Economies Before Coins: The Gift Economy

A gift economy, gift culture, or gift exchange is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. It’s hard to imagine a society where we don’t use a form of money or trades as a way of regulating the economy. It took centuries for the economy to arrive where we are today and several different forms of economies contributed to the creation of coins and currency. The gift economy may be one of the seemingly outrageous models because it isn’t immediately obvious how both parties in a transaction benefit.  The gift economy contrasts with a barter economy or a market economy because the goods and services are not primarily exchanged for value received. Social norms and custom govern gift exchange. Gifts are not given in an explicit exchange of goods or services for money or some other commodity.

Gift exchange is distinguished from other forms of exchange by a number of principles, such as the form of property rights governing the articles exchanged; whether gifting forms a distinct “sphere of exchange” that can be characterized as an “economic system”; and the character of the social relationship that the gift exchange establishes. Gift ideology in highly commercialized societies differs from the “prestations” typical of non-market societies. Gift economies must also be differentiated from several closely related phenomena, such as common property regimes and the exchange of non-commodified labor.

Gift-giving is a form of transfer of property rights over particular objects. The nature of those property rights varies from society to society, from culture to culture, and are not universal. The nature of gift-giving is thus altered by the type of property regime in place.

In a gift economy, property is not a thing, but a relationship amongst people about things. According to Chris Hann, property is a social relationship that governs the conduct of people with respect to the use and disposition of things. Gift-giving in many societies is complicated because “private property” owned by an individual may be quite limited in scope. Productive resources, such as land, may be held by members of a corporate group (such as a lineage), but only some members of that group may have “use rights”. When many people hold rights over the same objects gifting has very different implications than the gifting of private property; only some of the rights in that object may be transferred, leaving that object still tied to its corporate owners. Anthropologist Annette Weiner refers to these types of objects as “inalienable possessions” and to the process as “keeping while giving”.

800px-Klallam_people_at_Port_TownsendBronisław Malinowski, an anthropologist, explains that reciprocity is an implicit part of gifting; he contended there is no such thing as the “free gift” given without expectation. And Marcel Mauss, emphasized that the gifts were not between individuals, but between representatives of larger collectivities. These gifts were, he argued, a “total prestation”. A prestation is a service provided out of a sense of obligation, like “community service”. They were not simple, alienable commodities to be bought and sold, but, like the “Crown jewels”, embodied the reputation, history and sense of identity of a “corporate kin group”, such as a line of kings.

Given the stakes, Mauss asked “why anyone would give them [the Crown jewels] away?” His answer was an enigmatic concept, “the spirit of the gift”. Mauss argues that a return gift is given to keep the very relationship between givers alive; a failure to return a gift ends the relationship and the promise of any future gifts.

According to Chris Gregory reciprocity is a dyadic exchange relationship that we characterize, imprecisely, as gift-giving. Gregory believes that one gives gifts to friends and potential enemies in order to establish a relationship, by placing them in debt. He also claimed that in order for such a relationship to persist, there must be a time lag between the gift and counter-gift; one or the other partner must always be in debt, or there is no relationship. Marshall Sahlinsan, an American cultural anthropologist, has stated that birthday gifts are an example of this. Sahlins notes that birthday presents are separated in time so that one partner feels the obligation to make a return gift; and to forget the return gift may be enough to end the relationship. Gregory has stated that without a relationship of debt, there is no reciprocity, and that this is what distinguishes a gift economy from a “true gift” given with no expectation of return.

Sahlins, identified three main types of reciprocity in his book Stone Age Economics (1972). Gift or generalized reciprocity is the exchange of goods and services without keeping track of their exact value, but often with the expectation that their value will balance out over time. Balanced or Symmetrical reciprocity occurs when someone gives to someone else, expecting a fair and tangible return at a specified amount, time, and place. Market or Negative reciprocity is the exchange of goods and services where each party intends to profit from the exchange, often at the expense of the other. Gift economies, or generalized reciprocity, occurs within closely knit kin groups, and the more distant the exchange partner, the more balanced or negative the exchange becomes.


Ritual slaughter of gift cattle at a funeral

An example of a gift economy are with the Toraja, an ethnic group indigenous to a mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Torajans are renowned for their elaborate funeral rites, burial sites carved into rocky cliffs, and massive peaked-roof traditional houses known as tongkonan which are owned by noble families. Membership in a tongkonan is inherited by all descendants of its founders. Any individual Toraja may thus be a member of numerous tongkonan, as long as they contribute to its ritual events. Membership in a tongkonan carries benefits, such as the right to rent some of its rice fields.

Toraja funeral rites are important social events, usually attended by hundreds of people and lasting for several days. The funerals are like “big men” competitions where all the descendants of a tongkonan will compete through gifts of sacrificial cattle. Participants will have invested cattle with others over the years, and will now draw on those extended networks to make the largest gift. The winner of the competition becomes the new owner of the tongkonan and its rice lands. They display all the cattle horns from their winning sacrifice on a pole in front of the tongkonan.

This system creates a clear social hierarchy between the noble owners of the tongkonan and its land, and the commoners who are forced to rent their fields from him. Since the owners of the tongkonan gain rent, they are better able to compete in the funeral gift exchanges, and their social rank is more stable.

The gift giving economy is also important for many Buddhist communities. Theravada Buddhism in Thailand emphasizes the importance of giving alms (merit making) without any intention of return, which is best accomplished according to doctrine, through gifts to monks and temples. The emphasis is on the selfless gifting which “earns merit” (and a future better life) for the giver rather than on the relief of the poor or the recipient on whom the gift is bestowed. The ideal form of gifting can be limited to the rich who have the resources to endow temples, or sponsor the ordination of a monk. Monks come from these same families, hence the doctrine of pure gifting to monks has a class element to it. Poorer farmers place much less emphasis on merit making through gifts to monks and temples. They equally validate gifting to beggars. Poverty and famine is widespread amongst these poorer groups, and by validating gift-giving to beggars, they are in fact demanding that the rich see to their needs in hard times.

There are cases of gift economy spheres existing in our current society. They are created through the processes of singularization as specific objects are de-commodified for a variety of reasons and enter an alternate exchange sphere. An example is organ donations in North America, it is illegal to sell organs, and citizens are enjoined to give the “gift of life” and donate their organs in an organ gift economy. But with this gift, clients are still required to pay steep fees for the gifted organ, which creates clear class divisions between those who donate and will never benefit from gifted organs, and those who can pay the fees and thereby receive the gifted organ.

Unlike body organs, blood and semen have been successfully and legally commodified in the United States. Blood and semen can thus be commodified, but once consumed are “the gift of life”. Although both can be either donated or sold, are perceived as the “gift of life” yet are stored in “banks”, and can be collected only under strict government regulated procedures, recipients very clearly prefer altruistically donated semen and blood. Ironically, the blood and semen samples with the highest market value are those that have been altruistically donated. The recipients view semen as storing the potential characteristics of their unborn child in its DNA, and value altruism over greed. Similarly, gifted blood is the archetype of a pure gift relationship because the donor is only motivated by a desire to help others.


Light matter, Burning Man 2004

Another more isolated example of a modern gift economy is Burning Man. Burning Man is a week-long annual art and community event held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevadas. The event is described as an experiment in community, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance. The event forbids commerce and encourages gifting. Gifting is one of the 10 guiding principles, as participants to Burning Man (both the desert festival and the year-round global community) are encouraged to rely on a gift economy. This week long event is a perfect place to experience a completely different economy then the one we exist in during our everyday lives.

The concept of a gift giving society can be difficult to grasp and many scholars have spent years studying how it truly works and if gift giving could potentially be a long term economy. Below is a video that does a great job at explaining a gift economy and provides a set of examples to understand how to was done.  

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