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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)

Book Review: The Importance of Gift Exchange

Karen Sykes. Arguing with Anthropology: an introduction to critical theories of the gift. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Reviewed by Jon Baldwin
(Senior Lecturer in Communications, London Metropolitan University, UK)

Disinterestedness [gratuité] is a giving which asks nothing in return. But there is another form of disinterestedness which is a taking without giving anything in return. That, too, is a disinterested act, since it is an act without equivalence, and we should accord it the same dignity. To be able to accept something from someone without counter-gift on your part – that is to say, to accept someone taking the advantage over you and marking his superiority (this is the symbolic logic of the gift) – is also a sacrifice entirely equivalent to that made by the giver.1

            First extensively elaborated upon by Marcel Mauss, gift exchange has occupied the anthropological, sociological, and philosophical imagination for some time. Here is a form of exchange, common to so-called “primitive”, “archaic”, pre-modern or traditional societies, which foregrounds discussion and evaluation of the move to modernity. The gift is the generalized form of exchange in these societies, as the commodity is the generalized form of exchange in capitalism. Gift exchange is a process which perpetuates and constructs social relations, it is an expression of our dialogic nature using material culture. It occurs during the miniature of everyday life as well being demonstrable on a geopolitical scale. Politically, gift exchange, though often idealized, is suggested to be a contrast to, and critique of commodity relations. One might modify somewhat, with qualifications, George Orwell here: in a time of widespread commodity exchange and hegemony of economic rationality, giving a gift is a revolutionary act.2 At its best, the gift exhibits a non-utilitarian principle, which emphasizes honour, reciprocity, sacrifice, and our social being over the interests of the economic. For Jean Baudrillard3, the Mauss who considers the antagonistic form of gift termed potlatch, is more radical in the long term than Karl Marx.

            This book recognizes and celebrates the centrality and importance of gift-exchange to anthropology. Developments in the anthropological analysis of gift-exchange provide a pedagogical pathway through a history of the school’s research and orientation: “We could say that the logic of gift exchange lies at the centre of the discipline”.4 The gift serves as a guide to anthropology insofar as it is a “total social fact” which informs and organizes diverse social processes. At the heart of many iconic debates in anthropology, the study of the gift is central to discussions of our sociability, kinship, the nature of evidence, economic rationality, the comparative approach, grand theory, false consciousness, alienation, bourgeois values, honour, sacrifice, property relations, ethics, and so forth. The clear message from anthropology, regarding decades of study of the gift, can be put: “Mauss’s insights help contemporary anthropologists to raise a warning against assuming that economic reason, especially utilitarian value, dominates human life”.5 Further, the “anthropological analysis of gift exchange would be a valuable critical tool against the pro-globalization movement’s notion that humans are primarily economic beings”.6 These are agreeable messages and lessons, but concern is that those who need to hear them most – political economists, social policy makers, those who seek market solutions to social issues, those resigned to the current capitalist organization of society, and so forth – are not listening.

            The first part of Sykes text discusses early ethnography and the origins of modern anthropology. This concerns the discourse of the naturalists, geographers, men of letters, and fellow travelers, who accompanied the voyages of discovery. For example, the popular legend of Captain James Cook in the Endeavour and Discovery, his encounters with Hawaiian chiefs, and subsequent confusion with whom led to his death. Also significant are the explorations in the 1930s to New Guinea to search for gold. This leads on to discussion of a certain nostalgia in early anthropology, for instance, for face-to-face relations. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work and the notion of the Noble Savage is well expounded. Sykes suggests that the Noble Savage7 should best be understood as a myth, a rhetorical construction which represented an alternative lifestyle from that lived by Europeans, a concept “used by anthropologists working in the shadow of Rousseau to write critically about their contemporary political and social conditions”.8

            The miniature of early methodological debates are next scrutinized. Bronislaw Malinowski’s fieldwork, the debate between participant observation and interpretive ethnography, and Franz Boas’s historical particularism, come under critical focus. A significant issue arises here. Anthropologists have rarely described or encountered a “pure” society of people untouched by either European traders, missionaries, ethnographers, colonial administrators, or other “outsiders”. Lack of reflection upon this point can jeopardize the authority of anthropologists. Mauss’s “armchair anthropology” and comparative analysis of the gift is introduced, as are the notions and practices of “kula”, “hau”, and “potlatch”. As “total social fact”, Sykes stresses that the gift “is a profoundly a sociological, not a philosophical concept”.9 This is quite an important point, but Sykes does not begin to follow up some of the implications here.10

            Maurice Godelier’s reframing of Mauss, “keeping while giving” is examined, followed by Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist reading of Mauss. Lévi-Strauss’s contention that “woman is the supreme gift” is explored with commentary on Marilyn Strathern’s feminist critique of structuralism. Indeed the book often comes across as homage to Strathern’s important work. Courageously, Sykes does not shy away from the notion of love, something frequently experienced though not often enough encountered in academic discourse, as an explanatory factor behind some giving. This is the case with unconditional, inexhaustible, paternal care: “there is no point in time when the father can finally meet, once and for all, the obligations to give to his children”.11 One can also consider her aphoristic sentiment: “Love is a free gift; humans need the practice of gift exchange only to be able to express it”.12

            Part two concerns itself with postmodern reflections on anthropology, beginning with a broad postcolonial critique: “Postcolonial anthropology analyses the debts that societies owe each other as a result of their shared history”.13 Pierre Bourdieu’s focus upon honour as a principle influencing behaviour is considered. The distinction between gift relations and commodity relations is addressed, albeit very briefly. Some of Georges Bataille’s work is the subject of a chapter, specifically his attention to potlatch, described in brief as “the competition between chiefs to overwhelm each other with displays of generosity”.14 Bataille is described as “surrealist essayist and poet”15 whose work provides an insight as to how to “create an ideal and utopian social state”.16 This is not exactly the Bataille that I have encountered.

            The final section of the book explores the so-called “close of postmodernity” and considers anthropological concerns of the present: technology, globalization, property relations, and the ethics of representation. The legacy of Clifford Geertz’s “literary turn” is marked with debate surrounding ethnographic writing (science, narrative, realism, “thick description”, authority, rhetoric, style, genre) and the politics of cross-cultural translation. Sykes reflection on her own fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, inform these final discussions of the ethics of anthropology, the acknowledgement of vulnerability, and issues of representation. Enigmatic descriptions, such as the following, are frequent and welcome: “Every day at noon an elderly man sat with me over cups of sugared tea. He came to talk when I stopped writing on the typewriter. All morning he had sat and listened to the machine strike keys on the paper; he liked to hear it “pira ap”, to make a clattering noise like a bad truck engine. He asked me a very good question that bothers me still. How did all my experiences there get inside those little black marks on the page?”17

            The book is obviously a useful pedagogic tool, and particularly strong on visual anthropology and contemporary debates. Gift exchange is folded quite neatly into anthropology itself: “An anthropologist getting started at fieldwork, like a like a kula trader getting started in ceremonial exchange, sets a chain of other transactions into play”.18 However the wider, often interdisciplinary, application of theories of the gift are not discussed or even broached. There is no acknowledgement, for instance, of the gift in contemporary culture19, nor the influence and use in philosophy20; sociology21; history22; aesthetics23; politics24; literature25; consumption26; religion27; new media28; and so on. These omissions limit, rather than invalidate, the book.



1 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. London and New York: Verso, 2003:103. Translated by Chris Turner.

2 Attributed to George Orwell: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

3 Baudrillard makes and follows up this argument in Symbolic Exchange and Death (New York: Sage, 1993). Unfortunately Baudrillard does not feature in the book under review. This is a shame and problematic omission since Baudrillard challenges many of the economic-anthropological readings of the gift, and the notion of reversibility, inherent in potlatch, is core to his oeuvre.

4 Karen Sykes. Arguing with Anthropology: an introduction to critical theories of the gift. London and New York: Routledge, 2005:11.

5 Ibid.:2.

6 Ibid.:187.

7 Baudrillard has been accused of being guilty of a form of Romanticism in utilizing the myth of the Noble Savage in his early work. Conceding somewhat this point, Baudrillard has claimed that he was thinking about the need for “a new type of relationship between humanity and reality in the here and now: a way of life that would permit the rediscovery of intensity, play, and challenge.” (Baudrillard in Charles Levin. Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics. London: Prentice Hall, 1996:23) Charles Levin suggests that “Baudrillard’s fantastic evocations of the cultural present are always cast against the shimmering backdrop of a lost world” (Ibid.:29).

8 Karen Sykes. Arguing with Anthropology: an introduction to critical theories of the gift. London and New York: Routledge, 2005:36.

9 Ibid.:63.

10 The debate between a sociological approach or a philosophical approach to gift-exchange, which can only very briefly be touched upon here, is central to the argument between Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida. Bourdieu argues that the analyses and aporias of exchange that Derrida makes in, for instance Passions (Jacques Derrida. “Passions: an oblique offering” in David Wood (Editor.) Derrida: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) and Given Time (Jacques Derrida. Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), are artificial and problematic. With gift-exchange considered under the aegis of his sociologically informed notion of habitus, Bourdieu claims that “exchange shares none of the paradoxes that are made to emerge artificially when, like Jacques Derrida in the recent book Passions, one relies on the logic of consciousness and the free choice of an isolated individual” (Pierre Bourdieu. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994: 95). Bourdieu’s reading of gift exchange emphasizes our concrete socially situated being over the valorization of an abstract philosophically informed ontology provided by Derrida. Likewise, when Gayatri Spivak, considering supposed equal, “fair”, quid pro quo commodity exchange, writes that “there is no philosophical injustice in capitalism” (Gayatri Spivak. “Some Concept Metaphors of Political Economy in Derrida’s Texts”. Leftwright / Intervention 20, 1986: 96) we might feel it necessary to raise the question of the sociological injustice in capitalism, and wonder why (and how) the social has disappeared from the philosophic purview.

11 Karen Sykes. Arguing with Anthropology: an introduction to critical theories of the gift. London and New York: Routledge, 2005:153.

12 Ibid.:196.

13 Ibid.:96.

14 Ibid.:72.

15 Ibid.:163. 

16 Ibid.:151.

17 Ibid.:215.

18 Ibid.:214.

19 See, for instance: Aafke E. Kompter. “The social and psychological significance of gift giving in the Netherlands”. In Kompter (Editor). The Gift: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996: 107-119.

20 Alan Schrift (Editor). The Logic of the Gift: Towards an Ethic of Generosity. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

21 Helmuth Berking. Sociology of Giving. London: Sage, 1999.

22 Natalie Zemon Davis. The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

23 Stephen David Ross. The Gift of Beauty: The Good as Art. New York. State University of New York Press, 1996. 

24 Jacques T. Godbout (in collaboration with Alain Caillé). The World of the Gift. Montreal and Kingston: McGill - Queen’s University Press, 1998.

25 Lewis Hyde. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Random House, 1983.

26 Daniel Miller. A Theory of Shopping. Oxford: Polity Press, 1998

27 John Caputo and John and Michael Scanlon (Editors). God, the Gift, and Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1999.

28 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy (accessed 14/11/06): “The Wikipedia web-based collaborative encyclopaedia is, in most of its operations, a thriving gift economy. Hundreds of thousands of articles are available on Wikipedia, and none of their innumerable authors and editors receives any material reward. Wikipedia has been constructed entirely out of gifts, and gives information freely”.

Editor’s note: Wikipedia is also a great toy which some use to deliver the gift of poison. It may well be that it is better to accept the gift of Wikipedia with disinterest (see opening quotation of article and endnote 1).

©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)

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