Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is It Really Better to Give Than to Receive? A Modern Day Look at Gifting and Mauss

Who doesn’t like receiving gifts? What could be a sweeter gesture than receiving something from someone you love if you’re doing fieldwork and are away from home—or you’re at home and feeling blue? And if you’ve had an argument or disagreement and want to reconcile with someone, doesn’t a gift help smooth away the friction? Gifts are more than just tokens, however, they are symbolic representations of power and relationships.

After a three-hour visit to the doctor, I found myself hurrying to the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) yesterday. For those of you non-New Yorkers out there, the LIRR is a commuter train that connects Long Island and some parts of Queens and Brooklyn with Manhattan. It's also a completely different experience from the NYC subway. First, you can usually get a seat with little or no problem (and as an added bonus, the seats are cushioned). There's very little overcrowding and pushing. There are bathrooms in the cars—admittedly gross bathrooms, but bathrooms nonetheless. And riders of the LIRR enforce a social code of behavior (look for more on this idea to come in a future post called, Creating Social Order on the LIRR). Of course, the LIRR is not public transportation for the masses. It's passengers fall mainly within the middle to upper-middle classes. And tickets can get pricey, especially if you need to purchase one on the train and fall victim to the $6.00 surcharge.  

I've occasionally seen people come up short in these types of situations and the conductor will usually ask the person to step off at the next station. Yesterday something different happened: a woman came up short on cash, and another person—a stranger—paid her fare so she could continue her trip uninterrupted. A young woman tried to purchaser a ticket on the train and found she was $2.00 short. She was looking for additional change in her wallet, listening as the conductor told her that she would have to disembark at the next station, when a person leaned across the aisle and handed the conductor enough to cover the entire fare. Both the woman and the conductor thanked the person profusely, who then refused the change from the fare so the remaining money went to the woman. During this exchange, the woman explained she had just changed bags and left her other wallet at home, and that she normally drove into the city but got stuck in traffic this time and needed to get to a meeting. Both the conductor and her generous new friend said they understood, "it can happen." She asked the person for a business card so she could repay her debt and that too was refused. "It's nothing—a gift,” the person insisted. However, a short while later, the person handed over a business card, saying "Tell you what, if you know anyone looking for an --, tell them you know a good one." The person cheerfully agreed. (Note: The profession and gender of the giver were purposefully omitted to drive attention to the gift itself.)
Image: This person did something nice for a total stranger! But was it a gift? Keep an eye out for this good samaritan during your travels.

Would you characterize the payment as a gift? Or is it changed by the business card exchange? Is it now trade? If you think that gifts are given freely and without an expectation of reciprocation, I'd like to argue otherwise. Marcel Mauss (remember him?) proposed that though gifts are supposed to be given freely and willingly, they in fact come with the obligation to give and an obligation to receive. Our social collective imposes the obligation to give—in specific situations it is viewed as tradition and a sign of goodwill and/or good faith to give something, right? This goes far beyond birthdays, weddings, and other such life events, which are marked by celebrations. Whole groups can feel this obligation. For example, to mark the end of disagreements and wars, to cement new alliances, gifts can be offered.

In The Gift, Mauss tells us that  
“in the economic and legal systems that have preceded our own, one hardly ever finds a simple exchange of goods, wealth, and products in transactions concluded by individuals. First, it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon one another … Moreover, what they exchange is not solely property and wealth, movable and immovable goods, and things economically useful,” they also exchange services, such as military service and acts of politeness, such as banquets, rituals, festivals, dances, etc (2000: 5).
We learn from Mauss that gifts should be offered; they are obligatory because they help create and maintain relationships. Gift giving is also an exercise in power. It establishes a hierarchy of giver and receiver. This is most clearly seen in the obligation to receive. Mauss tells us that to refuse to receive  
“is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate, to fear being ‘flattened’ [i.e. to lose face]” (2000: 41).
Honor and credit, he maintains, are never far removed from issues of exchange. There is an element of respect and reputation tied to gift giving. These points reiterate the notion that exchange cements ties between groups.

How does this relate to the person on the train who paid the fare for the woman? How can we understand this event in terms of these ideas of the gift? The person who paid the fare felt an obligation to act. It could very well be that there were others who felt this obligation. According to Mauss, anyone capable to paying the fare or helping make up the difference, should have felt the obligation to help. This person may have chosen to act having recognized the potential to create a useful relationship, whether consciously or not. The giver may have seen something in the woman’s appearance or style that indicated she might be helpful to the giver’s own business—and when you think about it, the same principles apply when creating alliances. The woman in turn was obligated to accept the gift. After all, she could not afford the fare. True, she could have gotten off at the next station and perhaps purchased a ticket using a credit card, but she was also being gifted with convenience.

Once accepted, the gift needed to be reciprocated. She asked for a business card so she could send a payment, but the giver refused repayment, handing over a business card with the request that the woman pass along a recommendation if she learned of anyone needing the services the giver could offer. The recipient is obligated to pass this along if she can. If the two held a closer relationship, there would be no question of reciprocation—it would be mandatory to the relationship.

You may find this unusual. A gift, after all, should not carry requirements with it. But Mauss tells us that gifts are imbued with a hau—a spirit or essence, which works to ensure that reciprocity occurs. Mauss actually says that the hau works to return the gift to the giver, which strengthens the bonds of the relationship between the giver and the recipient. Gifts contain a part of the giver (the hau), and in accepting a gift, you accept a part of the giver as well. You carry this part with you until you reciprocate the gesture. But as a receiver, you also want to reciprocate. Remember that gifts establish a hierarchy between the giver and the recipient.The recipient wants to reciprocate the gift to remove herself from obligations to the giver—to reestablish herself as equal to the giver.

So those Internet offers for a free cell phone or iPod—well, you already know they aren’t free, but now perhaps you understand the mechanisms they use to operate. You are offered something for free, and in return a service is requested of you. It could be a survey, a request to purchase something, or a tracking device planted on your computer—the point is that in receiving a gift, you are obligated to make a return. This psychology is also put to work by charities that send out address labels when requesting donations. Dear Abby discusses this in her weekly column here.

If we read Mauss carefully, the nature of gifts is to create and strengthen relationships, to create balances. These principles have survived and provided the transition towards our own systems of law and economy. Things today have both emotional and monetary value and the unreturned gift damages a person’s standing. We are still obligated to return, Mauss says. For example, the next round of drinks must be larger and more expensive; similarly, we are still obligated to extend an invitation when we receive one.

How can we understand and apply these principles to public giving in the arts, and in our own private and public festivals?

I’ll leave you with a quotation from British anthropologist Mary Douglas in The Gift:  
“A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”

Mauss, Marcel. 
2000     The Gift. New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc.


  1. There is definitely a "secret code" to gift giving. Gift givers usually expect things in return, even though they won't admit it to anyone, even to their self!

    Great article Krystal!

  2. Thanks, Sylud1120! And thanks for commenting.

    Hope I didn't dampen the holiday season for you :)