Giving Gifts and the Spirit of Sharing

Giving Gifts and the Spirit of Sharing


Why can’t you get rid of that ugly sweater from Grandma? What rules dictate your selection of gifts this holiday season? What is the deal with those freaking pajamas you get every year? In this holiday episode of This Anthropological Life, we discuss the social implications behind giving and receiving gifts, giving in the animal kingdom, bad gifts, altruism, and the primordial debt. Consider this our gift to you and reciprocate with a review or a donation on our secure Paypal page! We would love to hear from you! 


  • Inalienable Possessions are objects that are connected to the social identity of the original owner even after death  (i.e. a wedding ring that has been passed down from mother to daughter within a family, patrimonial objects).
  • Hau the spirit of the Gift, is the idea that there is something imbued in the object itself that animates it, thus its own desires must be incorporated in the exchange as well as the giver and receiver’s.
  • The Primordial Debt is the debt we owe to something beyond ourselves (i.e. the sacred, deities, gods, etc.) for setting the conditions for creation.

Giving in Nature:

Gift giving is a practice that we see paralleled in the natural world. In particular, chimpanzees are known to find more value in the social act of giving food. Experiments dealing with this topic have found that chimpanzees tend to make decisions that would benefit others in order to strengthen their social ties. Even cats bring their owners dead mice to show affection, while this is not necessarily occurring at the same level as the chimp. There is still some idea of wanting to give back or show affection.

In these examples, we see that what is being given is strongly tied to what the giver deems valuable.

“Based on what the being would want for itself. Like cats really enjoy dead mice, and of course with the chimps with grapes you have more sugar, so it is probably tastier. So it seems that with people we base our gifts on what we would want to receive

The Gift – Mauss

When discussing the social implications behind gift giving it is almost impossible to get through a full conversation without discussing Marcel Mauss. Mauss wrote the foundational book on gift-giving, The Gift. In The Gift, Mauss discusses gift-giving as a tool for creating and maintaining social bonds through the reciprocal nature of gifts. When a person receives a gift there is an expectation that she must pay the giver back. The reciprocal nature of gift giving binds the giver and receiver together strengthening their relationship so long as their reciprocal exchanges continue.  However, there are rules as to how she must pay the giver back.

Listen to the Podcast to learn more!

The bonds that develop through reciprocity within gift-giving are social.  In the wise words of Ryan, we can look at “social cohesion as the reason for the gifts in the first place…Maintaining social relationships is inherently part of why we do social exchanges.” The gift often commemorates the relationship between giver and receiver, thus, the gift is something much more than just the object itself.

The Gift and the Identity of the Giver and Unintentionally Bad Gifts

When considering gifts, whether from a birthday or a holiday, one thing stands out, it is exceptionally difficult to get rid of gifts from those in your social group! The reasoning behind this is that the giver is on some level in the gift itself. The gift is a representation of the relationship you have with the giver. Therefore, getting rid of something they gave often feels like you are disrespecting that relationship. Thus, we find ourselves pushing yet another ugly sweater to the back of our closets or even wearing pajamas sent from the aunt who thinks you are a four-year old girl. It’s all for maintaining the social bond.

Intentionally Bad Gifts

Gift-giving is not just about reaffirming your social ties with a group, it can also be about denouncing them. To name a few examples,  Santa Claus uses coal, Buzzfeed suggests a cat hair crafting book, and everyone else suggests donations to planned parenthood put in Mike Pence’s name. The idea behind these types of gifts is to convey a message. When considering Mike Pence, the giver’s are making a political stance to support an institution they care about. By giving a bad gift to Mike Pence they are marking themselves as part of a community of people who support abortion and distancing those who do not.

Listen in for more on bad gifting

Altruism and Gift Giving

Gift giving takes a rather interesting turn when we consider it in relation to altruism. By giving donations, food, clothing, etc. to people in need we are reaching outside of our regular social groups into relationships where there is no reciprocation. However, there are ways you benefit from giving outside of your social circle, namely, in the form of branding and public display.

Tune into the podcast to hear more about public display and altruism

The lack of reciprocity in donations creates some surprising tension in between the donors and receivers. Mary Douglas observed that for gift giving to be positively received, the potential of continuing social ties and social obligations has to be present.  If you give a gift without any perception of continuing social ties or obligation or name recognition it actually almost serves to break that relationship. This really shows how important the social is when a gift is involved.

Paying the Primordial Debt

Gift giving can be used to forge social bonds, create identities, and shape your social landscape, but there is one thing it cannot do…pay the primordial debt. The primordial debt is the debt we owe to something beyond ourselves (i.e. the sacred, deities, gods, etc.) for setting the conditions for creation. Nothing a human can do can repay the debt of their creation. Maurice Goldelier views the primordial debt as the “original debt” that is unable to be canceled out.

To Learn more about this check out  The Enigma of the Gift by Maurice Goldelier and Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

The conditions of the primordial debt are something we can see reflected in parent-child relationships.  A 2013 study found that Americans spend on average $245,340 to raise a child from infancy into adulthood. This number only counts the monetary costs, not the incalculable emotional and physical costs of being a parent. Most children would not try to repay that exact number back to their parents, nor do most parents keep an itemized list of what their child owes them because the repayment of that debt would acknowledge that the child no longer wishes to maintain that social relationship.

Check out this link for more thoughts paying back your parents

Freakonomics: Should Kids Pay Back Their Parents for Raising Them?

How do you and your family interpret the following gift-giving rules?

  • Get a gift, give a gift: gift exchanges must be reciprocal.
  • Even-Steven: gift exchanges must be of equal value. You can’t give me a car and I give you coffee. Has to be of the same value.
  • Once begun, never undone: gift exchanges, once established, must not change.
  • Come one, come all: gift exchanges must extend to every member of a relationship category (i.e. everyone in your family).

Focus on those people you want to maintain those bonds with- make it about that relationship.

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Links to Consider

For More on Marcel Mauss

The Story of Stuff

Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics

Charles Eisenstein TedTalk

Jane Guyer and The Gift that Keeps on Going

Why Do We Give Gifts At Christmas?

The Psychology Behind Gift Giving

Gift Giving Guidelines: The Unwritten Rules of Gift Giving

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