'Interested' vs 'Distinterested' Giving: Defining Extortion, Reciprocity and Pure Gifts in the Connected Worlds

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Original text: Florence Weber, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, France

In Chapter 2, we find a wide variety of giving. Examples range from ceremonial gifts in Japan and China to ritualistic giveaways among Gábor Roma and instrumental payments in sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines. To analyse each practice, as well as to discover their similarities and differences, we need to be aware of the key principles of giving.

The work of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss focused on the way in which the exchange of gifts between groups and individuals builds social relationships, alliances and solidarity, but also antagonism and hierarchy. Mauss identified two fundamental elements. On the one hand, an essential lapse of time separates the first gift (the opening gift in an exchange of gifts) from the counter-gift (the return gift). On the other, the gift raises the status of the donor and lowers that of the recipient. It was on the basis of these two points—made repeatedly in Mauss’ text—that Pierre Bourdieu deduced the existence of a third principle—personal dominance. In Bourdieu’s view, this raised doubts about the very possibility of a ‘free’ or ‘pure’ gift, that is, a gift made without expectation of reward.

In his analysis of simple reciprocity between two partners, Claude Lévi-Strauss stressed both the peaceful and balanced nature of the relationship and the instantaneous character of a gesture of exchange such as, for example, the exchange of wedding rings between husband and wife at their marriage ceremony. Such a symbolic gesture does not come under the purview of Bourdieu’s reading of the gift, not only because it lacks an essential element—the length of time that separates the gift from the counter-gift and supposedly establishes the donor’s personal dominance—but also because the identity of the two rings symbolises the equality of the two spouses.

For Bourdieu, it is the time-lapse between the gift and the counter-gift that distinguishes the Maussian gift from the instantaneous exchange of two equal goods. Such instantaneousness characterises three other types of exchange: market and monetary transactions, market and non-monetary transactions (when, as in barter, strict equivalence of goods is sought by the partners), and ritual transactions (when the goods exchanged are identical, as in the example of the wedding rings). It is the time-lapse that allows the donor to lower the status of the recipient, who is compelled to remain for a certain time in the donor’s debt, even when this is hidden under the guise of generosity with no ulterior motive. In this way, Bourdieu subscribes to the view proposed by Mauss: that of fiction and the social lie. It is also the time-interval that establishes a parallel between gift and debt: the recipient becomes dependent on the donor, is obligated to him, and becomes his inferior.

Further ethnographies of gifts[1][2][3] enable us to make a clear distinction between two forms of circulation: ‘transaction’ and ‘transfer.’ A transaction entails the obligation to repay and remains incomplete until repayment is made. A transfer, on the other hand, entails no obligation to repay, even in a sequence of repeated transfers.

Let us therefore reserve the term ‘transaction’ for services that entail an obligation to repay, be they market and monetary transactions, non-monetary market transactions, or ritual/ceremonial transactions. We may also introduce the notion of a ‘half-transaction’ for unsettled dues. Such incomplete transactions take various forms: financial credit, commercial debt or ceremonial transactions; unsettled relations between a mutual insurance company and its subscribers, between an insurance company and its clients, or between social security and its beneficiaries. In this volume, for example, ‘petrol money’ in Sub-Saharan Africa would be a half-transaction, whereas okurimono no shukan in Japan, songli in China and magarych in Armenia would count as ritualistic gifts or ceremonial transactions. Creating a time-lapse between the gift (payment) and the counter-gift (required service) by making gifts on specific dates (Christmas, birthdays, weddings) reduces their instrumentality and highlights their sociability.

Let us reserve the term ‘transfer’ for services that do not entail the obligation to repay, and introduce the notion of a ‘double transfer’ for repeated provision of services. A simple transfer could be a ‘disinterested’ or ‘pure’ gift if the donor felt free to give or not (see ‘enactment’ in Sneath 2006[4]). It might also, however, be a theft or an ‘extorted gift,’ where physical violence or emotional blackmail is involved, where the donor is forced to give, or where no return is implied.

We may then qualify a relationship maintained between the same two partners as ‘a chain of services’ or a succession of transfers and/or transactions. There are three levels of analysis with which we can look at the chains of services presented in this chapter: the nature of the relationship between the two partners, the form of the circulation of goods (single or double), and the nature of repayment (monetary or not). Testart[1] emphasises the crucial difference between exchanges with an obligation to repay and those without.

This fundamental distinction enables us to read Mauss’ text in all its complexity while also explaining the distinction between the systems of exchange he studied in Polynesia. On the one hand, the system of market exchanges (gimwali — barter) consists of transactions related to ordinary goods during which the relationship between the two partners is equal and where there is equivalence between the two goods in terms of both turn-taking and measure. On the other hand, the system of giving material possessions in return for immaterial status (potlatch – as practised among some native American peoples of the west coast of North America) consists of repeated transfers linked by the logic of an antagonistic personal relationship in which each actor is eager to offer a more beautiful present than the one he receives, since the alternative is to accept a relationship of dependence. Between those two, the system of ritual giving (kula – the exchange system practised in Papua New Guinea) consists of transactions related to specific ceremonial objects. Under this practice, mwali (armbands) are exchanged for soulava (necklaces) during which the relationship between the partners is defined as a political alliance.

With potlatch and kula, Mauss explored a whole range of possible services where what matters is the personal relationship embodied by the thing given, in contrast to services where interchangeable goods flow between interchangeable individuals, thereby making it possible to relegate personal relationships to the background. These include market transactions (monetary or in kind) and simple anonymous transfers (monetary or non- monetary). In this volume, entries related to forced giving or extortion of gifts, such as egunje in Nigeria or mordida in Mexico, add a new type of personal domination – that of extorting the giving – simple transfers where the donor is seen as inferior (forced to make an informal payment and remain dependent on the recipient to deliver the service).

In western societies there also exist services that involve personal relationships in terms that imply superiority on the part of the donor (charitable donations as well as political relationships of clientelism); in terms of rivalry (when public buildings testify to the superiority of their sponsors, and the practice of patronage); or in terms of alliance (such as customer loyalty-cards where personal relations are used to build trust in commercial transactions and are materially rewarded).

Many entries in Chapter 2 emphasise the importance of ritual in giving. More generally, rituals carve out in the flow of social life a space—a ‘social scene’[5] (Weber 2001) – with its own specific rules. This enables transactions and transfers, whose instrumental nature might even make them look like bribes to outsiders, to become socially acceptable in their own setting. A solemn opening ceremony – an acknowledgement of mutual understanding between the parties – affirms the Goffmanesque distinction between ‘stage’ acts and those that remain ‘backstage.’ The formulae of politeness open and close an interaction. They frame the context, constitute societies’ know-hows and allow, among other things, the distinction between transactions and transfers.

Such an ethnographic analysis of non-market services relates to theories of Connected Worlds[2][6] that attempt to analyse individual practices stretching between different social scenes; they focus on the institutional construction of these scenes and on the individual ways of joining them. Interested and disinterested giving coexist, in our modern societies, just as market and gift coexisted among the indigenous peoples studied by Mauss, and as kula and gimwali coexisted in those studied by Bronislaw Malinowski[7]. Such coexistence results from multiple norms and moralities of behaviour with respect to different social scenes.

Finally, it is important to emphasise the policy implications of Mauss’ concept of the gift. Shifting from scientific observation to political issues, Mauss rejected the personal, inegalitarian charity that had until then formed the cornerstone of social policy, dismissing it as ‘the unconscious and injurious patronage of the rich almsgiver’[8]. This paved the way for a reconceptualisation of the idea of social services and citizens’ rights in modern society, moving away from the private welfare practices described in Chapter 3. Mauss’ thinking laid the foundation for France’s modern social security system, based on the principle that the state and society have obligations to workers and their families: they should be supported by the members of society gathered in a social state, not only when they are contributing to the economy by actively working, but throughout their entire lives.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Testart, A. 2007. Critique du don. Études sur la circulation non marchande. Paris: Syllepse
  2. 2.0 2.1 Zelizer, V. 2005. The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press
  3. Weber F. 2000. ‘Transactions marchandes, échanges rituels, relations personnelles. Une ethnographie économique après le Grand Partage,’ Genèses 41: 85-107
  4. Sneath, D. 2006. ‘Transacting and enacting: Corruption, obligation and the use of monies in Mongolia,’ Ethnos 71 (1): 89-112
  5. Weber, F. 2001. ‘Settings, interactions and things: A plea for a multi-integrative ethnography,’ Ethnography 2 (4): 475-99
  6. Dufy, C. and Weber, F. 2007. L’ethnographie économique. Paris: La Découverte
  7. Malinowski, B. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
  8. Mauss, M. 2001. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. Halls. London: Routledge, pg. 84

Further reading:

Bourdieu, P. 1994. ‘L’économie des biens symboliques,’ in Raisons pratiques. Sur la théorie de l’action. Paris: Seuil
Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books
Lefort, C. 1951. ‘L’échange ou la lutte des hommes,’ Les Temps modernes: 1404-17
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1950. ‘Introduction à l’œuvre de Marcel Mauss,’ in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France
Mauss, M. 1924. ‘Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques.’ L’Année Sociologique 2:1