Reciprocity and The Gift Economy


"What power resides in the [gift] given that causes its recipient to pay it back?"

--Marcel Mauss, The Gift

Picture yourself in the following scenario: right before the holidays a co-worker or friend unexpectedly gives you a gift. What do you do?

a)Improvise something to give them as a gift

b)Give them a gift later

c)Just thank them and feel guilty

d)Give them heartfelt thanks and nothing else and feel good about it

There is no right answer…Ideally our holiday gift giving expectations would match those of our friends and we wouldn't find ourselves in such a situation. In fact, one of the keys to a simplified holiday involves communicating your plans and gift comfort level with others. But imagine that someone missed your email saying you're opting out of material gifts. Confronted with the surprise box of candy or scarf, why would some of us feel like we'd just unwrapped a Pandora's box full of guilt?

Anthropologists have actually gone to a lot of trouble to understand gift exchange customs around the world, and one, Marcel Mauss, found some interesting practices in Polynesia that may shed some light on the subject. Mauss said that when a gift is given, some essence of the giver invisibly accompanies the actual object. The exchange is a social as well as material exchange, binding the giver and receiver with an expectation of reciprocity. Breaking the cycle of reciprocity means losing one's honor.  Read a summary of Mauss' theories on the gift economy.

Gifts and their relationship to economies across the world and backwards in time are a huge subject. But it’s interesting to look at “Simplify the Holidays” with its goal of reducing obligatory or conditioned holiday spending in this light. A gift might be a material thing or a non-material item like time spent together: some essence of ourselves is communicated in that social exchange. While Mauss’ version of the “gift economy” depicts gifts as reinforcing social bonds, I think it’s up for question how much we, in our current economy, need to spend on exchanges to keep us together.

Look for more posts about gifts and social exchange coming up.

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