Gifts and social relations: The mechanisms of reciprocity

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In the modern gift literature an anti-utilitarian and a utilitarian view on the gift can be distinguished. From the anti-utilitarian perspective, the freedom of the gift is seen as one of its main characteristics, while the idea that gifts are caught in a cycle of reciprocity is downplayed. In the utilitarian approach, assumptions about rational actors weighing their preferences according to some utility are pre- dominant. In the first approach, reciprocity is seen as undermining ‘genuine’ gifts. The utilitarian approach does take reciprocity into account but fails to analyse why the principle of reciprocity is so effective. This article attempts to provide such an explanation. By illuminating both the variety of the forms of the gift and the uni- versality of the underlying principle, it is argued that gifts reflect a multi-purpose symbolic ‘utility’ that transcends both utilitarianism and anti-utilitarianism.

Author-supplied keywords

  • (Anti-)utilitarianism
  • Gift-giving
  • Gifts
  • Reciprocity
  • Ritual
  • Social relations

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  • Aafke Komter

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