According hard to find in a primitive society

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According 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 reciprocity.

Bronislaw Malinowski’s research
done in the Melanesia on the Trobriandi people is essential in understanding if
reciprocity is fundamental part of human nature. An incredibly important aspect
of life for the Trobriand is the “Kula Trade”. The Kula being a type of trade
made between tribes on the Melanesian Islands in which Malinowski performed his
research. The Kula trade could also include gifts that were not material gifts
at all but were knowledge. The Trobrianders believed heavily in the use of
magic in helping them hunt and become better farmers, thus spells were very
often exchanged for food, tobacco or money. Other non-material gifts exchanged
were land rights and the privilege to perform a ritualistic dance for someone.
Dances were seen as property between the Trobrianders and the original creator
and “owner” of the dance solely had the right to perform the act in public to
the village. If an individual from another village wishes to perform that dance
then they would have to “purchase the right to perform it. This is done by
ceremonially handing over a substantial amount of food or valuables to the
original village after which the dance is then taught to the new possesors”2.
This transaction blurs the lines between trade and gift giving as it can be
seen as a banter and not entirely but somewhat a “pure gift”. The presentation
of the gifts is also important to the Trobrianders as it is to Westerners.
Whereas Westerners care very much about the physical appearance of the gift and
not so much about how the transaction pans out, the Trobrianders do not care
about the aesthetics of the gift at all and only about the transaction process.
The Trobrianders believe very much that the gift should be handed over in an
“off-hand, abrupt and almost angry manner, and received with equivalent
nonchalance and disdain”3.
Malinowski then goes on to explain how the gift receiver never fully
acknowledges the value of the gift received but is observed to always proclaim
the value of the gift that they return to the giver, also the observation that
there is a reluctance from the receiver to receive the gift at all is present.
Malinowski assumes that the negative attitude displayed by the giver could
relate to natural human behaviour where one is reluctant and upset to be
parting with something that they had previously possessed. Furthermore, by
displaying what a pain it is to give away such a gift the giver is showing the
receiver the value of the gift and the amount of importance the gift has for
them. Also according to Malinowski is that “both articles never stop for any
length of time in the hands of any owner; they constantly move, constantly
meeting and being exchanged”4
and this supports his argument that Kula is paramount in the Trobriander
society in creating “special bonds which unite two men” as it shows constant
use of Kula.

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
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”6.
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”7,
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. Mauss’ famous statement about the
three obligations “the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and the
obligation to reciprocate” symbolises the basis of reciprocity as if any of
these obligations are not followed through then a relationship breaks down.

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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.  

In conclusion, we have understood
that there is a vast amount of ways that gift giving can take place as well as
the variation in occasions that include the transfer of gifts. Furthermore, the
spirit of the gift varies from disinterested generosity to the seeking of
personal gain, with numerous grey spots in-between.


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

Malinowski, 186

Malinowski, 353

Malinowski, Page 205

Mauss, Page 3

Ibid, Page 33

Ibid, Page 11


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