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The obligations of the gift

The obligations of the gift

Week 2: Society as a system of total services

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Slides available at https://anthro.rschram.org/1002/2022/2.2

Main reading: Eriksen (2015)

Other reading: Mauss ([1925] 1990)

Reciprocity is a triple obligation

Marcel Mauss argues that every society is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The three obligations of reciprocity are symptoms of this:

  • 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 [1925b] 1990, 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.

Yam gardening in Auhelawa

Auhelawa is a society of people living on the south coast of Duau (Normanby Island), off the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.

Every family in Auhelawa produces most of their own food grown on their own lands, and the most important of these are

  • ʻwateya (Dioscorea alata)
  • halutu (Dioscorea esculenta)

Yet although most of people’s effort and thinking goes into growing these yams, most of the ʻwateya are not grown as food for one’s family.

The best halutu are also preserved.

Moka is a competitive system

The Kawelka moka (and the potlatch ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest) is a system 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?

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 still have gifts and still have reciprocity.

References and further reading

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2015. “Exchange and Consumption.” In Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, 4th ed., 217–40. London: Pluto Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt183p184.16.

Mauss, Marcel. (1925a) 1990. “Selections from introduction, chapters 1-2, and conclusion.” In The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by W. D. Halls, 1–14, 39–46, 78–83. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

———. (1925b) 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

1002/2022/2.2.txt · Last modified: 2022/08/09 16:46 by Ryan Schram (admin)