‘The World of the Gift’

In today’s competitive age highly dominated by rampant consumerism, regulations and formal expressions, many people feel altruism and generosity either are essentially fuelled by blatant self-interest or they no longer really exist. Gifts are often seen as, irrelevant frills, at best. These are the notions that author Jacques T. Godbout strives to rectify in a thought-provoking document, titled ‘The World of the Gift’, written in collaboration with writer Alain Caillé.

The World of the Gift (Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press) shows the gift is all-pervasive in not only business but also in our society in reality. An introduction to the book states: “The anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in his famous exploration of the gift in ‘primitive’ and archaic societies, showed that the essential aspect of the exchange of presents involved the establishment of a social tie that bound the parties together above and beyond any material value of the objects exchanged. He argued that these intangible mutual ‘debts’ constituted the social fabric.

The authors show the gift still constitutes the foundation of our social fabric, contrary to the modern assumption that societies function on the basis of market exchange and the pursuit of self-interest. They describe the gift not as an object but as a social connection, perhaps the most important social connection because it creates a sense of obligation to respond in kind. They examine the gift in a broad range of cases such as blood and organ donation; volunteer work; the bonds between friends, couples, and family; Santa Claus; the interaction between performers and their audience; and the relation of the artist to society.

A review essay by Mary Douglas mentions: “The idea of gift underlies central problems of social philosophy. In future any adequate treatment of trust and solidarity will need to take this new essay on the gift into account. Utility theory has so dominated our thought that the gift economy has been eclipsed by market operations. Godbout restores the balance. He shows how market demand depends on the existence of gift exchange. ”

Godbout has served as a research professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, Université du Québec, where Alain Caillé is a professor at the Université Paris X and director of the Revue du MAUSS. The duo brings to the fore many subtleties of gifting. For example, they point out how rapping lets the gift to be received sans judgment: “The receiver of the gift only knows that a nice gesture is being made. His or her thoughts are not yet focused on the material or sentimental value of the gift. Paper and ribbons add mystery and suspense to the gift and signify the spirit of the gift-giving action,” the two state.

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