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  Gift (from Old Germanic geb, ‘to give’) first received detailed anthropological attention in Marcel Mauss\'s book The Gift (1925). He was influenced by other anthropologists\' work and literary texts. These included the kula exchange of the Trobriand Islanders (a Melanesian custom of ceremonial exchange in which special necklaces and shell armbands are exchanged between islands in opposite geographical directions), North American Indians\' potlatch (exchange of items at extravagant feasts held at births, weddings, deaths, etc.), and ideas about gift-giving amongst the Eskimos of North America, Hindus in India and the Maori community in Polynesia.

Mauss\'s classic text has been subject to numerous interpretations. The conventional version relates Mauss\'s claims for fundamental aspects of gift exchange in ‘archaic’ or ‘primitive’ societies—the obligation to give, to receive and to repay. Such instances Mauss called ‘total presentations’ referring to a complex of economic, aesthetic, religious, moral and legal qualities acting to create relationships between groups of people. This is exemplified by potlatch feasts amongst North American Indians in which gifts are presented to all the guests in recognition of their positions through inheritance or achievement. The more generous and extravagant the potlatch, the more prestige attaches to the hosts. The recipients of the gifts are then expected to return the compliment by holding a potlatch that is equal or better in generosity at a later date.

An evolutionist framework is offered by Mauss in which ‘total presentations’ between groups of people develop to gift exchange between persons representing groups. Giving a gift initially is linked up with the person\'s social identity, status and prestige in society. A notable example at this stage concerns ideas about gifts amongst the Maori community. Mauss termed their beliefs as the ‘spirit of the gift’. This entailed the idea that the thing given embodies some part of the original owner\'s personality and therefore must eventually be returned to him.

This stage of gift-giving in which the person represents a group is then thought to be eradicated by modern market exchange in which individuals act in their own interests. The concept of gift is contrasted with the idea of commodity. Gifts create debts with people in which they come to be associated with one or other of the participants (inalienable), whereas commodities depend on being able to be converted with other things and can be passed on without being associated with the former owner (alienable). That is, a personal or social relationship is a precondition for gift-giving whereas commodities such as money are impersonal in that they do not symbolize a caring relationship, yet are appropriate for particular motivations.

Later anthropologists offer a more plausible interpretation of Mauss\'s writings by saying that in modern societies the concept of gifts is not eradicated by market exchange, but comes to represent the pure or moral counterpart of commodity exchange in a market economy. As market exchange becomes increasingly dominant and lacking in a moral code, then the idea that gifts should be pure and ethical becomes more urgent. Gifts here are thought of as something quite different to their exchange in non-monetary societies, such as was present in North American Indian societies and Maori communities before they were brought under the ambit of a market economy. RK

See also economic anthropology; exchange; gender; reciprocity.Further reading Chris Gregory, Gifts and Commodities; , Jonathon Parry, The Gift, the Indian Gift, and the ‘Indian Gift’.



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