Why Do Anthropologists Study Gift Giving?

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  • Topic: Marcel Mauss, Reciprocity, Gift economy
  • Pages : 5 (1689 words )
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  • Published : December 15, 2010
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Why study Gifts?

The anthropology of gifts has been mostly studied in the context of non-Western cultures. The important roles of gift giving were highlighted by classical anthropologists such as Malinowski, Mauss and Levi-Strauss. They stressed the significance of reciprocity and obligation suggested in gift exchange and that gift giving is a one practice of material expression that integrates a society. Gift giving is essential to the studies of many anthropological debates such as sociability, alienation, sacrifice, religion and kinship. The anthropology of gifts is also crucial to economics. Entire businesses and industries rely on gift giving as it helps understand the relationships in economy as a cultural system that is not just market based. Moreover, it plays a part in the understanding of how people invest in each other, as well as comprehending the development of major economies, such as China. Malinowski wrote of the Kula Ring in his ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’(1922). This exchange of gifts was half ceremonial, half commercial. Twice annually, the inhabitants of the Trobiand islands will visit other islands to give gifts, barter and celebrate. The islanders aim to acquire, as well as give, to their special Kula-exchange partners. They exchange armlets of white shells and necklaces of red shells. These shells are carried from island to island in a ring, the necklaces in one direction and the armlets in the other, in a continual ring called ‘Kula’. Kula items have no financial value; they are merely for display and reputation. So, how does this study benefit western society? And what does it tell us of foreign concepts? Malinowski compared the Kula to the Crown Jewels, though in my opinion the Crown Jewels are worth a lot of money, one would want these for their value and not just their symbolic status, so I would compare the exchange more to a trophy, which the winner keeps until the next competition (i.e., football) and then the trophy is passed on to the next winner, which helps us understand our own culture a little more as we ourselves keep ‘gifts’ and trophies for prestige, to show that we have achieved something, which in the case of the islanders would be the achievement of a lifelong friend and position in the Kula Ring. The Kula connects islanders and their economies. It secures the peoples’ politics, reinforces peace between the islanders and creates good feelings among the people. As well as this, it resolves interbreeding within their own communities as romances may occur between the women and the men that would visit their village. But what has the anthropology of gift giving shown us about western societies? We have no formal system of reciprocity such as the Kula, but yet we generally expect gifts in return if we are to give one. If we give an expensive gift we generally assume to receive an expensive present in return. In his 1924 essay ‘The Gift’, Marcel Mauss writes that we are obliged to give gifts, receive them and then to repay them, the general statement of the essay is ‘there is no such thing as a free gift.’ Mauss argued that the gift that is given represents the giver and that by accepting the gift you also accept the association of the gift with the giver. To maintain the relationship between the two, the receiver must reciprocate the gift or the relationship as it was, will end. Much like the Kula, gift giving works as a cycle, such as Christmas presents, and this has helped us understand an essential way in which humans sustain social relationships, i.e. reciprocity shapes social relations.

Allain Testart has criticised Mauss for exaggerating the obligation of gift giving, saying that other than legal obligation (as in court cases) reciprocity cannot be enforced. He argues that there are ‘free gifts’ such as donation, or giving money to a beggar, the donator does not except anything in return and the beggar receives the gift knowing he will never be able to return...
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