The Evolution of Gift Giving

March 24, 2009

What is a gift? Which kind of gift-giving and why do we practicse now and why did we practicse in the pre-industrial societies?

In the essays:The Evolution of Gift Giving Jonathan Bruck shows us the complicity of « gift-giving » It follows the way of understanding  a gift notion and the gift giving reason and its different perception in time on the history. Many of researches and theories on this subject are based on the observation and understanding of pre-industrial societies and their rituals which are different and difficult to apply to current situation

Jonathan Bruck refers to Marcel Mauss and his wotk Essay on the Gift: Gifts are a primary source of social exchange within a society and valuable for the formation and maintenance of bonds in our social networks.

What does gift mean?

-something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation (The American Heritage Dictionary)

-all commodities, all products, are subject to an act of choice as to whether they may potentially function as a true gift (Dilnot. The Gift)

-virtually any resource, whether tangible or intangible, can be transformed into a gift. Objects, services, and experiences may be conferred as gifts (Sherry)

-Gifts are tangible expressions of social relationships” (Sherry).

-Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures that others have of us in their minds are transmitted”

-The gift imposes an identity upon the giver as well as the receiver. “Consequently, to accept a gift is to accept (at least in part) an identity and to reject a gift is to reject a definition of oneself” . Whether a gift is accepted or rejected this identity component is a valuable aspect of the gift that contributes to an ongoing exchange between people. (Schwartz)

Why do we give gifts?

-for being generous to others often leads us to be even more generous to ourselves .
Using objects to make connections between people and establish one’s authority is an ancient and universal form of human behavior. Other species make limited use of tools to establish specific tasks, but only humans – so far as we can tell – place objects at the very heart of their societies (Hines).

Marcel Mauss sees gift exchange as (1) the obligatory transfer of (2) inalienable objects or service between (3) related and mutually obligated transactors”. The gifts are under the obligation to repay gifts received; the obligation to give presents and the obligation to receive them

(..)There is  no free gifts… the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding… A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction(…)

Do pure gifts exist?

If anyone is giving without expectations of reciprocity?
The “proper gift” and “double joy” in gift-giving can only be achieved with the removal of obligation. When someone somewhere is formally expecting to receive a “gift” from us and we are obligated to provide one. The transformation of an act that should be based on love and free will into one based on social and economic obligation ensures that resentment dominates the relation. In this context, what should be the easiest thing—to give joy to others we know—becomes almost impossible ( Dilnot)

Jonathan Bruck proposes tha the pure gift should be understood in regards to feelings of emotion involved in the gift- giving process. A defining factor is that the pure gift is accompanied with high levels of affection by the giver towards the receiver.
By him, from this standpoint, both the obligatory gift and pure gift can co-exist. In reality, any gift will exist on a spectrum between obligation and pureness that is defined by the level of affection by the giver.
Authors shows the switch between Mauss work analyze of societies and new generations and their different social relationship. The new generation is no longer getting married and forming traditional family structures that all the gift-giving theory was based on. With the different networks comes different sets of rules for gift-giving.
they put a higher value on the pure gift (higher level of affection), which results in a greater demand on the giver to meet this requirement . The primary functions of the gift now is too inform and support the relationship. It not only states that a tie is strong enough to warrant a gift, but tells the receiver how important he is to the giver. This contrasts with kin based gift-giving where obligation is a perfectly acceptable motive. Obligatory gift-giving in this context acts as a reminder of the relationship between the giver and receiver .
Jonathan Bruck talks also about the commercialization of the calendar. The industrial revolution sets into motion a new kind of consumption, celebration and gift-giving. Industrialized societies were producing more and cheaper goods to buy and give. Globalization brought all of us to common festivals days as Mother’s Day (flowers gift), St Valentines (chocolate, postcards), Independence Day (fireworks) and cards for all occasions.
This new situation brought other questions: How big role big a role the retailers and marketers played in creating these gift-giving events? Do we give because we want to or because we have to?


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