The Gift and Reciprocity: Perspectives from Economic Anthropology
Economic anthropology is a contested area of interdisciplinary research. Although some practitioners define the task as the application of mainstream economic theorizing to the full range of human groups in time and space, many others argue in the light of the ethnographic evidence that it is impossible to generalize Western models, such as those which base themselves on concepts of utility maximization by individual agents. These objections have nowhere been more vociferous than in the domain of exchange. Bronislaw Malinowski identified many kinds of transaction among the Trobriand Islanders; after initially sketching a notion of the `pure gift', he later modified this and argued instead that reciprocity, in the sense of calculated `give and take', was the central principle underpinning all social life. A more significant theoretical challenge to the presuppositions of modern economics came in same period from Marcel Mauss, who outlined in his essay The Gift an evolutionary process that began with the `total prestation' and ends in the modern world, dominated by contracts and markets. Only in this modern world do we - arguably - have the possibility of altruism, understood as `disinterested giving'. After reviewing some of the more influential later contributions to the anthropological literature on these topics, notably those of Karl Polanyi, Marshall Sahlins and Stephen Gudeman, this paper goes on to present brief ethnographic illustrations. These include examples of food sharing among hunter-gatherers and cultivators, and the hospitality rituals of the contemporary western bourgeois classes. Illustrations from postsocialist societies show the difficulties of predicting economic behavior in this field: some people seem to respond to dislocation by using objects to strengthen their interpersonal networks, while others facing apparently similar conditions prefer to contract their gift-giving. Finally, brief critical note is taken of recent `ethnographic experiments' in this field.
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