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The Gift Paradox: Complex Selves and Symbolic Good


  • Elias Khalil


Symbolic utility involves appreciation and esteem and expressed by symbolic products (gifts), while substantive utility entails ordinary welfare satisfied by substantive products. For neoclassical theory, both utilities are symmetrical or fungible and, hence, substitutable along the uni-dimensional utility function. If they are substitutable, though, why would agents be judged as “crass” if they intentionally remind the recipient of the cost of the substitution? For normative sociological theory, the judgment of “crassness” would arise if the agent mixes moral norms with non-moral substantive interests. The two are supposed to be non-fungible, stemming from multiple selves. If both utilities are non-fungible and stem from multiple selves, though, why do we call agents who spend on gifts beyond their means “fools,” while those who spend very little “cheapskates”? It seems that there must be a supervising, single self that makes decisions on the proper division of the budget between substantive products and gifts. But this invites the single-self idea from the back window, reverting back to the neoclassical approach. We would be caught in a vicious cycle of anomalies. To get out of the cycle, this paper identifies the critical issues and suggests an alternative, complex-self view.

Suggested Citation

  • Elias Khalil, 2004. "The Gift Paradox: Complex Selves and Symbolic Good," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 62(3), pages 379-392.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:rsocec:v:62:y:2004:i:3:p:379-392
    DOI: 10.1080/0034676042000253972

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    Cited by:

    1. Grolleau Gilles & Marciano Alain & Mzoughi Naoufel, 2018. "How Status Seeking may Prevent Coasean Bargaining," Review of Law & Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 14(2), pages 1-20, July.
    2. Metin M. Cosgel, 2008. "The Socio-economics of Consumption: Solutions to the Problems of Interest, Knowledge and Identity," Chapters, in: John B. Davis & Wilfred Dolfsma (ed.), The Elgar Companion to Social Economics, chapter 8, Edward Elgar Publishing.
    3. Vic Benuyenah, 2021. "Face-saving and Seasonal Gifts: Analysis of Cultural Exchanges in the Confucian Market Place," International Review of Management and Marketing, Econjournals, vol. 11(2), pages 59-66.


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