According hard to find in a primitive society

 According to Marcel Mauss,”gifts are the primitive analogue if the social contract, then theyclearly carry a social load which in centralized politics is assumed by thestate”1.In anthropological terms, gift giving (sometimes referred to as reciprocity) iswhen resources are given from one individual to another and a return isexpected. When a resource is returned to the individual almost immediately thenit cannot create a social relationship.

When there is a delay between theexchanging of resources then a relationship is formed between the individualsand debt can be created as there could be an underlying bond for a return. Thealmost mythical “pure gift” is incredibly rare and hard to find in a primitivesociety or commodity economy, where a gift given is transferred from one individualto another without the expectations of return. Occurring most of the time, itis expected morally for the receiver of the gift to return an accepting gift tothe giver. This exchange is reciprocity. Bronislaw Malinowski’s researchdone in the Melanesia on the Trobriandi people is essential in understanding ifreciprocity is fundamental part of human nature. An incredibly important aspectof life for the Trobriand is the “Kula Trade”. The Kula being a type of trademade between tribes on the Melanesian Islands in which Malinowski performed hisresearch.

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The Kula trade could also include gifts that were not material giftsat all but were knowledge. The Trobrianders believed heavily in the use ofmagic in helping them hunt and become better farmers, thus spells were veryoften exchanged for food, tobacco or money. Other non-material gifts exchangedwere land rights and the privilege to perform a ritualistic dance for someone.Dances were seen as property between the Trobrianders and the original creatorand “owner” of the dance solely had the right to perform the act in public tothe village. If an individual from another village wishes to perform that dancethen they would have to “purchase the right to perform it. This is done byceremonially handing over a substantial amount of food or valuables to theoriginal 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 beseen as a banter and not entirely but somewhat a “pure gift”. The presentationof 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 andnot so much about how the transaction pans out, the Trobrianders do not careabout 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 equivalentnonchalance and disdain”3.Malinowski then goes on to explain how the gift receiver never fullyacknowledges the value of the gift received but is observed to always proclaimthe value of the gift that they return to the giver, also the observation thatthere is a reluctance from the receiver to receive the gift at all is present.Malinowski assumes that the negative attitude displayed by the giver couldrelate to natural human behaviour where one is reluctant and upset to beparting with something that they had previously possessed.

Furthermore, bydisplaying what a pain it is to give away such a gift the giver is showing thereceiver the value of the gift and the amount of importance the gift has forthem. Also according to Malinowski is that “both articles never stop for anylength of time in the hands of any owner; they constantly move, constantlymeeting and being exchanged”4and this supports his argument that Kula is paramount in the Trobriandersociety in creating “special bonds which unite two men” as it shows constantuse of Kula.What Mauss highlights in ‘The Gift’ is that it is humannature that we only give away our goods and labour (resources) in the hopesthat there is a return, this could be acknowledgement or thanks, as long as itcreates a social relationship. Mauss mentions that “gifts are never free” andas a selfish species a gift in return is always to be expected “we only give tothat 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 itback?”5.One could argue that there is no power or significance in the object at all butin the relationship created/supported between the two parties when thetransaction is made. The individual who is giving the gift of goods or labouris not only handing over something that can be seen and touched but alsotransferring a part of themselves.

There is no distinction being made betweenthe objects given and the person who gave them, they each belong to one anotherand Mauss states this by saying “the objects are never completely separatedfrom the men who exchange them”6.As mentioned before, the receiver has a duty to follow through with thehypothetical deal being made when gifts are transferred, this could be upheldwith the return of an item or service of equal or greater value. There is nolegal contract made between the two parties involved but failure to follow upand return a gift of equal or greater (cannot be less) in value could result indamages being made to the failing party’s social standing amongst his peergroup and trust issues could arise. The act of giving is as important inmaintaining an already formed relationship as it is in creating a new one.

Whenreceiving the gift the individual acknowledges and accepts that relationshipand understands that failure to respond to the gesture can and will result inthe deterioration of the relationship. Mauss also mentions “Mana”7,a Polynesian term that is used to describe someone’s life force or energy andis commonly used in pop culture today to describe endurance. In practice, anindividual who fails to follow the unwritten rules of reciprocation could losean amount of their “Mana”, taking away part of themselves.  Mauss also discusses the “alienated” objectsprevalent in primitive societies, objects which cannot be given as gifts orexchanged for something in return but must be sold and then the object’s rightsof ownership would pass onto the buyer. These “alienated” objects are importantin 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 arelationship with. In this case the original lender still has property rightsover the object but does not reap the benefits that may come with having saidobject in possession, for example if the object was a house then the lendercould mandate what colour the house was to be painted but he could not use thefacilities of the house as if it was his own without permission from the personhe gifted the house to.

Mauss refers to this as “Hau”, a term that I understandto represent the aura of the gift, a connection that the gift has to itsoriginal owner that will always be present. Mauss’ famous statement about thethree obligations “the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and theobligation to reciprocate” symbolises the basis of reciprocity as if any ofthese obligations are not followed through then a relationship breaks down. We can also analyse the West andtheir penchant for gift giving at certain periods of the year. There are manydifferent forms that gift giving can disguise itself in the capitalisticsocieties of the West, but the common medium used and transferred betweenindividuals is currency. Currency is used as a medium for gift giving out ofease, allowing both parties to give and accept with confidence that thecommodity purchased with the money will be effective in supporting therelationship between them.

  Christmas,the Western world’s most popular time of the year for gift exchange, isincredibly useful in understanding the importance of gift giving and the socialimpact it has on the Westerner’s life. The relationships maintained or createdduring the period of Christmas relies heavily on the kinship that lies betweenthe giver and the receiver of the gift. It is commonly witnessed that giftsexchanged between parent and adolescent child are incredibly unequal in value,and this can simply be answered with parents wanting their children to havemore whilst only expecting a token gift in return.

However when the child hasgrown up into adulthood it is witnessed that the gift exchange is still vastlyunequal but in favour of the parent, this can be explained as the childrepaying the parent for raising them and as said before, the child want toreceive gratification for paying back their parent and thus a token gift givenin return will suffice. Gifts exchanged between a married couple or a couple involvedin an intimate relationship will be of equal value as both individuals do notwant to outshine the other.  In conclusion, we have understoodthat there is a vast amount of ways that gift giving can take place as well asthe variation in occasions that include the transfer of gifts.

Furthermore, thespirit of the gift varies from disinterested generosity to the seeking ofpersonal gain, with numerous grey spots in-between. 1Parry,The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift’, Page 4672Malinowski, 1863Malinowski, 3534Malinowski, Page 2055Mauss, Page 36Ibid, Page 337Ibid, Page 11


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