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Why Have Anthropologists Insisted On The Differences Between "Gift" Exchange And "Commodity" (Or "Market") Exchange? How Useful Is The Distinction?

1899 words - 8 pages

Lucinda Jones SAN Essay 1Why have anthropologists insisted on the differences between "gift" exchange and "commodity" (or "market") exchange? How useful is the distinction?These two types of exchange must have distinct definitions because their differences are too great for one single term to cover them all. I shall begin by clearly defining the two phrases and then set about comparing and contrasting why anthropologists have insisted on the difference. Finally I will explain the utility of the distinction, and emphasise why I believe the separate terms are required.The term 'gift exchange' has many other alternative phrasings. 'Gift economy', 'gift culture' and 'ceremonial exchange' are all interchangeable, and each distinguishes a slightly different nuance in the complex occurrence that is gift exchange. Anthropological research primarily recorded it first in the Trobriand Islands (Malinowski, 1922) and exploration soon began developing our understanding into the intricate system as we know it. Gift exchange is the process by which goods or services, in one form or another, are transferred between individuals or larger collectives. Gifts are "voluntary" and a future return is by no means legally binding, however they are, in fact, according to the values of the society, obligatory and essential. Mauss (1954) expressed this in three key stages that maintained the giving - 1. The obligation to give. 2. The obligation to receive. 3. The obligation to repay. In some cultures (for although markets are thought to be in every known society, gift exchange is not as instilled and essential in some), it is a practice so deeply rooted that it is a total social phenomena. Although the majority of the complex gift giving systems have been recorded in non-western cultures, there is still a prevalence of gift exchanges in the west, primarily at celebratory times of the year such as Christmas. For example, Muir and Weinstein (1962) (cited by Goodwin, 1990) found that all 120 of their female, American participants had experienced social obligation of giving. 'Commodity' or 'market' exchange is when, in an organised market, an entity trades contracts for future produce delivery such as yams in the Trobriand isles or tobacco in North America. The mechanism by which the resources are bought and sold depends upon monetary prices set by supply and demand, i.e. the rates of exchange are not set by any governmental organisation but are free to move with the market (a free price system).So why do anthropologist insist on differentiating between these two types of exchange? Belk (1979) categorises gift giving into four functions: establishing and nurturing interpersonal relationships, celebrating important life events, creating a method economic exchange and to socialising children into the appropriate norms and values of their society. These four purposes really emphasise why a divide is needed and most seem to focus around the first point. As said by Mauss in The Gift...

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