Defining The Gift

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 3:30 PM
Room: Booth 68
Oral Presentation
Dave ELDER-VASS , Loughborough University, United Kingdom
There is increasing sociological interest in contemporary giving practices; the literature, however, continues to be strongly influenced by the Maussian tradition of economic anthropology, with its stress on reciprocity and conceptions of the gift as a form of deferred exchange. Implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, this tradition defines giving and the gift as theory-laden terms of art, and the theory with which they are laden is derived from the study of non-modern societies. The assumptions built into such definitions are thus potentially problematic: first, because they exclude many phenomena that are included in giving as it is understood in contemporary lay usage. Secondly, failure to recognise the disconnect between the concept of gift implicit in anthropological accounts and the everyday concept of gift leads to misguided attempts to argue as if actual gifts in contemporary late-modern societies are or must be subject to the analytical conclusions reached by the anthropologists.

The sociology of contemporary giving, I will argue, must begin from a definition of gifts that is based in contemporary lay usage. The paper will consider the issues involved in defining empirical terms for use in social theory and take these into account in developing a definition of gifts. Each significant term in this definition itself raises a number of issues. Must the gift, for example, be voluntary? And if so, what sorts of influences on the decision to give are compatible with it being so? Does giving entail a transfer of property rights? Or can gifts be made that evade our conceptions of property? In examining such issues the paper will map out a range of types of giving that is significantly different from that implicit in work in the anthropological tradition.