Edited by James G. Carrier
Chapter 15: The Gift and Gift Economy
Yunxiang Yan Gift giving constitutes one of the most important modes of social exchange in human societies. The give-and-take of gifts in everyday life creates, maintains and strengthens various social bonds – be they cooperative, competitive or antagonistic – which in turn define the identities of persons. A scrutiny of the gift and the gift economy, therefore, may provide us with an effective and unique means of understanding the formation of personhood and the structure of social relations in a given society. It is almost impossible to establish a universal typology of gift activities because the world of gifts is both complex and diverse. Given that some gifts are offered in ritualised occasions while others are not, a basic distinction can be made between ceremonial and non-ceremonial gifts. The most common examples of the former include gift activities in rites of passage and holidays, such as weddings, funerals and Christmas, while an occasional gift offered to a helper to express gratitude or some regular exchange of presents among family members or friends may be considered as non-ceremonial gifts. Ceremonial giving can be extremely elaborate and constitutes an important social event in its own right, such as the famous kula ring in Trobriand society or the potlatch among the northwest native Americans (see Strathern and Stewart chap. 14 supra). Although highly institutionalised and ritualised, ceremonial gift giving is by no means static; instead, it may evolve rapidly in response to social and market changes. A good example in this connection is Christmas giving,...
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