There is no such thing as a free gift. Evaluate this statement. In western society we are led to believe that gift giving is distinct from market exchange. This originates from western economic theory that is based on the perception that societies evolve from ‘sharing’ archaic societies to market economies, that are based on theories of supply and demand. However, through the history of anthropological thought we can determine that this distinction is a false dichotomy. According to the Oxford English dictionary, a gift is ‘a thing given willingly to someone without payment’ (Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/gift [accessed: 4 December 2013]. It is this definition that has found itself at the centre of anthropological debate. Bronislaw Malinowski first coined the term ‘pure gift’ whilst conducting his ethnographic research in the Trobriand Islands. A ‘pure gift’ according to Malinowski was ‘an act in which an individual gives an object or renders a service without expecting a return’ (1922: 176). This was heavily criticised by revolutionary theorist Marcel Mauss in his most famous work The Gift (1925), whereby through studying the Maori people, he argues that a free gift is impossible, as with every gift comes an ‘obligation to reciprocate’ (1925: 3). The Gift has been extremely influential to many anthropological studies including the work of James Carrier, Jonathan Parry and David Sahlins. However Mauss's views on the nature of gift exchange have not been without their critics. Anthropologists such as James Laidlaw and Alain Testart contest that there is such a thing as a ‘free gift’. James Laidlaw uses the example of the giving of alms to Shvetambar Jain renouncers whereas Alain Testart focuses on the multiple meanings of the term ‘obligation’, in his interpretation of a ‘free gift’. After exploring both sides of this anthropological debate and examining the significant ethnographic fieldwork I will determine whether Malinowski’s initial notion of a ‘pure gift’ is possible. Anthropological debate on the nature of gift giving began with Bronislaw Malinowski who used participant observation as part of his ethnographic fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands of Papua, New Guinea, where he first discovered the Kula ring as ‘a form of gift exchange…that is carried on by communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands’ (Malinowski 1922). In this case natives would at times travel many miles to exchange Kula valuables. This would be done in a circular direction with the donor becoming the recipient and vice versa. It was in his subsequent work ‘Agronauts of the Western Pacific’ where Malinowski first employed the notion of a ‘pure’ gift. According to Malinowski a pure gift occurs in a gift exchange between a husband and wife and a parent and child. Marcel Mauss (in Laidlaw, 2000: 5) falsifies Malinowski’s concept of a ‘pure’ gift by stating that the gifts between a husband and wife in the Trobriand Islands are seen as ‘mapula payment for matrimonial relations’, in layman’s terms this was payment for sexual intercourse. This therefore created an obligation on the donor to reciprocate. This interpretation is reflected in Mauss’s most influential piece of work, The Gift, where he argues that gifts are never free (Mauss 1925: 3). It was whilst studying the Maori people, that Marcel Mauss highlighted the notion of obligation in gift-giving (Mauss 1925). He argued that the exchange of gifts always gives rise to reciprocal exchange, which makes the concept of a ‘free’ gift impossible. The recipient feels a social obligation to return the gift at some point in the future, therefore creating a binding relationship between the parties. Mauss’s most famous argument was that in gift societies domination is ‘disguised’, and by not reciprocating the donor has an invisible power over the recipient, making the gift a source of both ‘pleasure and poison’(Mauss 1925). Mauss depersonalises gifts and turns them into an...
Bibliography: Carrier James, G. 1995. Gifts and commodities : exchange and Western capitalism since 1700 (Material cultures). London: Routledge.
Gregory, C.A. 1982. Gifts and commodities (Studies in political economy). London: Academic Press.
Laidlaw, J. 2000. ‘A free gift makes no friends’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6: 617-634.
Malinowski, B. 1961. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
Mauss, M. 1925. The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge.
Parry, J. 1986. The Gift, the Indian Gift and the 'Indian Gift '. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 21(3), 453-473.
Sahlins, M. 1974.’The Original Affluent Society’ in Stone Age Economics. London: Routledge.
Testart, A. 1998. 'Uncertainties of the 'Obligation to Reciprocate ': A Critique of Mauss ' in Marcel Mauss: A Centenary Tribute. James, W. and Allen, N. J. (eds.). New York: Berghahn Books.
Please join StudyMode to read the full document