Friday, September 14, 2018

Week 4: Forum - the Gift

Using the analysis and examples from the readings by Mauss and Zelizer, discuss the following questions: Is the gift ever free? Is money (cash, gift card, etc) a worthy gift?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It seems that there is no such thing as a free gift. There as well seems to be many reasons for why this is. As stated on page 58 of "The Gift", there appears to be some force at work that encourages the recipient of some gift to return it in some way (Mauss, 58). This is further explaned, in a way, soon after where the author talks about the potlatch, and how some cultures in the Northwest of the Americas and Polynesia practice this event. In the Americas, some Northwestern cultures pratice a event that is called the potlatch, which for them usually involves giving one's goods and food to another family, or maybe even another tribe, in elaborate parties and feasts.

    At first, a outside observer might feel that these rich and powerful families are giving away their wealth as simple gifts. However, if that observer looks closely, they would notice that this 'gift' is not simply a gift, but in a way, a price to pay for peace, and for power, That is, if a family refuses to give away, much of their wealth, they are not seen as powerful, but as week. On the other hand, if one does give away most of their wealth, it shows how powerful they are, and by giving gifts, they in turn receive power. The idea of the potlatch in Polynesia is in a way rather similar as well. Goods in the Polynesian form of potlatch tend to move from person to person. On page 74 of "The Gift", it is mentioned that on some island, it is a sin to refuse a gift or some invitation, while at the same time the receiver of the invitation or a gift must also be humble. As such, this shows that even as the receiver gets something as a gift or a place to rest, they still must give something in return, which is respect and in a way, a deceleration of friendship. For to refuse the stranger's gift is to war with them. It seems that even a 'free gift' has their costs.

  3. I think money is an acceptable and worthy gift! It allows people to reach a higher level of freedom. Development economist Amartya Sen argues in essence that people do not want money, but want money as a means to an end (being able to allocate their wealth to whatever). The more wealth a person has, the higher their ability and freedom to choose the destination of that money, so gifting money is gifting freedom. Additionally, giving money does not take away the sense of obligation in gift exchange, though it does strip some of the intangible and non-financial obligations of the exchange. This is a topic of interest in most Western countries, as it relates back to the lack of intimacy in the majority of our interactions. Zelizer addresses this intimacy issue by suggesting gifters give money in conjunction with or hidden within a personal gift. However this suggests that ultimately what matters most is not necessarily the depth of intimacy of the gift itself, but the illusion of intimacy.

    We could argue that this lack of intimacy or reciprocity has been addressed by the creation of currency that can placehold the gift while giving of a communally perceived equal value. The way we understand transactions, like paying for an object, is a super optimized version of gift exchange with an addition of time restraint. And these rules, unlike traditional gift exchange, are written and institutionalized. When you don’t pay for something (AKA follow through with your obligation to reciprocate to the ‘giver’), it’s considered stealing, or just the legalized and written way of obligating you to reciprocate. So as Mauss says, regardless of whether the economy is traditional or market, there is no free gift. “The unreciprocated gift (don) still renders the person who has accepted it inferior, especially when it is received without any spirit of return” (Mauss, 177); in the case of Western society, one who ‘receives without spirit of return’ is rendered and labeled inferior through law, our written rules of the gift exchange.

  4. The gift is never truly free or intended without some type of reciprocity. Whether or not the giver of the gift knowingly is expecting something in return after giving the gift, it creates an unlevel playing field. Suddenly, there is inequality in the relationship and the reciever of the gift is in an inferior position. Mauss himself says on page 83 of the Gift, "The unreciprocated gift still makes the person who has accepted it inferior, particularly when it has been accepted with no thought of returning it." The gift is an invitation, whether it be for emotional, physical, or verbal reciprocation. The gift is never truly given without expecting something in reponse. For example, when a parent gives a child a gift, they are not just expecting the child to take the gift without saying anything to the parent. The child is expected to give their parents emotional and verbal response, as the gift's culture intends.

    Apart from the complexity of what the gift truly is and how it can be reciprocated, there is also the complexities of what an acceptible gift truly even is. This is where the argument of whether or not money can be an acceptible gift comes into question. Traditionalists argue that money as a gift, especially to and from family members and friends, is an unacceptible gift as it has no sentimental value, or what Mauss would describe as "hau", or spirit of the gift. However, it can be argued that the hau is still visible in the gift of money. When giving money, the giver is handing the receiver an efficient way to spend the money as they need or on something that they truly will love and cherish; it does not always have to be cold and unfeeling as traditionalists think. The money intead can represent the caring nature of an individual who wants to help the receiver out of a tough financial place, or assist them to finally afford something that they have been wanting for years. Therefore, I think it is clear to see that a gift of money, regardless the form that it comes in, is a worthy gift due to the hau that comes with it derived from the intentions of the giver.

  5. As described by Mauss, giving a gift automatically creates an inequality, a debt, between the donor and the recipient. This inequality can only be righted by returning the gift. Thus, one can say that there is no such thing as a free and selfless gift. Even with gifts that don't require a physical return, the donor will expect something for their generosity, from words of thanks to honor, respect, and amity between parties. Whether the return is immediate or delayed, it must always come in the end, or else lead to conflict.

    But what kind of gift is even acceptable? Is money acceptable? Traditionalists would argue that money is too impersonal and thoughtless to be a worthy gift, a symptom of the lack of intimacy in general in a capitalist society. However, I find that money is acceptable, at least under certain circumstances. Money is unique in that can be easily transmuted into something else, so the recipient can invest it wherever they choose. Money isn't a thoughtless gift, but a flexible one. Zelizer does suggest, however, that gifts of money be given alongside a personal one, to imbue the gift with a sense of intimacy.

  6. In almost any situation, a gift comes with some type of debt. On some occasions, gifts are exchanged mutually. Each person involved in the situation has to put forth their own resources for the benefit of the other. However, even in the case of unreciprocated gift giving, the receiver is left with an unspoken duty to repay the gift giver. This idea of behavior seems to be universal, as Marcel Mauss describes various societies that roughly follow these patterns. I noted a quote from The Gift: "Charity is still wounding for the person who accepts it" (Mauss p. 177). It seems true that even in the purest situations, when a gift of any amount is given to another party with no incentive other than to benefit the receiver, there still remains an underlying guilt or responsibility to return the favor. Or, if guilt is not the motive, escaping inferiority is. Most humans are driven to keep up appearances, which can be difficult to do with a record of abundant receiving. If an individual has taken more than they have given, they appear dependent, maybe even weak or needy. It is much more preferred to at least be equal with others, if not more generous.

    I think the concept of every gift having a price is linked to a natural human desire for fairness, primarily when we are being gypped. In the field of behavioral economics, the ultimatum game was created to try to analyze this behavior. If two individuals are placed in a situation where they can either make a deal splitting a reward or disagree and both leave with nothing, it would be most rational for Individual A to offer the smallest portion of a reward to an Individual B, selfishly leaving the larger remainder for themselves. It would also be most rational for Individual B to accept that offer, since it would yield a higher reward to them than to leave the deal with nothing because of a rejection. However, as economists tested the game over and over, they found that very few deals were actually made under such circumstances, and that the most deals were made when the offer made by Individual A was fair. I think this experiment seems to be a good example of how reciprocity works within human nature. People would generally rather gain nothing than be in-debt or lose out.

    In response to whether money is a worthy gift: I would say yes, it can be, dependent upon the circumstances. There is a clear difference between almost forgetting someone's birthday, reaching into your wallet trying to scrounge up a $20, and presenting it to the birthday girl/boy with a nervous "Happy Birthday!" endearment vs. setting aside $20 for a friend whose birthday is coming up and you hope to surprise with a fitting card and the money, already happily picturing them using the funds as they best see fit.

    While I think both recipients would feel some level of satisfaction from the $20, I feel that the value in the second scenario would sky rocket because of the sentiment behind it. Monetary gifts that lack thought are hardly gifts at all, but rather handouts. Gifts are intentionally given and are meant to translate some sort of purpose or appreciation. A lone $20 is hardly capable of doing so. It is interesting to see how society has grasped this issue and become more creative by producing decorative money orders and money holders, gift cards, etc. It seems that the phrase "it's the thought that counts" holds true, and that as long as the deeper meaning is there, anything can be a gift- even money.

    Question: Is it a benefit or down side that money gifts leave the recipient with more freedom/ responsibility? Is the recipient almost stuck choosing a responsible way to use the money rather than on a luxurious purpose? Or should they be more pleased just because at least they aren't stuck with something useless to them?

  7. A gift is never quite free - there are always some strings, interpersonally, mentally or otherwise, that hold those gifts back from being truly free. We within ourselves and within the unconscious behavior taught by social cues are inclined to “give back” in some way - be it by throwing the next party or dinner after being invited to one (à la the potlatch) or by giving something back in return that is greater than or equal to what was given to us. As Mauss concludes, “In that separate life we call our social life, we too can not fall behind, as we still say. We must give back more than we received. The next “round” is always more expensive and more grand.” (Mauss, 178).

    Money when used as a synonym for power or connection is always a worthy gift. In the second chapter of “The Gift”, we are introduced to the system of trading called kula, a system used by a group of islands in what is now Papua New Guinea. The kula is an exchange system of value that is based on the emotional bonds formed rather than the financial gain. There is a symbolism in giving money that is similar to the exchange of goods in the kula - either it is something given to promote the power of one or both parties or it gives innate emotional and spiritual presence to the money. Zelizer argues this same point when he talks about monetary gifts being given alongside or with personal gifts.

  8. A gift is never free or absent of some sort of tradeoff. There seems to be always some sort of underlying value or worth that is attached to the idea of gifting. Once the gift has been given, it creates an imbalance between the recipient and the one giving the gift. Mauss states on pg. (73) “for the total prestation does not bring with it only the obligation to return the gifts (cadeaux) received; it presupposes two others, of equal importance: the obligation to give them, on the other hand, and the obligation to receive them, on the other.” The gift is an invite, it may be for demonstrative purposes or oral exchange. The gift is never actually given without imagining to some degree something in return.
    Money as a gift I feel is only appropriate in certain settings, most likely if money is an accepted form of gift within that culture. Money if given to someone with the right intentions, I believe it can be more useful and mean a lot more to the person. Now in a situation where the gift of money is not an accepted form of gift, then you could come across as cold or insensible. In a sense if money is given with a certain emotion and true compassion, or as Mauss put it the “Hau”, then I believe money could be a very acceptable way of showing the recipient your true intentions. I mean today in the U.S people give money and gift cards as a form of gift exchange, and to most recipients it is a welcome gift.

  9. While I do not believe that a gift is ever given freely, I do not believe that what is reciprocated must be prescribed a material value. While there are examples in The Gift in which reciprocated gifts, such as banquets, must be "returned" in equal or greater "value" than that which was first presented, Mauss also states on page 144, "The circulation of goods follows that of men, women, and children, banquets, rites, ceremonies, dances, and even jokes and insults. Fundamentally it is all the same. If one gives things and reciprocated them, it is because one gives to oneself and returns to oneself 'respects'-we still say 'courtesies.' But it is also that in giving on gives oneself, and if one gives oneself, it is because one 'owes' oneself-both personally and materially-to others." In this sense reciprocation is dependent upon indeed the acknowledgement of a gift, but also a "return" of some less material gifts, such as "rites, ceremonies, dances, and even jokes and insults." So while it is never free, it need not be returned in a material fashion.

    The concept of gift-giving within Western societies, whether it be for a birthday, anniversary, or holiday, is considered intimate due to the closeness associated with the act. It assumes some sort of familiarity with the recipient in that you should be aware of what their interests, hobbies, and style is in order to select the perfect gift. This is not always the case, however, and therefore every year many unwanted gifts are returned for cash value. I think, as was explained in the article, that there can be a truce between the traditional sensible gift-giver. Money given via gift cards to their favorite store or a thoughtful craft shows that some thought was put into the gift, but allows the recipient the freedom to find a gift that suits them perfectly.

  10. There is no such thing as a free gift. The act of giving a gift creates an unequal exchange between the two participants, resulting in the receiver of the gift having to pay back the giver with something around equal value at some point or another. Mauss shows us this on page 83 that if a gift goes unreciprocated, then the receiver of the original gift is seen as "inferior". The absence of recuperatory gift leaves room for tension between the participants which could lead to a lack of trust and future acts of violence like war.

    In my opinion, money in any form and in most situations can be both a valid and invalid form of gift. In a situation like an office christmas party, a gift of money might be acceptable (especially in this economy). However, when exchanging gifts amongst friends and family, gifts with monetary value can be seen as thoughtless and impersonal in certain situations and for certain individuals. For someone like a college student living paycheck to paycheck, any extra money would be very well received, while someone else might want a gift that shows that some level of thought went into it.

  11. A gift is never free because it would cause an imbalance within a relationship. In our society there is almost always an outward value on the gifts given to people, such as a birthday gift, but in the gifts given from The Gift have an underlying value. In both societies it is expected that a gift will be reciprocated instantly or over time. Going back to the idea of a birthday gift you will usually thank the person which is an instant return upon the gift and you will give them a gift in the future.
    Personally, money is best gift that I can receive. The issue with money as a gift is that it does not really have a connection to the person getting it. Money may give them the ability to get whatever they choose but it no longer feels like a gift. From what Mauss said the idea of an exchange of currency as a gift would not make sense in the Pacific islands. It is not the gift, shells, that is important but the people who previously possessed them. The whole purpose of the exchanging of gifts is to pass down the "Hau" which is extremely personal to the person give and receiving the gift.

  12. The gift is never free. The spirit of the gift is one of obligation, both an obligation to receive and an obligation to give back. An unreciprocated gift makes the receiver look inferior and rude. It is just a common courtesy, not necessarily a law, that is found in a traditional moral and social structure. The response to a gift does not need to be another gift. The appropriate response could be a verbal response, a service, or another gift.
    Some would see money as not being a worthy gift. You don’t have to put much thought in the exchanges of money. By giving money makes the notion of the gift more like a market transaction. Not to mention the giving a money is not the same as giving a piece of oneself in the spirit of the gift. In some societies the gift of money as seen as a worthy one. It can be seen as a transfer of wealth and is very transmittable in the marketplace. But no matter what it still doesn’t hold the sentimental value that a well-planned thought-out gift can.


  13. It can be argued that there is no such thing as a free gift, and that debt is incurred from the recipient that is to be repaid in some fashion. From the reading, it’s made clear that there is always some kind of purpose, or motive, that goes along with a gift, whether that be social, political, socio-economical, or religious. Furthermore, as we discussed in class, a gift is never free, and there is always some kind of ‘greater purpose’ that coincides with the gifting. When a recipient receives a gift, it is understood, often in a non-codified manner, that the gift is to be reciprocated in some fashion. When discussing these aforementioned characteristics of the gift-giving practice, I’m primarily thinking of the potlach of particular Northwest American and Polynesian peoples. Though these societies, especially the ones in the Americas, had an abundance of goods and without want of many resources, an established understanding of ‘no gift is free’ came to be.
    The giving away of items and resources by the wealthiest individuals in these societies was done in order to establish and solidify the hierarchical status of the individual or family. It solidified their importance and power in society, and granted them further political power. These individuals also engaged in gift giving with other tribes, in a form of “international relations’ and democracy, as we would call it today, with similar rules and understandings. The Gift further mentioned that denying a gift was completely unacceptable, a sin even. So practicing the gift giving within the society was a must. These gift giving practices helped foster in peace and help build and maintain relationships, both at home in the society and with other clans and tribes of people. The practice helped establish equality in a sense, both economically and socially, for most, as there was a constant ‘revolving’ apparatus of gift giving at work. Even a gift with the purpose of a deceleration of friendship is one that is not free, and that relationship can be considered the cost of the gift, essentially, among other debts. As for the question regarding money being a worthy gift. In fact, in the sense of the potlach, currency or money would hold little value, as the sentimental or religious value of such is almost nothing; there are far more significant and important gifts that could be given. Though money and precious mental have an absolute and agreed upon value today, the gifts that were most likely traded or given had values that were, at the time, agreed upon that were perhaps even more significant or important- holding even religious or political significance. Furthermore, the giving of currency also lacks the intimacy that the gift giving helped establish. On the surface, it may seem that this practice is straightforward and easy to understand, but the rules and regulations, generally un-codified, that govern this gift giving practice are extremely complex, and care and consideration must be given when examining any ‘transaction.’ In short, a gift is not free, and that there is certainly a debt that must be repaid (often times further in the future and not immediately) and is understood and agreed upon by both parties engaging in the gift-giving practice. A social contract is signed and observed.

  14. A gift is never free. On page 187-188 of Marcel Mauss’ “The Gift,” he calls both the "vaygu'a" of the Trobriands and the coppers of the Iroquois a “means of exchange or payment, and also things that one must give or destroy”. The fact that they can serve as both a means of payment and a gift gives insight into the exchange of gifts, and almost likens them to a payment. Of course reciprocity is expected, and reciprocity can be seen as a payment for a gift - it is equal in some way to the value of the gift that was first given. If something that is in some way of equal value is expected back from someone who has received a gift, that gift is not free. The most "free" things that I can think of are not actually free. Scholarships, for instance, are often given under the name of some field (such as physics) or some goal (such as helping first generation students). These things are not free because the person or people giving a scholarship for physics will give it to the person who has the most "promise" and will likely contribute to advances in the field. The person or people giving scholarships for first generation students may [loosely] expect those students to value the education that they are able to receive, and more concretely hope for the students' families to see economic improvement, or for the general population to become more educated.

    In my opinion, money is an acceptable gift under certain circumstances only. For someone that you have just recently met, it might be difficult to find a gift that they would like, but it would definitely be weird to just give that person money (unless they are specifically in need of money and have expressed this). When you do not know someone very well yet, it is most common to offer to buy them coffee or lunch somewhere. This is a gift, of money and time. In this case, people are spending money on a small gift (the coffee or the lunch) for someone while also giving their time to get to know the person better. A gift of cash (or whatever currency is being used) would usually be inappropriate in this case, unless the gift recipient is homeless or something of the like. In Viviana A. Zelizer’s article, “The Best Present Money Can Buy,” the December 1909 Ladies’ Home Journal is referenced. Lou Eleanor Colby, a writer for that journal, wrote about disguising money to make it a more appropriate gift, by incorporating it into artwork or putting it in something like a box that is a gift in and of itself. Even in this case, though, the examples given were of gifts meant for someone very close to the gift giver, like a mother or a wife. For someone that you do not know very well, money must be disguised even more, so that the recipient does not even see the money - they are presented instead with a small gift or a coffee or a lunch, that often costs money but that is not money.

  15. The gift is never free because reciprocity, as Mauss argues, is human nature and therefore a method of survival for communities of humans. Reciprocity among collectives rather than individuals (Mauss 58) creates social, political, and economic homeostasis in gift giving communities, and is demanded through social, political, and economic forces. For example, some communities have a spiritual responsibility to allow the spiritual force "hau" to travel from giver to receiver, making its way back to whomever initiated the first prestation (Mauss 60), and sometimes there are "disasterous consequences" when reciprocity is not generated (Mauss 124). For example, in American Northwestern communities, if one tribe performed a prestation in honor of a marriage, circumcision, birth, etc., the receiving tribe would be expected to perform a counterprestation in order to prevent war (Mauss 115).
    The debate on whether reciprocity is demanded or implied is not new to me, as I've noticed most human social cues are expected to be met with certain responses predetermined as "acceptable." For example, if someone asks "How are you?" the respondent comes across as self-centered or uninterested if after responding they do not reciprocate the question and say to the initial asker, "How are you?" Zelizer examines this modern application of reciprocity through gift giving protocol at Christmastime. She examines whether money has always been perceived as a shallow and unthoughtful gift and provides examples of mid-20th century magazines suggesting that money is the "perfect" gift for housewives. Even in this instance, housewives reciprocated in the form of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. Today, if a person routinely receives money without giving they are called a "mooch". While I disagree with use of this term in context of the dramatic economic inequality inherent to our economy, I do think most people expect reciprocal emotional relationships in which they receive enough support in return for their actions in order to generate enough energy to give again. And in an economy where money is a form of trust, consistently giving and rarely receiving can appear to be a betrayal of that trust.

  16. There is no such thing as a free gift because when a gift is given there is a certain expectation of reciprocity between the giver and the receiver. When giving a gift reciprocity is an unwritten contract between two individuals or groups. By accepting a gift from another person you are also acknowledging the responsibility of a debt that must be in some way reciprocated. As long as this debt exists so to does an imbalance and sense of inequality between the giver and receiver of the gift.

    Is money an acceptable gift to give another person? In most contexts I would probably say no. Many people consider giving money as a gift to be rude or disrespectful. This is probably because there is no particular feeling of sentimentality or thought put into the gift. Giving someone money may make them feel like you didn't put any thought or effort into the gift. That being said, there are certainly some contexts where giving money can be an acceptable gift. For example, here in the U.S. it's a common custom to give money as a gift for occasions like high school graduations. I think in most situations money is not the best gift to give someone, but there are circumstances where it can be an appropriate gift.

  17. A gift is almost never free because even though it is not a written rule, reciprocation is not only expected, but somewhat mandatory. I say this because no matter what the gift is, it is always returned with another gesture at some point in time. For example, say one of your friends helps you move out of your apartment. You may consider that free labor until you take into consideration that at some point in time, that friend may ask for help (or you may offer help) with something in which case you would probably feel obligated to help because of the time you friend helped you. In addition, even if the labor is never reciprocated, you could even view the friendship itself as a reciprocated gift. I bring that point up because I was thinking about how even if something is "free", there is usually still a time commitment involved and that is no different for friendships, although friendships are voluntary. It still is a time commitment and a reciprocated gift could even be the gift of information or knowledge between one another. It all depends on what you consider a gift.

    I personally believe that money is a worthy gift, but there are factors that go into that because in some instances, money could be viewed as an impersonal gift especially since I have seen money gifted in last minute situations. If parents, grandparents or even siblings gift money, I view that as normal and acceptable because the gesture is there that they want you to use the money for things that you need. On the flip side, I feel like if significant others gift each other money, it is very impersonal and can be viewed as rude or even insensitive. I personally find myself in an odd divide because for me, it doesn't matter who it is, I like receiving money as a gift, but when I am the one giving gifts, I never even consider giving others money because I view it as tacky and impersonal. All in all I believe that money is the kind of gift that needs to be in the correct setting to be appropriate.


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