Gifts and commodities

Gifts and commodities

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)

Monday, August 13, 2018

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Reciprocity and the system of total services

This holistic model of a social system is also a very useful lens for understanding contemporary societies. This week, I'd like to develop these three ideas:

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).

What if...?

What if we lived in a world in which everything was a gift, and everything possessed a hau?

Spheres of exchange

Many societies organize objects into distinct, ranked spheres of exchange

  1. Women as wives
  2. Prestige items: brass rods, tugudu cloth, slaves
  3. Subsistence items: food, utensils, chickens, tools

Some things, like land, cannot be exchanged for anything, but are inherited.

Relationships can be organized into spheres, too

We can take the idea of spheres of exchange and apply it to the different ways people exchange:

The ikpanture relationship is sphere of exchange

Piot describes the relationship among ikpanture (friends).

Two points about spheres

  1. In spite of predictions to the contrary, money does not collapse all spheres into one market. Often money exchanges are placed in their own sphere.
  2. Western and “modern” societies think of themselves as being dominated by money, but if you think about it, these societies have spheres of exchange too, and worry about maintaining the boundaries between spheres.

Moral limits on exchange

Gift systems are not static or unchanging. They adapt to contact with colonial power, money, and markets. They do so in different ways.

One way is by quarantining money and market exchange. For instance,

When a gift system meets a commodity system

When a society organized on the basis of gifts encounters a globalizing capitalist market, many different outcomes are possible. In the next lecture and next week, we will look at other possible responses:


Bohannan, Paul. 1955. “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment among the Tiv.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 57 (1): 60–70.

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.

A guide to the unit