Saturday, September 3, 2016

Week 3 Prompt

In the classic book The Gift, Marcel Mauss writes: "In these “total” social phenomena, as we propose to call them, are expressed all at once and at a stroke all sorts of institutions: religious, judicial, and ethical (morale)" (Introduction). Using specific examples from chapters 1 or 2 (if posting for Tue) or 4 (if posting for Thu), discuss how a practice of gift exchange comes to constitute a religion, judicial or ethical social system/phenomenon. 


  1. It is interesting to notice that the art of giving in Scandinavia tantamount to contract (Cadeau). This demonstrates the fact that whatever has been received must be given or shared with others. This art reveals two things, first, the art of giving in this society exist in a none economically deprived society. It also manifests that very nature of human transactions. Essentially, the art of giving goes beyond the individual decision as it is a collective spirit. These exchanges surpass physical goods as it involves symbols, spirituality and service. In the American Northwest, it is part of a prestation among the whites and Indians. The terminology among them extends to destroying the wealth of arch enemies or rivals. In other parts of the World, such as in Africa, Polynesia, Malaysia evidence of exchange exist among clans and families. For the Indo- European, they perform similar practices.
    I observed in Chapter 1 pieces of evidence of contractual gift among the Samoa’s, where it takes the form of masculinity in nature for marriage contracts. For example, the Oloa brings by the husband such as pig, canoes, foreign cloths, hatchets whereas the female brings a fine mat and native cloth. The gifts from the family of the parents are distributed to the opposite side of the family as beneficiaries. Evidently, the “taong” a maori theory and religious practice link to people, clan and soil are used to destroy individual enemies. This reveals the importance attach to the art of giving because it has both positive and negative intentions. Chapter 2 is equally informative, I realized the Malaysian people has their own prestation which is different from Polynesians. They basically treat gifts as a form of exchange which goes beyond money. In Caledonia, the ceremonies of yam harvest indicate a spiritual reunion with their ancestral pasts to the present generation. Gift also denotes name giving as done in the Trobrind Islands. In conclusion, the art of giving existed in societies and have gone beyond prestation among clan and family as it has religious, ethical and spiritual considerations. However, the practice is yet to reach an individual contract definition of a currency or medium of exchange and legal tender.

  2. The practice of gift exchange is fascinating. As described in the book, it could be more powerful than money. In chapter 1, the exchange of gifts (the contractual gifts known as cadeaux) does not stand for a simple formality, but it represents honor, prestige and “mana”. The cadeaux is practice is numerous important events. An interesting point is the obligation to reciprocate the gift. In the case of marriage, the husband brings the “oloa” and the wife the “tonga”. Both types of gifts are not kept but given to relatives of the couple. This contractual gift offers a peaceful union between two families. The exchange of gift represents their life, their culture and religion.
    In the first chapter, I also found interesting how the exchange of gifts can become complicated, in the case of the hao, the utu and toanga. All of them stand for different meanings, but it is important to maintain the exchange and give back the spiritual power that was received from the gifts. The practice could become complicated, which shows how complex system created by islanders in need of a system to give and receive goods without war.

  3. As shown in chapter 4 of "The Gift", the act of gift giving can be a large driving force due to how it plays in the role of human interaction and beliefs. In the sphere of human social systems gifts can play a major role in setting a hierarchy for a particular civilization. More specifically the example of the higher ranking members of the Trobriand and Tsimshian groups that express power by giving while simultaneously expressing that they do no need in return. The expenditure shows that a particular official has a surplus of material or wealth which in turn expresses that they have a higher ranking of power over others because of their access to said resources. While simultaneously creating a more personable or political bond with an individual or group. Another great example shown of how gift giving effects human society is the french law of 1923 that gives the right to all intellectual property to the creator or creators’ inheritors of their work indefinitely. Since works of art are seen as creative gifts from an individual to the greater collective of society it is seen as an act of reciprocity that society then allows the original owner to have financial rights to them forever. Lastly how the expression of gift giving finds it way into religion in an almost spiritual reciprocity is interesting. In “The Gift”, Mauss gives examples from the Quran that generally states that charity and good works will give you favor from Allah. In many instances a give and take of duty with the gift of spiritual enlightenment or elevation of sorts has proven to be an important aspect to particular religions and cultures.

  4. Gift giving can be seen from a religious point of view, in that gifts may have spirits. Mauss states in chapter 4, "The unreciprocated gift (don) still renders the person who has accepted it inferior, especially when it is received without any spirit of return." So if a person were to receive a gift from another a person and not immediately pay it back or reciprocate it, they are now indebted to that person. From an ethical stand point, it is almost rude to just accept a gift and not reciprocate it. But religiously, it may give you bad karma or bad luck. Mauss also talks about how in France, if the price of art work goes up, the artist has a right to that money. From a judicial or legal perspective, if a person were to not give an artist that extra money, there may be legal charges brought to a person. And again, this may give the person bad karma.
    To me, gift giving really is a social phenomenon. We give people gifts all the time. We give them at Christmas, birthdays or on other special days. But we only give gifts to the people who would likely give them back to us and give us something of similar value. My best friend and I determine every year what kind of gifts we will give to each other. Last year we decided to give each other a t-shirt from our college. They were of course of similar value and we knew they were coming. But, I wouldn't just give a random classmate a gift and have expectations that they would reciprocate the gift. I would give it to a person who a I have a relationship with or want to have a better relationship with. Throughout the reading we learn about the relationships people have or the circumstances people have which lead to the gift giving. The Kula ring and the potlatch are both examples of relationships where gift giving can create personal relations but also show power.

  5. In chapter4, Mauss brings the concept of the gift economy into the context of "modern" global society and offers some lofty ideals for an imagined future. He uses the Arthurian legend of the round table to suggest that when all parties assume equal positions, ie when no one is fighting to sit at the "head of the table," peace and prosperity can be more easily obtained. He suggests that the "rational" economic mindset has much to learn from the ancient practices which bound people together and protected them from (or at least served to limit) war and suffering.

    Besnier and Brownwell's reflections on the Olympics take a similarly positivist approach. Although the staggering costs of hosting the Olympics are well documented in modern times, these authors suggest that the host countries, like those participating in gift economies, gain much from their lavish expenditures - and not all the gains are strictly economic. I relate this to the discussion we had today about the traditions associated with weddings, and with irrational spending in general.

    I certainly appreciate the sentiments of these observations - of course all exchanges have implications that extend far beyond the surface "value" of the objects exchanged. Like Alison points out in her comment, I also thought a lot about the idea of karma, and of other spiritual contexts in which actions are repaid indirectly - where reciprocity is a larger concept than is contained in any specific exchanges. Ultimately, both readings provided the gift of hope, where perhaps the return will be a gradual shift in attitudes and behaviors.

  6. The practice of gift exchange can be seen as the foundation of building relationships, which were and still are, known to be the some of the most vital components of life. Such exchanges, famously known as pot laches, are highly concentrated on reciprocity of gifts. Noted in chapter 2, a civilization located in the American North West stresses the concept of continuously giving bigger and better gifts, making the point of giving more than you receive. This creates a social phenomenon of status and hierarchy. A similar exchange method noted in chapter 4, named as the sagali, is known for exchanging resources and materials as gifts. This can be viewed more as an economic social phenomenon, benefitting both the relationships of the exchangers and their home life. However, the economy is not the sole focus, it relays back to the social status of those reciprocating gifts. Chiefs initiate exchanges but likely receive the gift to exchange from a lower-kin, making everyone involved throughout the system. These exchanges represent both the birth of relationships and the debt of reciprocity.

  7. In chapter 4, Mauss indicate how gift exchange has become moral customs where invitation must be returned and even be more expensive than what was received. In recent times, we have people spending all they have on weddings and funerals and other events to entertain their quests and these exchanges have its foundation from old tradition. For example, in certain parts of France and Germany, everyone in a whole village takes part in wedding ceremonies and being absent is a sign of envy or bad omen.
    Under the ethics, Mauss showed that there can be conflicts during exchanges, an example been the battle between the followers of Buleau and that of Bobal, where a comment of Buleau led to his death. However, Mauss indicated that societies have progressed to the level where individuals and people now defend their own interests by confronting one another without killing each other and exchanging without sacrificing to each other. Similar to this is the example of Arthur and the carpenter from Cornwall who invented a round table where knights no longer fought each other but learned to sit together. This is similar to the modern time judicial system where disputes are settled without any bloodshed.

  8. "Furthermore, it is groups that are acting: the state, the communes, public assistance institutions, pension funds, savings banks, mutual societies, employers, salary-earners—they are all associated together, as in the social legislation of Germany and of Alsace-Lorraine; and equally so soon in the French system of social insurance. We are reverting, therefore, to a group morality."

    In this, Mauss seems to be addressing the cyclic nature of gift-giving (each gift received obligates a gift given, and vice-versa), but, are communities really returning to a "group morality", or are individuals simply acting in the best interest of their group? I think my issue here is more with the use of morality. What can certainly be seen, particularly in the traditional practices concerning marriage and birth in Mauss' examples from France and Germany, is that group behavior also seems to have a cyclic nature, with traditions coming and going. I think that one reading of this text could be that reciprocity is the basis of all human relationships, group practices, and communal living, and, that religion and morality are outgrowths of latent reciprocal obligations. I think religion is particularly apt for discussion here, as most religious system can be seen as a mechanism of social control, holding individuals responsible not only to their god, but, as seen in the examples from Germany and France, to their communities.

    1. In the Gift, Mauss recognized that when one receives a gift, that person is obligated to return the gift. It’s important because the value of returning gift is essential in creating and maintaining social relations. Although he uses examples from ancient communities, the exchange of gift and the obligation to return that gift is evident in contemporary societies. For example during Christmas or birthdays, you become indebted to family, friends or loved once you receive gifts from. Another example are gifts received during funeral rites. In Ghana for instance, when a friend is bereaved you are obligated to present gifts in the form of money to help reduce cost during the funeral rite. The bereaved become indebted to his/her friend and must reciprocate either equal or greater value than that which was received.
      In chapter four of the Gift, Marcel ascribes morals to the practice of gift of exchange. He used an interesting example from France and Germany. Thus about fifty years ago in certain villages in France and Germany, during marriage ceremonies, an invitation must be given and that invitation must be accepted. The entire village must come to the wedding breakfast. If anyone stayed away it was seen as bad omen, a foreboding, proof of envy, and a sign of bad luck. In certain parts of France, even in recent times everybody still takes part in such ceremonies. Also, in Provence, when a child is born, everybody still brings an egg and other symbolic presents. I agree with Mauss that although these practices of gift exchange were done in archaic societies it still lingers on in liberal societies.

  9. At the start of Chapter 4 of "The Gift", author Mauss explains that "a considerable part of our ethics and of our lives themselves still exists within this same atmosphere of the gift, of obligation and of liberty mixed together." Suffice to say, this clearly shows that Mauss contends that every-day human lives are greatly impacted by the Hau, or spirit, of a gift. One strong example of "gift-giving" is in modern judicial systems. A great example Mauss gives of this is a nation's unemployment benefits. Around the time Mauss was writing this book, the world was suffering a major depression (most noticeably in Germany around 1923 with massive hyper-inflation). Many nations began to create welfare states/programs out of necessity and demand by its citizens. The example Mauss cites dealt with French manufacturers creating family funds -- something that would connect the people to their work, their government and each other. Today, we still have social welfare programs in all of the major western nations. In the U.S., you pay social security and taxes from each pay period -- social security is, as it sounds, a security fund. If you were to become unemployed or injuried, you could collect back from the government some (or all) of the social security you paid (as well as social security others paid -- it is meant to benefit all citizens). Another example is that of modern Germany, Netherlands and France -- all nations with higher income taxes in order to fund social programs and works. The people "gift" the government a percentage of their money in order to gain social protection, schooling and welfare from the government (to name just a few of the institutions this money goes into when given to the government).


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