ccording giver. This exchange is reciprocity. Modern day life

ccording to Marcel Mauss,
“gifts are the primitive analogue if the social contract, then they
clearly carry a social load which in centralized politics is assumed by the



In anthropological terms, gift giving
(sometimes referred to as reciprocity) is when resources are given from one
individual to another and a return is expected. When a resource is returned to
the individual almost immediately then it cannot create a social relationship.
When there is a delay between the exchanging of resources then a relationship
is formed between the individuals and debt can be created as there could be an
underlying bond for a return. The almost mythical “pure gift” is incredibly
rare and hard to find in a primitive society or commodity economy, where a gift
given is transferred from one individual to another without the expectations of
return. Occurring most of the time, it is expected morally for the receiver of
the gift to return an accepting gift to the giver. This exchange is

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

Modern day life


Bronislaw Malinowski’s research
done in the Melanesia on the Trobriandi people is essential in understanding if
reciprocity is fundamental part of human nature.




What Mauss highlights in ‘The Gift’ is that it is human
nature that we only give away our goods and labour (resources) in the hopes
that there is a return, this could be acknowledgement or thanks as long as it
creates a social relationship. Mauss mentions that “gifts are never free” and
as a selfish species a gift in return is always to be expected “we only give to
that we can receive”. An important question asked by Mauss in ‘The Gift’ is “What
power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”2.
One could argue that there is no power or significance in the object at all but
in the relationship created/supported between the two parties when the
transaction is made. The individual who is giving the gift of goods or labour
is not only handing over something that can be seen and touched but also
transferring a part of themselves. There is no distinction being made between the
objects given and the person who gave them, they each belong to one another and
Mauss states this by saying “the objects are never completely separated from
the men who exchange them”3.
As mentioned before, the receiver has a duty to follow through with the hypothetical
deal being made when gifts are transferred, this could be upheld with the
return of an item or service of equal or greater value. There is no legal
contract made between the two parties involved but failure to follow up and
return a gift of equal or greater (cannot be less) in value could result in
damages being made to the failing party’s social standing amongst his peer
group and trust issues could arise. The act of giving is as important in maintaining
an already formed relationship as it is in creating a new one. When receiving the
gift the individual acknowledges and accepts that relationship and understands
that failure to respond to the gesture can and will result in the deterioration
of the relationship. Mauss also mentions “Mana”4,
a Polynesian term that is used to describe someone’s life force or energy and
is commonly used in pop culture today to describe endurance. In practice, an
individual who fails to follow the unwritten rules of reciprocation could lose
an amount of their “Mana”, taking away part of themselves.  Mauss also discusses the “alienated” objects
prevalent in primitive societies, objects which cannot be given as gifts or
exchanged for something in return but must be sold and then the object’s rights
of ownership would pass onto the buyer. These “alienated” objects are important
in gift giving as the gift giver cannot transfer this object as a “pure gift”,
thus they resort to loaning the object to the individual they wish to create a
relationship with. In this case the original lender still has property rights
over the object but does not reap the benefits that may come with having said
object in possession, for example if the object was a house then the lender
could mandate what colour the house was to be painted but he could not use the
facilities of the house as if it was his own without permission from the person
he gifted the house to. Mauss refers to this as “Hau”, a term that I understand
to represent the aura of the gift, a connection that the gift has to its original
owner that will always be present.



Modern day life:

We can also analyse the West and
their penchant for gift giving at certain periods of the year. There are many
different forms that gift giving can disguise itself in the capitalistic
societies of the West, but the common medium used and transferred between
individuals is currency. Currency is used as a medium for gift giving out of
ease, allowing both parties to give and accept with confidence that the
commodity purchased with the money will be effective in supporting the
relationship between them.  Christmas,
the Western world’s most popular time of the year for gift exchange, is
incredibly useful in understanding the importance of gift giving and the social
impact it has on the Westerner’s life. The relationships maintained or created
during the period of Christmas relies heavily on the kinship that lies between
the giver and the receiver of the gift. It is commonly witnessed that gifts
exchanged between parent and adolescent child are incredibly unequal in value,
and this can simply be answered with parents wanting their children to have more
whilst only expecting a token gift in return. However when the child has grown
up into adulthood it is witnessed that the gift exchange is still vastly unequal
but in favour of the parent, this can be explained as the child repaying the
parent for raising them and as said before, the child want to receive gratification
for paying back their parent and thus a token gift given in return will
suffice. Gifts exchanged between a married couple or a couple involved in an
intimate relationship will be of equal value as both individuals do not want to
outshine the other.  

The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift’, Page 467

2 Mauss,

Mauss, 33

Mauss, 11