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Gift Relations

Craig D. Lair

Subject Sociology » Sociological and Social Theory

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x


Though the study of gift relations spans a range of intellectual disciplines (e.g., anthropology, ethnology, and sociology), one general theme has tended to unite the diverse works in these areas: more than being simply matters of economic transactions, gifts and gift giving are fundamentally social activities. That is, gifts are not exchanges of mere material objects, but rather objects and actions imbued with social meanings. Thus, to engage in a gift relationship is to engage in a social relationship. The social nature of gift relations is a central theme found in the work that is often considered as being seminal in the study of gifts and gift exchange: Marcel Mauss's The Gift (2000). Mauss, drawing upon ethnographic data from Oceanic and Native American societies, as well as “ancient” legal and economic systems (e.g., Roman law), sees gift exchanges as a force that both engenders and sustains social solidarity. As Mary Douglas says in her introduction to The Gift : “A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction” (p. vii). In part this is because, though gift giving appears as a voluntary action, it is in fact socially obligatory and socially regulated. In the study of gift exchanges in “archaic” societies, Mauss finds three obligations inherent in the gift-giving process: to give gifts, to receive gifts, and to reciprocate gifts given, often with “interest” ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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