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Gifts as a total social phenomenon

Gifts as a total social phenomenon

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world

Module 3, Week 1, Lecture 2

Social Sciences Building (A02), Room 410


September 25, 2019

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/3.1.2

Reciprocity is everywhere

Reciprocity is not something that one only finds in a few societies. Even societies which have created the possibility of individualism, for instance “the West,” also exchange gifts and also impose the obligations of reciprocity.

Even if people do not speak of their relationships or the institutions of society in terms of obligations of reciprocity, these obligations are still present in some way in these societies because, as Mauss argues, reciprocity itself is fundamental to society as a total system.

Gifts are a total social phenomenon

Gifts come with obligations. 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.

Mauss says that these obligations arise from the fundamental fact that 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.

Quiz question: One of these things is not like the other

Go to Canvas and take Quiz 14: That's not reciprocity.

The quiz has an answer which Ryan thinks is “right” and you will get a point for getting it “right” (but you can take the quiz multiple times).

Ryan will reveal the password in class.

Yam gardening in Auhelawa

People of Auhelawa grow a variety of indigenous and introduced crops, but everyone grows these two species of yam:

A harvest of ʻwateya is divided into (1) gifts to other kin, (2) seed lines for one's children, (3) food for one's family. Halutu is similar ranked and classified, and the best of the harvest is given as a gift.

Moka exchange in the Highlands

The moka (and the potlatch as described by Eriksen) 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.

Moka exchanges make people's economic behavior subordinate to the political sphere. The leaders of Kawelka, big men like Ongka, are those who can coordinate many different reciprocal exchanges with many people to create a group (see Nairn 1976).

Reciprocity is everywhere

When one lives in a society based on buying and selling, one is trained to see oneself as an individual, and one becomes blind to the ways in which one is part of a system of total services. Yet all societies at some level are systems of total services, even if their members can't see this or don't want to see this.


Nairn, Charlie. 1976. Ongka’s Big Moka. Granada Television. http://www.der.org/films/ongkas-big-moka.html.

1002/3.1.2.txt · Last modified: 2020/01/25 15:28 (external edit)