirement for the gift given. And, remains unknown unless a caller expresses thanks.

The nature of the gift, whether beneficial to the recipient actor, is unknown. The presumption on the part of the counselling actor is that being heard and listened to has value. There may be information, even advice suggested. Whether this is of benefit or harm is unclear and may be considered a contested notion; counselling forms are themselves subject to being contested. Inside of a Rogerian counselling approach, giving advice that fosters dependency may be considered unhelpful. However, raising awareness of options, and assisting in clarifying are seen as useful strategies.
At its best, to the receiver the gift could be life itself. There are some experiences disclosed by recipients of telephone counselling that support this. However, the feedback for those for whom the service has been unhelpful, harmful, fatal even, remains unknown.

In analysing some of the roles gifts play in society Titmuss looks at aspects to do with the social psychology of gift giving. He discusses the gift relationship as a generator of identity, gifts being one of the ways an image of self can be generated in both one's own mind and in that of others. Gifts are also tools of aspiration for and protection of status and control. For example, gifts as 'conspicuous waste shaming recipients'. The gift may also create a gratitude imperative in compelling recipricosity or controlling the behaviour of the recipient. The gift exchange being a technique for the regulation of shared guilt.

However, in the gift of time evident in voluntary counselling such issues have limited relevance. Anonymity in the counselling relationship, created by conditions which do not support ongoing relationship or knowledge of counselling having been given or recieved by any person external to the event destroys the arguments regarding shared guilt, control, shame or imperatives. What may still hold relevance is that gift giving by the counsellor actor may in that person's mind support a sense of self as generous and or helpful to others. It is also possible that listing such community volunteerism in one's cv may also create a favourable impression and imagined advantage.

A typology of those who donate counselling time at this agency.
1. Paid , counselling time sold for what the market will bear. Counselling not percieved as a gift.
2. Paid professional, who provides counselling time to sustain income on regular basis.
3. Pay induced volunteer, expect payment for volunteering, a form of profit or disturbance money. Individual sponteneity not a dominant characteristic eg employer requiring time that the employer pays for time be donated to a voluntary organisation of the actors choosing. This seems to meet a collective target of such an employer ; a "greening" of the company".
4. Responsibility donor (recipient pays before or after having received counselling by 'giving in kind' out of a sense of obligation).
5. Significant other credit donor (can be viewed as an insurance scheme of donating in advance or after the effect for significant others one wished had access to such a service).
6. Captive volunteer; compelled via social group but would not otherwise have volunteered. eg student for course credit, eg community service requirement of a court order or on the advice of a lawyer.
7. Fringe benefit voluntary donor; tangible reward though non monetary eg recieving minimal reward such as a certificate in counselling accredited by the organization may have external validity, eg on cv.
8. Voluntary community donor; this type being the closest approximation in social reality to the abstract concept of giving freely. The primary characteristics of such donations being:
the absence of tangible immediate rewards in monetary or non monetary forms,
the absence of penalties, financial or otherwise, (so no reward and no punishment)
and the knowledge among donors that their donations are for unnamed strangers without distinction of age, sex, medical condition, income, class, religion or ethnic group.

With regard to the voluntary community donor, Titmuss states that no donor type can be said to be characterised by complete disinterested altruism. There must be some sense of obligation, approval, and interest; some awareness of need and purpose of the blood gift; perhaps some organised rivalry in generosity; some knowledge of need- of others unable to donate, and some expectation that a return gift may be needed and received at some future time.
Nevertheless, in this gift relationship (giving of oneself voluntarily for telephone counselling there is no formal contract between giver and receiver of counselling, no legal bond, no overt power over, no domination, constraint or compulsion, no sense of shame or guilt, no gratitude imperative, no need for penitence, no money, and no explicit guarantee of or wish for a reward or a return gift. The giving of time is an act of free will; an exercise of choice; of conscience.

Virtually all of this organisation's telephone counselors fall into this category. Tangible rewards can be said to be minimal,or negative: a certificate in personal development and in counselling. This comes with substantive personal cost of money, time, and personal involvement.

While the typology shows that there is variation in the in the concept of volunteer, gradations of motives, and behaviour show extremes.
In comparing this study of a gift relationship, especially where there is deep emotive field as with blood donating, the giving of time in telephone counselling characterised by the involvement with the welfare of others is also seen to be inextricably moulded by cultural and moral values. (Now Latour isnt going to accept this, from whence do these agents come exerting pressure....however, I can look at how my own thinking was developed, I can consider the influence of my parents, my grandparents, my friends and identify that those I respect value volunteerism, altruism, community service. I might also discern the shaping of such values by discussing the influences on actors that I have the privilige of interviewing.)

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