In anthropological terms, gift giving(sometimes referred to as reciprocity) is when resources are given from oneindividual to another and a return is expected.
When a resource is returned tothe individual almost immediately then it cannot create a social relationship.When there is a delay between the exchanging of resources then a relationshipis formed between the individuals and debt can be created as there could be anunderlying bond for a return. The almost mythical “pure gift” is incrediblyrare and hard to find in a primitive society or commodity economy, where a giftgiven is transferred from one individual to another without the expectations ofreturn. Occurring most of the time, it is expected morally for the receiver ofthe gift to return an accepting gift to the giver. This exchange isreciprocity. Modern day life Bronislaw Malinowski’s researchdone in the Melanesia on the Trobriandi people is essential in understanding ifreciprocity is fundamental part of human nature.
What Mauss highlights in ‘The Gift’ is that it is humannature that we only give away our goods and labour (resources) in the hopesthat there is a return, this could be acknowledgement or thanks as long as itcreates a social relationship. Mauss mentions that “gifts are never free” andas a selfish species a gift in return is always to be expected “we only give tothat we can receive”. An important question asked by Mauss in ‘The Gift’ is “Whatpower resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”1.One could argue that there is no power or significance in the object at all butin the relationship created/supported between the two parties when thetransaction is made. The individual who is giving the gift of goods or labouris not only handing over something that can be seen and touched but alsotransferring a part of themselves. There is no distinction being made between theobjects given and the person who gave them, they each belong to one another andMauss states this by saying “the objects are never completely separated fromthe men who exchange them”2.
As mentioned before, the receiver has a duty to follow through with the hypotheticaldeal being made when gifts are transferred, this could be upheld with thereturn of an item or service of equal or greater value. There is no legalcontract made between the two parties involved but failure to follow up andreturn a gift of equal or greater (cannot be less) in value could result indamages being made to the failing party’s social standing amongst his peergroup and trust issues could arise. The act of giving is as important in maintainingan already formed relationship as it is in creating a new one. When receiving thegift the individual acknowledges and accepts that relationship and understandsthat failure to respond to the gesture can and will result in the deteriorationof the relationship.
Mauss also mentions “Mana”3,a Polynesian term that is used to describe someone’s life force or energy andis commonly used in pop culture today to describe endurance. In practice, anindividual who fails to follow the unwritten rules of reciprocation could losean amount of their “Mana”, taking away part of themselves. Mauss also discusses the “alienated” objectsprevalent in primitive societies, objects which cannot be given as gifts orexchanged for something in return but must be sold and then the object’s rightsof ownership would pass onto the buyer.
These “alienated” objects are importantin gift giving as the gift giver cannot transfer this object as a “pure gift”,thus they resort to loaning the object to the individual they wish to create arelationship with. In this case the original lender still has property rightsover the object but does not reap the benefits that may come with having saidobject in possession, for example if the object was a house then the lendercould mandate what colour the house was to be painted but he could not use thefacilities of the house as if it was his own without permission from the personhe gifted the house to. Mauss refers to this as “Hau”, a term that I understandto represent the aura of the gift, a connection that the gift has to its originalowner that will always be present. 1 Mauss,32Mauss, 333Mauss, 11