Rules as resources

Rules as resources

Week 7: Care as capital after the Fordist social contract

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Monday, September 12, 2022

Slides available at

Main reading: Mazelis (2015); Nelson (2000)

Society as rules

Mauss says the gift comes with obligations for giver and recipient because both are embedded in a total social system.

Do we agree that society has rules and being a social subject is following rules?

Is reciprocity a rule?

Pierre Bourdieu (1977) says that Mauss concludes that reciprocity is a rule because he does not consider the time factor. We only see reciprocity as a clockwork-like system after the fact, in hindsight.

Bourdieu says that when people give and receive, timing is everything. You have to have a feel for the right time. The social quality of reciprocity is a matter of individual practice.

There is scope for creativity, choice, and indeed strategy in reciprocal exchange. If it’s not just rules, then what is this social system? Bourdieu’s alternative rests on two key ideas:

The body is a recording device and a tool

We learn by doing, because we learn what it feels like to do something. As Bourdieu says,

A habitus is not a constraint on freedom; it is a source of individual agency.

By embodying a social position, people acquire abilities to act that they would not otherwise have.

Society is a game

Social life takes place among people on a field of play.

Players on a team occupy specific positions on the playing field, and acquire skills associated with their position and their relationships to other players in other positions.

A field need not exist first for people to play a game. By applying the capacities granted by the habitus of a specific position (in a literal and metaphoric sense), they draw others into a shared game on a common field of social space between them.

Scoring points, reaping rewards

If social situations are fields, and the habitus for a field generates actions, then these social situations are also arenas for acquiring recognition, merit, esteem.

A thought experiment: When friends ask for money

Imagine that one of your friends texts you to ask to borrow $300.

Now consider a different friend asking for a loan of the same amount.

What if they both asked at the same time?

Whom do you “trust”?

If some people are more trustworthy than others, is it possible that they also had a head start on earning trust, too?

Social capital in The Flats

Being a neighbor involves a habitus of neighborliness, and in some neighborhoods, this is a particular kind of skill you must learn through practice.

Generalized reciprocity is part of the habitus of neighbor in The Flats. Because people acquire this habitus and play this game on this field, people accumulate social capital.

References and further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. “The Objective Limits of Objectivism.” In Outline of a Theory of Practice, translated by Richard Nice, 1–71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1990. “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” In The Logic of Practice, 52–65. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Mazelis, Joan Maya. 2015. “‘I Got to Try to Give Back’: How Reciprocity Norms in a Poor People’s Organization Influence Members’ Social Capital.” Journal of Poverty 19 (1): 109–31.

Nelson, Margaret K. 2000. “Single Mothers and Social Support: The Commitment to, and Retreat from, Reciprocity.” Qualitative Sociology 23 (3): 291–317.

Reyes-Foster, Beatriz M., and Shannon K. Carter. 2017. “Mothers, Milk, and Morals: Peer Milk Sharing as Moral Motherwork in Central Florida.” In Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches, edited by Cecília Tomori, Aunchalee E. L. Palmquist, and E. A. Quinn. London: Routledge.

Stack, Carol B. (1974) 2008. All Our Kin: Strategies For Survival In A Black Community. New York: Basic Books.