Gift Exchange and Reciprocity – The Burdens and the Benefits

smiling ethnic woman getting present box under christmas tree
Photo by Julia Larson on

Gift giving in contemporary developed societies is so commonplace that we may not think that it holds any great significance in our cultural life. However, giving gifts is actually one way in which we solidify our social relationships by utilising the gift as a symbolic gesture of goodwill, acknowledgement or affection. In many respects, it is the ritual of gift exchange which proves more revealing since it holds more functional importance because of the inherent values involved including respect, reciprocity and moral obligation.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied a variety of pre-modern societies and focused in particular on the habit of exchanging gifts. He concluded that the social ritual of exchanging gifts held major significance since it resulted in the formulation of respect between the giver and receiver. This respect came from the honour of giving a gift and the moral obligation to reciprocate. This obligation formed social bonds between people. He also recognised that the giving and receiving in some pre-modern societies also contributed to the formulation of status and power. His study of the Native American ritual known as ‘potlatch’ saw gift exchange develop into a type of competition; each participant competing with each other to offer a larger volume or better quality of goods than the other. Mauss believed that this example of the ritual behaviour exemplified the significance of the meaning of gift exchange and in fact of the power that this act had in moulding social structure and cultural life. Each participant, in attempting to outdo the other, was using this ritual to establish their personal status.

Does the significance and utility of gift exchange in pre-modern societies hold the same relevance when we undertake this ritual in contemporary society? Although we give gifts to acknowledge birthdays, accomplishments and as demonstrations of love and affection, these do not always result in the obligation to reciprocate. However, the most obvious gift giving tradition where the obligation to reciprocate is most apparent during the Christmas season.

For Christians and secular people alike, the custom of gift exchange has spread throughout the Christian world and has played a significant part in our cultural practices. We celebrate our holidays and hold a feast with our family on Christmas day, whether or not we acknowledge the religious origins of this tradition. Part of the Christmas ritual is the exchanging of gifts. The origin of this custom has been linked to the story of the Three Wise Men, or ‘Magi’; the pilgrims who commemorated the birth of Christ by bearing gifts. The other Christian association with gift exchange seems to have emerged from the recognition of the good will and charitable nature of the fourth century bishop, St. Nicolas. Folklore suggests that he performed miracles, offered gold to people and helped children. This legend eventually evolved into what we now recognise as the modern day Santa Claus or Father Christmas.

Although giving to the other is in itself a virtue in many religious creeds, it is often associated with the moral obligation to be charitable to those less fortunate. Indeed, many religious customs involve charity as part of their mission. The act of giving is always recognised as part of many religious ceremonies and blessings in acknowledgement of the teachings, special days and power of their God. However, the exchange of gifts at Christmas time in contemporary society has become the giving of oneself to the other, not a celebration or recognition of God. It has also distinguished itself from charity since it entails, at least in a minor way, an obligation to reciprocate. So, gift giving at Christmas has become a personal symbolic gesture recognising and reinforcing the nuances of the relationship between the giver and the receiver. The exchange forms mutual respect, encourages reciprocity and entails moral obligation. Since these are the very elements inherent in pre-modern gift exchange recognised by Mauss, we can say that our contemporary custom to exchange gifts at Christmas remains the closest parallel.

The power of the actual gift comes from the enhancement of the social and relational bonds by being part of the ritual. A gift that reflects the personality or needs of the receiver seems to hold more power since it demonstrates familiarity, understanding and knowledge of the other. Paradoxically, it is considered rude to point out if such familiarity is not reflected in the gift. Perhaps this is why the common phrase ‘it’s the thought that counts’ came about with respect to the way one should receive a gift. The thought or the process of thinking about the other is more important than the gift itself. The phrase places the importance on the ritual and the fact that one was thought about, not so much what the gift is. For these reasons, it is apparent that gift exchange is a delicate and sensitive ritual within personal relationships and therefore, the grace of the giver and receiver is of utmost importance.

Even though we may recognise the relevance and perhaps importance of gift exchange at Christmas to be a fundamental part of the social event, these same elements, that of reciprocity and obligation inherent in the custom, can also be factors for the rejection or refusal to take part. It may be difficult to break free of the circle of obligation once it has been initiated for the first time and thus may be avoided altogether. Of course, there are also endless practical and economical reasons why we might avoid gift exchange. It has become a very expensive exercise extending beyond the circle of the family to friends and distant relatives. It has also lost some of its prior power due to mass commercialism and materialism which has increased the expense of the exchange while at the same time, reduced the personal element in it. One modern study of Christmas suggested that we wrapped gifts, not only so they look pretty and to conceal what is inside, but so that we do not feel that we are simply engaging in the cold exchange of commodities. It is evident that the over commercialisation of our culture has had significant impact in reducing the feeling of sharing something personal, of bonding the self with the other through the practice of gift exchange. It would be reasonable to conclude that if all the personal elements of gift exchange were eliminated from the process, the custom would be much less influential in creating social bonds and reinforcing existing relationships. It would become an exchange of goods or products and would lose its effectiveness and structural function as a ritual.

Regardless of the numerous negative burdens associated with contemporary Christmas gift exchange, it is unlikely that the practice will diminish from our social customs altogether. Even the de-personalisation of gift exchange through an over emphasis on materialism is unlikely to destroy the tradition. By simply engaging in the act, we continue to gain from its purpose and function in solidifying social relationships. Even though it is not the only custom which helps form, develop and reinforce our associations with others, it is an important one because it involves reciprocal obligations, sharing of the self and development of mutual respect through the process. When we refuse to partake in this contemporary ritual, we are not only deviating from social norms and customs, but we will be perceived as displaying a symbolic unwillingness to give or to receive from others.

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