It’s precisely because a gift is not a commercial transaction that we consider it to be a generous gesture, the reality is rather more complex however. Connections are established between givers and receivers that create social bonds, however, giving a gift is not an impossible task.
The act of giving can be seen as an altruistic option to an economic exchange. That may well be true but the act cannot totally differentiate itself from other forms of exchange, the difference being that it’s social rather than monetary. The gift creates reciprocal bonds that generate the dynamic belonging to a group.
Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), one of the fathers of French anthropology, signed his name to posterity with his study titled The Gift in which he analysed narratives by ethnologists who had investigated tribal societies from North America, New Guinea and the Pacific. From this in-depth analysis which we aren’t going into here, sprang a powerful idea that was handed down through generations. The archaic social contract system is based on the following sequence of gestures: the giving of a gift, acceptance of the gift and finally reciprocating said gift. These exchanges between tribes, groups, families and individuals generate states of mutual inter-dependence between the receiver who is subsequently obligated to the giver, the balance being re-established by the giving of another gift in return. These codified practices have a significance that is ceremonial, religious, cultural, moral, symbolic and proto-legal. They form what the sociologist dubbed ‘total social fact’. This is not without its contradictions: – refusing to give, neglecting invitations and refusing to take are the same as giving a thumbs down to the alliance, a sign of hostility but accepting a gift also jeopardizes the individual who is incapable of reciprocating at the same level, remaining in debt to the giver. The gift is both an obligation, something you have to receive, but which contains a risk.
Although these archaic societies are long behind us, we still remain somewhat tied to the notion of being obligated to an individual from whom we have received a gift or favours. Were the final words uttered by Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy (470-399 BC) not “ Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay this debt, don’t forget.” ? These sentences can be interpreted in a variety ways but the notion of paying off what is due still remains. Should we come to the conclusion therefore that generosity, honest decency, the joy of making someone smile, of making your family, friends or loved ones happy, is impossible? Is the gesture of gift giving a landmine? We have to understand where the social bond inhibits individual bonds.
The answer is no but perhaps we need to be aware that giving a gift in the spirit of wanting the other person to be happy and expecting nothing in return can only be done with love. This love requires that the other person be more important than oneself or one’s group. We can therefore round off with these words by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas ”After you”. This polite phrase should be the most wonderful definition of our civilisation.