Gift Economies

Many of the world’s economies have traditionally been described as ‘gift economies’; that is to say that the distribution of goods takes place with no fixed price. Within the household and the lineage, goods are distributed according to individual needs and rights, and gifts are also an important means of making contact with outsiders: a means of creating peace, friendship, and political loyalty.

In societies where the exchange of gifts is very widespread, this contributes significantly to societal integration. In a shrewd analysis of some of the categories of Norwegian culture, Eduardo Archetti (1991 [1984]) notes that whenever one buys a cup of coffee for someone in a university canteen, the recipient will hold out a few coins in payment the moment one returns with the drink. Archetti interprets this as an unwillingness to enter into a morally committing relationship with -others. To accept the coffee as a gift would imply a vague debt of gratitude which Norwegians are reluctant to incur.

Some criteria are necessary if a transaction is to be defined as gift-giving. Apart from the absence of a fixed price, the return gift should not be given at once. Only when these conditions are met is gift exchange socially integrating by its creation of webs of vague obligations on the part of large numbers of people. In some societies, such as the Polynesian ones Mauss deals with in his famous essay on the gift (1954 [1924]), virtually everyone in a local community has vague long-term obligations towards each other connected with gift exchange.

The gift is a characteristic expression of reciprocity. The obligation to give implies the obligation to receive; the recipient again commits him- or herself to making a counter-gift to the giver.

The analytical interest of a gift thus lies chiefly in its social and cultural aspects, not in the purely economic aspect.

Marcel Mauss

Mauss describes a particularly important category of such gifts as ‘préstations totales’ or total social phenomena: they involve the entire person and embody, by symbolic association, the totality of social relations and cultural values in society. Example: In modern societies, the exchange of wedding rings is, perhaps, the ultimate préstation totale.

Reciprocity and Power: Marriage systems, politics and everyday social interaction alike have been analyzed in terms of exchange according to the Maussian analysis.

Maussian analysis is rooted in class and power based politics.

In some interpretations of Mauss’s seminal work on gift-giving and reciprocity in general, the institution of the gift is seen as constitutive of society as such. While the principle of gift-giving is certainly important  for maintaining political ties and kinship ties, this must not be seen as the only principle of integration.

Modern times gift economies

The phenomena of gift economies can be observed in our daily lives too.

Dowry – culturally it’s a gift to the daughter. But it’s a gift which has cultural and economic value both.

Land vs. dowry – the gender difference in gift giving having roots in culture and economics


A famous social institution which was once widespread on the north-western coast of North America (amongst the Kwakiutl groups and their neighbors) is known as potlatch.

gift economies

The potlatch was practiced by Kwakiutl groups and their neighbors. These people were prosperous hunters and fisherfolk, and lived in more hierarchical societies.

The aristocrats within the system continuously had to defend, and to try to improve, their relative rank by giving spectacular gifts to each other.

This phenomenon, which could be described as competitive gift exchange, contains a mechanism for acceleration. When chief B received a gift from chief A, he would have to surpass the latter in his return gift. This competition could, in some cases,  culminate in the destruction of considerable material wealth. Each winter the chiefs invited each other to large parties, where abundant food and drink were served and lavish presents were given to the guests.

In addition, they destroyed valuables, throwing salt fish away and setting fire to tents and carpets; they even threw slaves into the sea to show off their wealth. At the return party, the hosting chief would have to surpass the previous host in destructive capabilities. The chief who could afford to destroy most, achieved the highest rank in the regional hierarchy.

Institutions similar to the potlatch exist among many other groups. The purpose of the waste is to establish a political hierarchy with oneself on top. Mauss (1954) has identified a milder form of potlatch in the French custom of trying to surpass others by giving lavish wedding presents. Mauss describes the potlatch institution as a ‘perverted’ form of the more widespread phenomenon of reciprocity, which is an important social institution in many societies.

Also read: Exchange & Economy

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