American Generosity in Sociorelational Context

Applying these theories to American generosity, we expect that a generous self-identity is embedded within this “spoke structure” of affiliations. The people and groups with whom Americans affiliate may themselves be more or less oriented to generosity. The combination of personal identity and group affiliations presents an ongoing dialogue that could reinforce a personal identity as generous, undermine it, or play a neutral role. This means each person has both an internalized, individual degree of personal generosity orientations and an externalized, relational degree of affiliation orientations to generosity. Given the various interests, identities, and roles that pull at each of us in the modern world, we expect that a part of the generosity picture is that people actualize the tendencies for which we have the greatest social support.

Being a part of contemporary society necessitates our understanding of the potential spoke structure of American giving: we no longer exist in premodern configurations in which our social groups are determined by where we live and our family’s social status. The spoke structure of contemporary group affiliations highlights the diversity of our affiliations and the idea that this network does not simply reinforce the influence of our “clan” family. Rather contemporary society introduces fragmented social experiences that could lead us to change or abandon the thoughts and behaviors that we learned in the place or family of our birth.

For example, some people may have a desire to win a gold medal, but they will be considerably more likely to do so if they have some interaction with a person who has won a gold medal, and especially so if they are related to that person in such a way that they can, over time, better actualize their gold-medal inclination. Even more complex is that people have inclinations to be gold-medal winners at the same time that they have inclinations to succeed at other things that require different identities and roles. These various inclinations become push-and-pull forces exerting pressures on our time and attention. We are most likely to carry out the inclinations for which we encounter the least resistance, that is, the most support, from those in our social group interactions. Conversely, for instance, if all those around a gold-medal-inclined person continually express disinterest in competitive athletics, there is a steady signal of no support to that person. This discourages the person from pursuing competitive athletics, and therefore he or she will never work to win a gold medal. Over time we would expect the gold-medal-inclined person to be less and less likely to work on winning a gold medal.

We expect a similar sort of process to be the case for generous orientations, people aspiring to live generous lives. However, unlike a goal that is fulfilled by a clear achievement, such as winning a gold medal, achieving a generous life does not have a clear point after which the status has been permanently achieved. Actualizing generosity is one of those pursuits, like parenting, that people need to continually work on, and there is never a clear measure of the extent to which people have “arrived” at their most generous self. In this sociorelational approach to generosity, we argue that people act not as isolated individuals; rather they are connected to people and groups who more or less support their personal orientations. We are, in part, a reflection of our relationships.

Americans today can choose whom they spend time with; they are not limited to their family or neighbors. This is part ofthe free nature ofcontem- porary social life. This diversity of choice can put us in groups with people who differ significantly on an orientation toward generosity—encouraging or discouraging us from actualizing our personal orientation to generosity. Someone who has a high generous self-identity could actualize generosity more if his or her friends are also volunteering and giving to charitable causes. If the same person is embedded in less generous groups, however, he or she could wind up giving very little. We expect affiliations to reinforce or undermine a person’s sense of his or her generous self, and thus to partially explain individual giving behaviors. Thus an understanding of giving affiliations is necessary to complete the picture of American generosity.

A person’s web of affiliations can include a host of sociorelational groups. Here we focus on six primary relationships:

• Parents: Americans grow up in families with parents who may or may

not have modeled and taught generosity.

• Spouses/partners: Americans may have romantic partners with their

own personal orientations to generosity.

• Religion: Americans’ religious congregations address giving differently.

  • • Friends: Americans make friends with others who have different degrees of generosity.
  • • Local community: Americans live in communities that they perceive to be more or less generous.
  • • National affiliations: Americans may also generate a sense of group identity with the nation and its giving spirit.

We think the people in these groups with whom members affiliate, in conjunction with the members’ own orientations toward generosity, will help explain the “Why 2.0” about why Americans give as they do.

How do webs of affiliations relate to generosity? For example, how do two people give who have the same personal orientation to be generous but are embedded in different webs of affiliations? Perhaps one person grew up with parents who explicitly taught about generosity, has a spouse who is highly aligned toward being generous, has friends who actively give, or regularly attends a religious congregation that frequently calls people to give their time and resources. Another person may have grown up with parents who never talked about giving, has a spouse who is not particularly interested in being generous, has friends who rarely give, or attends religious services that never call the congregants to give (or does not attend religious services). We suspect that these two people would give differently, despite their similar personal orientations toward generosity.

Of course when thinking about these six different affiliations, we would expect a person to encounter varying combinations of “grease” or “friction” toward actualizing generosity. As Simmel explains, contemporary life is about having multiple group affiliations that may bolster or conflict with each other to greater or lesser extents. It is easy to assume that people who have social affiliations that are uniformly positively oriented toward generosity would be more likely to give, and that people whose social affiliations are uniformly indifferent to or even antithetical toward generosity would be less likely to give. But predicting behaviors gets complicated when people have myriad configurations, with some giving-supportive affiliations and some non-giving-supportive affiliations.

 
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