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File:Klallam people at Port Townsend.jpg

Watercolor by James G. Swan depicting the Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka at Port Townsend, with one of Chetzemoka's wives distributing potlatch.


A Freebox in Berlin, Germany 2005, serving as a distribution center for free donated materials

In anthropology and the social sciences, a gift economy (or gift culture) is a mode of exchange where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists).[1] Ideally, voluntary and recurring gift exchange circulates and redistributes wealth throughout a community, and serves to build societal ties and obligations.[2] In contrast to a barter economy or a market economy, social norms and custom governs gift exchange, rather than an explicit exchange of goods or services for money or some other commodity.[3]

Traditional societies dominated by gift exchange were small in scale and geographically remote from each other. As states formed to regulate trade and commerce within their boundaries, market exchange came to dominate. Nonetheless, the practice of gift exchange continues to play an important role in modern society.[4] One prominent example is science, which has been described as a gift economy.[5]

The expansion of the Internet has witnessed a resurgence of the gift economy, especially in the technology sector. Engineers, scientists and software developers create open-source software projects. The Linux kernel and the GNU operating system are prototypical examples for the gift economy's prominence in the technology sector and its active role in instating the use of permissive free software and copyleft licenses, which allow free reuse of software and knowledge. Other examples include: open access.


Contrary to popular conception, there is no evidence that societies relied primarily on barter before using money for trade.[6] Instead, non-monetary societies operated largely along the principles of gift economics, and in more complex economies, on debt.[7][8] When barter did in fact occur, it was usually between either complete strangers or would-be enemies.[9]

Lewis Hyde locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food, citing as an example the Trobriand Islander protocol of referring to a gift in the Kula exchange ring as "some food we could not eat," even though the gift is not food, but an ornament purposely made for passing as a gift.[10] The potlatch also originated as a 'big feed'.[11] Hyde argues that this led to a notion in many societies of the gift as something that must "perish".[citation needed]

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes that Stone Age gift economies were, as evidenced by their nature as gift economies, economies of abundance, not scarcity, despite modern readers' typical assumption of abject poverty.[12]

Gift economies were replaced by market economies based on commodity money, as the emergence of city states made money a necessity.[13]


Template:Economic systems sidebar A gift economy normally requires the gift exchange to be more than simply a back-and-forth between two individuals. For example, a Kashmiri tale tells of two Brahmin women who tried to fulfill their obligations for alms-giving simply by giving alms back and forth to one another. On their deaths they were transformed into two poisoned wells from which no one could drink, reflecting the barrenness of this weak simulacrum of giving.[14] This notion of expanding the circle can also be seen in societies where hunters give animals to priests, who sacrifice a portion to a deity (who, in turn, is expected to provide an abundant hunt). The hunters do not directly sacrifice to the deity themselves.[14]

Many societies have strong prohibitions against turning gifts into trade or capital goods. Anthropologist Wendy James writes that among the Uduk people of northeast Africa there is a strong custom that any gift that crosses subclan boundaries must be consumed rather than invested.[15] For example, an animal given as a gift must be eaten, not bred. However, as in the example of the Trobriand armbands and necklaces, this "perishing" may not consist of consumption as such, but of the gift moving on. In other societies, it is a matter of giving some other gift, either directly in return or to another party. To keep the gift and not give another in exchange is reprehensible. "In folk tales," Hyde remarks, "the person who tries to hold onto a gift usually dies."[16]

Carol Stack's All Our Kin describes both the positive and negative sides of a network of obligation and gratitude effectively constituting a gift economy. Her narrative of The Flats, a poor Chicago neighborhood, tells in passing the story of two sisters who each came into a small inheritance. One sister hoarded the inheritance and prospered materially for some time, but was alienated from the community. Her marriage ultimately broke up, and she integrated herself back into the community largely by giving gifts. The other sister fulfilled the community's expectations, but within six weeks had nothing material to show for the inheritance but a coat and a pair of shoes.[17]


Pacific islanders

Pacific Island societies prior to the nineteenth century were dominated by gift exchange.[citation needed] Gift-exchange still endures in parts of the Pacific today; for example, in some outer islands of the Cook Islands.[18] In Tokelau, despite the gradual appearance of a market economy, a form of gift economy remains through the practice of inati, the strictly egalitarian sharing of all food resources in each atoll.[19] On Anuta as well, a gift economy called "Aropa" still exists.[20]

There are also a significant number of diasporic Pacific Islander communities in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States that still practice a form of gift economy. Although they have become participants in those countries' market economies, some seek to retain practices linked to an adapted form of gift economy, such as reciprocal gifts of money, or remittances back to their home community. The notion of reciprocal gifts is seen as essential to the fa'aSamoa ("Samoan way of life"), the anga fakatonga ("Tongan way of life"), and the culture of other diasporic Pacific communities.[21]

Papua New Guinea

The Kula ring still exists to this day, as do other exchange systems in the region, such as Moka exchange in the Mt. Hagen area, on Papua New Guinea.[citation needed]

Native Americans

Native Americans who lived in the Pacific Northwest (primarily the Kwakiutl), practiced the potlatch ritual, where leaders give away large amounts of goods to their followers, strengthening group relations. By sacrificing accumulated wealth, a leader gained a position of honor.[citation needed]


In the Sierra Tarahumara of North Western Mexico, a custom exists called kórima. This custom says that it is one's duty to share his wealth with anyone.[22]


In place of a market, anarcho-communists, such as those who inhabited some Spanish villages in the 1930s, support a currency-less gift economy where goods and services are produced by workers and distributed in community stores where everyone (including the workers who produced them) is essentially entitled to consume whatever they want or need as payment for their production of goods and services.[23]

Information gift economies

Information is particularly suited to gift economies, as information is a nonrival good and can be gifted at practically no cost.[24][25] In fact, there is often an advantage to using the same software or data formats as others, so even from a selfish perspectve, it can be advantageous to give away ones information.

Blood donation

Voluntary blood donation is also a form of gift economy. During the 19th century, Dr. James Blundell discovered that blood could be medically transfused between people which led to the development of blood donation and transfusion practices. Although there are strict regulations concerning who can and cannot participate in the giving of blood, those who can donate blood do so on a voluntary basis in which no rewards are expected in return. The donor provides a "gift of life" to those in need, without knowing who those people are. In his classic study of the topic, social policy research Richard Titmuss showed that voluntary donation resulted in a better blood supply than paid donation, and this led to new rules in the U.S. regulating blood banks.[26] Blood donation creates social bond between the donor and "strangers," contributing to social cohesion and civic belonging.

Religious gift giving

Main article: Sacrifice


Main article: Alms

In Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhists continue to sponsor "Feasts of Merit" that are very similar to potlatch. Such feasts usually involve many sponsors and occur mainly before and after the rainy season.[27]


Main article: bhiksha

Bhiksha is a devotional offering, usually food, presented at a temple or to a swami or a religious Brahmin who in turn provides a religious service (karmkand) or instruction.


Main article: Zakat

Zakāt, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, is the giving of a small portion (commonly referred to as 1/40 or 2.5 percent) of one's wealth to charity, generally to the poor and needy.[28] The number 40 in Middle Eastern culture represent an estimate, or many of something.


Main article: Tzedakah

According to the Hebrew Bible, tzedakah is a religious obligation that must be performed regardless of financial standing. It is considered as one of the three main acts that can annul a less than favorable heavenly decree.

Social theories


French sociologist Marcel Mauss argues that a gift, a perfect example of 'total' social phenomenon, is essentially never "free". They not only entail the obligation to reciprocate presents received, but also "supposes two other obligations just as important: the obligation, on the one hand, to give presents, and on the other hand, to receive them".[29] According to Mauss, while it is easy to romanticize a gift economy, humans do not always wish to be enmeshed in a web of obligation. Mauss wrote, "The gift not yet repaid debases the man who accepts it,"[30] a lesson certainly not lost on the young person seeking independence who decides not to accept more money or gifts from his or her parents.[31] And as Hyde writes, "There are times when we want to be aliens and strangers."[32] We like to be able to go to the corner store, buy a can of soup, and not have to let the store clerk into our affairs or vice versa. We like to travel on an airplane without worrying about whether we would personally get along with the pilot. A gift creates a "feeling bond." Commodity exchange does not.[33] The French writer Georges Bataille in his book La part Maudite uses Mauss's argument in order to construct a theory of economy: to his point of view the structure of gift forms the presupposition for all possible economy. Particularly interested about the potlatch as described by Mauss, Bataille claims that its antagonistic character obliges the receiver of the gift to confirm a subjection; the structure of the gift can refer thus immediately to a practice that bears out different roles for the parts that undertake an action in it, installing in this act of donating the Hegelian dipole of master and slave.


For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the "paradox of the gift": even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.

Hyde pays particular attention to the gift associated with the creative process and art as a whole. The artistic gift is not acquired or purchased; it is bestowed, even somewhat mysteriously, upon the artist. He distinguishes between two types of artistic gifts: the inner gift and the outer gift. The inner gift of the artist is the inspiration and the actual creation of the work, while the outer gift refers to the finished work that is given to an audience.

Hyde also argues that there is a difference between a "true" gift given out of gratitude and a "false" gift given only out of obligation. In Hyde's view, the "true" gift binds us in a way beyond any commodity transaction, but "we cannot really become bound to those who give us false gifts."[34]

Hyde also addresses the issue of the gift of art within a market dominated society. He argues that when a primarily gift-based economy is turned into a commodity-based economy, "the social fabric of the group is invariably destroyed."[16] Much as there are prohibitions against turning gifts into capital, there are prohibitions against treating gift exchange as barter. Among the Trobrianders, for example, treating Kula as barter is considered a disgrace.[35] Hyde writes that commercial goods can generally become gifts, but when gifts become commodities, the gift "...either stops being a gift or else abolishes the boundary... Contracts of the heart lie outside the law and the circle of gifts is narrowed, therefore, whenever such contracts are narrowed to legal relationships."[36] He concludes, however, that a market economy and a gift economy are not wholly irreconcilable if rationalization is introduced into the sphere of the gift and if spirituality and emotion are brought into the sphere of the market.



Many anarchists, particularly anarcho-primitivists and anarcho-communists, believe that variations on a gift economy may be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Therefore they often desire to refashion all of society into a gift economy. Anarcho-communists advocate a gift economy as an ideal, with neither money, nor markets, nor central planning. This view traces back at least to Peter Kropotkin, who saw in the hunter-gatherer tribes he had visited the paradigm of "mutual aid".[37]

Kropotkin argues that mutual benefit is a stronger incentive than mutual strife and is eventually more effective collectively in the long run to drive individuals to produce. The reason given is that a gift economy stresses the concept of increasing the other's abilities and means of production, which would then (theoretically) increase the ability of the community to reciprocate to the giving individual. Other solutions to prevent inefficiency in a pure gift economy due to wastage of resources that were not allocated to the most pressing need or want stresses the use of several methods involving collective shunning where collective groups keep track of other individuals' productivity, rather than leaving each individual having to keep track of the rest of society by him or herself.[citation needed]


The economist Duran Bell postulates that exchanges in a gift economy are different from pure commodity exchange in that they are mainly used to build social relationships. Gifts between individuals or between groups help build a relationship, allowing the people to work together. The generosity of a gift improves a person's prestige and social standing. Differences in social rank are not defined by differences in access to goods, but rather by "his ability to give to others, the desire to accumulate being seen as an indication of weakness."[38]

Various other recent social theories concerning gift economies exist. Some consider gifts to be a form of reciprocal altruism. Another interpretation is that social status is awarded in return for the gifts.[39] Consider for example, the sharing of food in some hunter-gatherer societies, where food-sharing is a safeguard against the failure of any individual's daily foraging. This custom may reflect concern for the well-being of others, it may be a form of informal insurance, or may bring with it social status or other benefits.

David Bollier takes the position that in a gift economy, "one’s ‘self-interest’ has a much broader, more humanistic feel than the utilitarian rationalism of economic theory".[40]

See also


  1. Cheal, David J (1988). "1" The Gift Economy, 1–19, New York: Routledge. URL accessed 2009-06-18.
  2. Bollier, David. "The Stubborn Vitality of the Gift Economy." Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. First Printing ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. 38-39. Print.
  3. R. Kranton: Reciprocal exchange: a self-sustaining system, American Economic Review, V. 86 (1996), Issue 4 (September), p. 830-51
  4. Lewis Hyde: The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property
  5. Hagstrom, Warren (1982). "Gift giving as an organizing principle in science". In Barry Barnes and David Edge. Science in Context: Readings in the Sociology of Science. MIT Press (Cambridge, MA).
  6. Mauss, Marcel. 'The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.' pp. 36-37.
  7. What is Debt? – An Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber. Naked Capitalism.
  8. David Graeber: Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville 2011. Cf.
  9. Graeber, David. 'Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value'. pp. 153-154.
  10. Hyde, Lewis, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, 8-9.
  11. Hyde, op. cit., 9.
  12. Marshall Sahlins cited at Hyde, op. cit., 22.
  13. Sheila C. Dow (2005), "Axioms and Babylonian thought: a reply", Journal of Post Keynesian Economics 27 (3), p. 385-391.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Hyde, op. cit., 18.
  15. Wendy James cited at Hyde, op. cit., 4.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hyde, op. cit., 5.
  17. Carol Stack, cited at Hyde, op. cit., 75-76.
  18. Crocombe, Ron & Crocombe, Marjorie Tua’inekore, ed., Akono'anga Maori: Cook Islands Culture, 2003, ISBN 982-02-0348-1
  19. Huntsman & Hooper, Tokelau: A Historical Ethnography, 1996, ISBN 0-8248-1912-8
  20. Aropa-system
  21. MACPHERSON & al., Tangata O Te Moana Nui: The Evolving Identities of Pacific Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 2001, ISBN 0-86469-369-9
  22. National Geographic Magazine, March 23, 2009
  23. [Augustin Souchy, "A Journey Through Aragon," in Sam Dolgoff (ed.), The Anarchist Collectives, ch. 10]
  24. Mackaay, Ejan (1990). Economic Incentives in Markets for Information and Innovation. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 13 (909): 867–910.
  25. Heylighen, Francis (2007). "Why is Open Access Development so Successful?" B. Lutterbeck, M. Barwolff, and R. A. Gehring Open Source Jahrbuch, Lehmanns Media.
  26. Titmuss, Richard, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970). Reprinted by the New Press, ISBN 1-56584-403-3 (reissued with new chapters 1997, John Ashton & Ann Oakley, LSE Books)
  27. Kammerer and Nicola Tannenbaum, Cornelia Ann (1996). MERIT AND BLESSING: In Mainland Southeast Asian Comparative Perspective., New Haven (Connecticut): Yale University.: Southeast Asia Studies (Monograph 45)..
  28. Salim, Arskal (2008). Challenging the secular state: the Islamization of law in modern Indonesia, University of Hawaii Press.
  29. Mauss, Marcel. "The Exchange of Gifts and the Obligation to Reciprocate (Polynesia)." The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. 13. Print.
  30. Marcel Mauss cited at Hyde, op. cit., 69.
  31. Hyde, op. cit., 67.
  32. Hyde, op. cit., 68.
  33. Hyde, op. cit., 56.
  34. Hyde, op. cit., 70.
  35. Hyde, op. cit., 15.
  36. Hyde, op. cit., 61, 88.
  37. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1955 paperback (reprinted 2005), includes Kropotkin's 1914 preface, Foreword and Bibliography by Ashley Montagu, and The Struggle for Existence, by Thomas H. Huxley ed.). Boston: Extending Horizons Books, Porter Sargent Publishers. ISBN 0-87558-024-6. Project Gutenberg e-text, Project LibriVox audiobook
  38. Duran Bell, Modes of exchange: Gift and commodity, Journal of Socio-Economics, Volume 20, Issue 2, Summer 1991, Pages 155-167, ISSN 1053-5357, DOI:10.1016/S1053-5357(05)80003-4 . (
  40. David Bollier: The Cornucopia of the Commons] (link), yes! magazine, June 30, 2001


  • Marcel Mauss (1925), The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, ISBN 0-393-32043-X  Originally published as Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques. Lewis Hyde calls this "the classic work on gift exchange".
  • Lewis Hyde (1983), The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, ISBN 0-394-71519-5  Especially part I, "A Theory of Gifts", part of which was originally published as "The Gift Must Always Move" in Co-Evolution Quarterly No. 35, Fall 1982.
  • Gifford Pinchot III (Summer, 1995), The Gift Economy, Context Institute, pp. 49, 
  • Peter Kropotkin (1902; this edition 1987, 1993, 1998), Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Freedom Press, ISBN 0-900384-36-0 
  • Charles Eisenstein (2011), Sacred Economics : Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition, North Atlantic Books, ISBN 1-58394-397-7 

Further reading

  • Sahlins, Marshall (1972). Stone Age Economics, Chicago: Aldine Transaction.

External links

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