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Case 9: “Hot” Gifts

Rose Stone moved into an urban ghetto in order to study strategies for survival used by low-income residents. During the first six months of research, Stone was gradually integrated into the community through invitations (which she accepted) to attend dances, parties, church functions, and family outings, and by "hanging out" at local service facilities (laundromats, health centers, recreation centers, and so on). She was able to discern that there were two important survival tactics used by the community residents which she could not engage in: the first was a system of reciprocity in the exchange of goods and services (neither of which she felt she had to offer), and the second was outright theft of easily pawned or sold goods (clothing, jewelry, radios, TVs, and so on).

One night, a friend from the community stopped by "for a cup of coffee" and conversation. After they had been talking for about two hours, Stone's friend told her that she had some things she wanted to give her. The friend went out to her car and returned with a box of clothing (Stone's size) and a record player. Stone was a bit overwhelmed by the generosity of the gift and protested her right to accept such costly items. Her friend laughed and said, "Don't you worry, it's not out of my pocket," but then she became more serious and said, "Either you are one of us or you aren't one of us. You can't have it both ways. "

Stone's Dilemma: Suspecting that the items she was being offered were probably "hot" (e.g., stolen), she was afraid that if she wore the clothes in public, or had the record player in her apartment, she would be arrested for "accepting stolen goods." At the same time, she knew that "hot" items were often given to close friends when it was observed that they could use them. Still, this implied that there would be reciprocal giving (not necessarily in kind) at a later date. So, should she accept or refuse the proffered gifts?

Stone's Decision

Stone decided to accept the clothing, but not the record player. She made her case for the decision this way: she was in need of a warm coat, wool slacks, and sweaters. These attractive items would be worn during her work periods in the community (and at other times). When she received compliments on them, she could acknowledge acceptance of the gifts from her friend, thereby notifying people that she had accepted entry into the social credit system with an obligation to repay the gifts at a later date.

She told her friend that she did not have use for a record player since she seldom had time to listen to the few records she owned. She suggested another individual to whom her friend might give the record player. Her friend was satisfied with the compromise.

Before her fieldwork was completed she had numerous opportunities to fulfill these obligations. Some examples of repayment included: childsitting for a relative of a friend, lending money to another relative, and providing transportation to a distant city for her friend, among others.

Reader's Response

Timothy Perper of the Henry Frank Guggenheim Foundation wrote:

"It is an absolute necessity to set this `dilemma' into its own ethnographic context, which is `street-culture' and the `underground economy.' In that world, an offer of a `gift' is not always a gesture designed to elicit or invite reciprocity. . . . Sometimes it is a provocation, and a message. The message is you are not one of us. The provocation lies in the recipient's not knowing what it would mean if the gift were accepted. . . .

"The appropriate answer for Rose Stone to make would be something like `Say, thanks. But why are you giving me this stuff?' This is not the same as saying, `Well, I don't know if I can accept this, let me think about it,' or saying `Thanks, but I don't really need this,' or anything else. Just ask why the offer was made. If it is a provocation, then a skilled fieldworker can bring that into the open, and talk about why such provocations are made, and to whom; if it is not, then the giver's answer will express genuine concern or generosity (and will require reciprocity later, in the Maussian sense). . . .

"There is a strong possibility that the `gift'was a test. If so, why was it made? Why was it necessary? The answer is all important, for it may well imply that Rose Stone is held in suspicion, and in distrust, and has already been rejected. . . . if so, then find another project, for all that Rose Stone will get hereafter is lies and misinformation, and will hear oust barely) a lot of laughter directed at her.

"Note, though, that here I am assuming that the giver spoke the words in the quotation. And if she did, then her statement has a message--and this I infer from the fact that the giver even used the serious, formal language of her comment--a message which means that Rose Stone has already deeply insulted the giver, and which means that Rose Stone is already outside and an alien. . . .

"However, it is probable that the statement in quotations is merely Rose Stone's own paraphrase, and an expression of what she thought the giver was challenging her to do. If so, then maybe the future of the project is less bleak. In that case, the situation is even more interesting, for it depends totally on the fieldworker's ability to drop away from the sense of superiority that being a `scientist' entails (here I am discussing only fieldwork in one's own culture). The all-important point to remember is that Rose Stone and the giver are members of the same culture, and share an immense amount.

"It is easy for fieldworkers to believe that, because they are `scientists,' they are above the people they watch. . . . But this viewpoint is naive--to be generous. In fact, all the rules apply to your relationship with the people you are watching as would apply if you were not watching them, but instead, actually and in reality living with them, as one of them.

"It is here that the `ethical' and `theoretical' dilemmas arise. The ethical dilemma is more easily solved than the theoretical one. Simply ask what the gift means, explaining that you are not familiar with such things. Turn the offer into an opportunity to learn from the giver what the gift implies and entails. Since the giver knows that Rose Stone is a student (or is doing fieldwork), she will begin to explain these matters. Here Rose Stone must be honest, and say that where she comes from such things don't happen much, and she'd like to know more about it, and so on. Never--if I may offer advice--try to hide the fact that you are interested in how people live; if you do, you are a liar, and you will be detected. Meanwhile, the clothes and the record player sit on the floor and slowly become something to `talk about.' Then, Rose Stone can decide if she wants them or not.

"It is precisely because Rose Stone is a member of the same culture as the giver that she must talk openly and honestly. As a member of this culture, she is perfectly entitled to ask about being found out, about the police, about being ripped off herself, about being vulnerable. She is also perfectly entitled to ask what would happen if `someone' refused such gifts.

"Then the decision itself. The query implies that Rose Stone has nothing with which to make reciprocity, which implies that she is poor. Thus, the ethical dilemma is not `ethical' at all. It is a practical dilemma: it is tempting to take the clothes and record player. The offer has meaning, and real meaning, since she wants to accept the offer. Now--alas for Rose Stone--we plunge into the underground economy. In that world, if you need something, and somebody offers it, you take it. You need it. There is no room here for `middle-class' dilemmas about ethics. . . .

"[In accepting the offer, Stone] implies that she has taken on a new identity and that now she really--I mean really--is a member of the group she is studying. She faces what used to be called an `identity crisis.' One part says `I'm a nice middle-class person, and I don't accept stolen goods,' while the other part says, `Well, maybe I'm just like them, not because I am "studying" them, but because that's what I am.'

"Indeed, I suspect that it is Rose Stone who is saying `You can't have it both ways.' She is quite right, but not because there is an ethical decision to be made, but because her own identity is at stake. Whether she knows it or not, understands it or not, accepts it or not, she is a member of her own culture, and there is nothing in this `case' of the problem of `going native.' Rose Stone is already a native . . . [hers is] a dilemma of identity within her own culture . . . [a question that] indeed is important for anyone working within their own culture.