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The obligations of the gift

The obligations of the gift

Ryan Schram

Social Sciences Building (A02), Room 410


ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world

Module 3, Week 1, Lecture 1

September 23, 2019

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/2019/3.1.1

The Kula Ring


A bagi necklace

(Necklace [bagi], late 20th century, Pacific Ethnographic Collection #80.1/3369, American Museum of Natural History)


A mwali armband

(Armband [mwali], late 20th century, Pacific Ethnographic Collection #80.1/3409, American Museum of Natural History)

Durkheim and Mauss

Emile Durkheim is a founding figure of sociology and anthropology

  • He wanted to analyze society as an objective fact
  • Society is a collective consciousness, like the Borg, from Star Trek (yes).

Marcel Mauss was a nephew and student of Durkheim

  • Applied a Durkheimian analysis to economic activity
  • Reciprocity is an obligation underlying many if not all transactions

Western culture and social reality

At the risk of oversimplifying things, I would like to introduce a major division in types of society.

"Western" culture

  • Western culture values individualism.
  • Children are taught to be individuals.
  • Society and its rules are always external infringements on personal freedom.

Social reality

  • Every person is, by definition, a member of a group. Most people have very complex networks of ties to many people and groups. It's just part of being a person.
  • No one can really be outside of society. There's no such thing as a wolf child, or a Robinson Crusoe. These are myths.


In the islands of PNG, fishermen exchange fish for garden food with gardeners. Fishermen always cook their food in fresh water, even though they live by the sea. Inland gardeners cook their food in sea water, even though they have fresh water nearby. “Intoxicated with great love of exchange, they exchange even the water of their respective dwelling places and carry it home for the boiling of their food” (Fortune 1932: 206).

Many people throughout the world exchange things they don't need for things they don't need. They even exchange identical things, like water.


Gifts create obligations

Mauss says: Because you have to.

Gifts come with obligations because it is part of the system of total services. Specifically, giving a gift involves a triple obligation:

  • The obligation to give
  • The obligation to receive
  • The obligation to reciprocate, or to give back to one who has given.

Gifts have spirit

For Mauss, the Maori word hau means the “spirit of the thing given.” When someone gives a gift, they give part of themselves. “The hau wishes to return to its birthplace” (Mauss 2000 [1925]: 12).

Total services

What, then, is society? Mauss says that the essence of society is a “system of total services” in which everything one does is for someone else, and other people do everything for you. It is a state of total interdependence.

Reciprocity is everywhere

Gift economies are not simply societies in which there's a lot of gifts. A gift economy is a society in which reciprocity is a “total social phenomenon.”

Even societies which have created the possibility of individualism, the the West, still have gifts and still have reciprocity.

Moka is a competitive system

The moka and the potlatch are systems of total services of an agonistic type.

Agonistic means that the sides in an exchange are competing to give more services to the other, and to raise the stakes of reciprocity.

Competing for prestige versus gaining profit?


Fortune, R. F. 1932. Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge.

Mauss, Marcel. 2000 (1925). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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