Gift vs. commoditiy

March 27, 2009

In ‘Gift vs. commoditiy’ Andrej Rus writes about two different realities represented by commodities and gifts. He analyses the conceptions of Commodity-exchange and non-commodity (gift) exchange through different anthropologists and time point of view.

Commodity-exchange is an exchange of alienable, impersonal and anonymous items, devoid of moral and social considerations or obligations, and therefore different from gift-exchange. At the same time is completely different form gift exchange. Andrej Rus in his essay shows, through detailed analysis of basic dimensions that traditionally distinguish gift-exchange from commodity exchange, that the contemporary marketing very often adds to commodity-exchange various elements that are traditionally attributed to gift-exchange only. Now market-exchange is not any more impersonal, it creates certain types of social bonds and mutual obligations between exchange parties. The commodity, like the gift, can possess a quality of the giver, and manifest a form of inalienability from the giver which is otherwise characteristic of a gift. This gifts reappropriation by Capitalism for its own targets has been also shown in Jonathan Bruckwhere’s text: The Evolution of Gift Giving, where he was talking about Commercialization of calendar and way of making profit through new kind of consumption – holiday celebration and gift-giving.

For my work the first part of essay is the most interesting. The question how the network communities can create (if they can) alternative to capitalism world through giving their work as a gift is showed by Andrej Rus and his presentation of gift vs. commodities debate based on Marcel Mauss research and later elaborated by Christopher Gregory.

Marcel Mauss told about two types of exchange relations: commodity relations and gift relations. Mauss noted that social anthropologists had researched and described societies in which their entire economic life was based on completely different principles; that is, societies in which most objects moved back and forth among members of society as gifts, on the basis of what looked like unselfish generosity. In those small-scale societies, gift- exchange was at the basis of their entire economic system, where goods were ‘traded’ without clear calculation of who has given what and how much to whom. Mauss proposed the distinction between ‘gift exchange’ and ‘commodity exchange’.

He classified societies on the basis of the form of exchange that dominated their economic actions. The idea that gift-exchange is a form of economy contrary to that of the market-exchange was later developed by Gregory for whom gifts belong to the sphere of the household and personal relationships, while commodities belong to the sphere of trade and impersonal relationships.

Gregory makes the distinction between commodities and gifts based on the work of Karl Marx:

Marx was able to develop a very important proposition: that commodity-exchange is an exchange of alienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal independence […]. The corollary of this is that non-commodity (gift) exchange is an exchange of inalienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal dependence. This proposition is only implicit in Marx’s analysis but it is […] a precise definition of gift exchange.

It means that non-commodity-exchange creates quantitative relationships (above parties are independent after the transaction is over) and gift-exchange creates qualitative relationships between givers and receivers that make them reciprocally dependent. Therefore, gift exchanges also keep the exchange partners indebted after the transactions have been completed.

Commodity-exchange (or market exchange) are transactions with a low degree of sociability and a high degree of impersonality among exchange participants. In cases of commodity exchange,the economic value of items that are transacted is very important, while social relations are subordinated.

Commodity-exchange is a transaction that usually takes place among strangers where the exchange transaction enforces no lasting social obligation or personal relationship. It is therefore assumed to be a commercial transaction devoid of almost all social considerations. After the exchange transaction is over, the transactors are not obliged to have any further mutual social relation or obligation.

Gift exchange is transacted when exchange parties want to establish some kind of relationship. Gift creates reciprocal relationship between the giver and the receiver while economic value is subordinated: The exchange of presents did not serve the same purpose as trade or barter in more developed communities. The purpose that it did serve was a moral one. The object of the exchange was to produce a friendly feeling between the two persons concerned, and unless it did this, it failed its purpose (Mauss)

By accepting a gift, the receiver becomes invariably indebted to the giver, and has social and moral obligation to return the gift. The purpose of giving and accepting gifts is therefore to create and to cement social relationships among members of society. Unlike anonymous commodities, gifts are held to be inalienable: a gift is not just ‘a watch’ but ‘a-watch-that-my-father-gave-me-for-my-birthday’. Moreover, gifts not only continue to embody the identity of the giver but also impose this identity upon the receiver. As a result, the receiver, in bearing (a part of) the identity of the giver, becomes subordinated (‘indebted’) to the latter.

On one side we have than commodity exchange, which is prevailing in our capitalist societies, where exchange of goods is devoid of almost all social or personal considerations. On the other side, there is gift exchange, which creates or reinforces social relationships between individuals. In social science, commodity-exchange usually stands for economic rationality and commercial profit making, while gifts are acknowledged to be carriers of social concerns and moral obligation. ‘Commodity vs. gift’ is in this sense often used as metaphor for ‘market vs. Non-market’

The part of ‘Gift vs. commodities’ shows the distinction between gifts and commodities.

The division between gift-exchange and market-exchange by Frow is actually founded on the nostalgic portrayal of traditional societies as based on social altruism that gives rise to gift-giving as a basis for entire social organization. Maybe gift-exchange involves much more economic calculation than Marcel Mauss had assumed ?”(…) gift-exchange is much more like commodity-exchange than (Gregory) is prepared to recognize”

Arjun Apparudai in The Social Life of Things noticed that what social anthropologists have described as gift-exchange in small- scale societies, is in reality not simply a generosity, but – like commodity-exchange – just a matter of self-interested calculation. Appadurai suggests that “there is exaggeration of the contrast between gift and commodity in anthropological writing and one of them is “[…] the tendency to romanticize small-scale societies [and] the proclivity to marginalize and underplay the calculative, impersonal, and self- aggrandizing features of non-capitalist societies” According to him, gift-exchange is not that different from market exchange, because on a long run, both of them utilize the same rational, self-interested premises.

The different kind of criticism suggest that capitalist societies are characterised by rational, selfish, impersonal market exchange, while small-scale societies are characterized by gift exchange.

Examining gift-commodity dichotomy and the role of gifts in industrial societies authors suggest that the standpoint adopted by Gregory and Strathern ‘trivializes’ gift behaviour. Their main objection is that industrial societies used gifts openly and tehy have been one of the most important economic motors for retail sales.

After Andrej Rus gave example of exchange transactions that have characteristics of gift-economy: sharing of knowledge in the scientific community, free sharing of files and information on the Internet. The market economy contains a rather significant amount of transactions that are based on the principle of reciprocity and strongly resemble that of the gift-economy.

It this part of work I don’t agree of putting examples like distribute knowledge and Christmas gift selling to the same bag. The gifts exists in capitalistic society and they can be diffuse even with using its tool, but gift of sharing it is not the same as gift which make profit.

Next critics arrive at a form of compromise on this matter. They say that commodity- exchange and gift-exchange do not strictly represent two entirely different and mutually exclusive societal forms, but rather just two ideal types of exchange. In reality, any economy will be a mix of these two types of exchange.

One Response to “Gift vs. commoditiy”

  1. Amanda Davenport Says:

    check out what i wrote about mauss🙂

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