'Tis Better to Give Than to Receive

What economists don't know about gifts and anthropologists do

Posted Dec 25, 2013

In a cheery nod to the season, Washington Post WonkBlog editor Ezra Klein reviewed some classic results from economic research done, as all too much research is, with college students, in this case, about Christmas presents.

In the 1993 study by Joel Waldfogel that led to his Princeton University Press book Scroogenomics, 86 ungrateful undergraduates assessed the likely cost of the gifts they received at $438, but said they themselves would only have paid $313 for the same gifts. (Those were some generous gift-givers. In current terms, the givers would be paying $708, while the gift recipients would begrudge paying more that $506 for the same items.)

The conclusion that Waldfogel drew from his research was that Christmas gift giving was destroying billions of dollars of economic value. His book makes a case for not giving gifts:

When we buy for ourselves, every dollar we spend produces at least a dollar in satisfaction, because we shop carefully and purchase items that are worth more than they cost. Gift giving is different. We make less-informed choices, max out on credit to buy gifts worth less than the money spent, and leave recipients less than satisfied, creating what Waldfogel calls "deadweight loss."

Ezra Klein notes that this conclusion ignores some significant context for gift-giving:

students were specifically instructed not to consider the “sentimental value” of the gifts they received.

But the sentimental value, of course, is often most of the value of the gift....

The Waldfogel paper stopped at the cash value of gifts. It wasn’t willing to wade into the murkier waters of sentiment.

Luckily, where economists fear to wade, anthropologists have already swum out into the deepest water. And what we have found out is that the added value in gifts is not limited to what can be captured by a term like "sentiment".

Even the cheesiest gifts, or the ones that are given in sincere lack of understanding of what the recipient would enjoy, create value: the transactions themselves, regardless of their content, create, reinforce, and transform something that cannot be bought: social relations.

The key reference for gifts for any anthropologist was published in French in 1923, and in English translation in 1954: The Gift, by Marcel Mauss. As the authors of AnthroBase, an online resource on anthropology, concisely summarize, gifts involve social relations:

the obligation to give gifts (by giving, one shows oneself as generous, and thus as deserving of respect), the obligation to receive them (by receiving the gift, one shows respect to the giver, and concommittantly proves one's own generocity), and the obligation to return the gift (thus demonstrating that one's honor is - at least - equivalent to that of the original giver). Gift-giving is thus steeped in morality, and by giving, receiving and returning gifts, a moral bond [is created] between the persons exchanging gifts. At the same time, Mauss emphasizes the competitive and strategic aspect of gift-giving: by giving more than one's competitors, one lays claim to greater respect than them, and gift-giving contests... are thus common.

While Mauss's study concerned pre-capitalist societies, it sparked an ongoing debate about the conditions under which gift giving and receiving creates the ambiguous social relations Mauss identified in the western Pacific.

A discussion of the cultural practice of wrapping gifts in Japan by Maria Ángels Trias i Valls discusses arguments anthropologists offered in the 1980s and 1990s to understand gift-giving in capitalist societies anthropologically, noting the

large economic expenditure on gifts, which should not be considered a ‘minor appendage to life in capitalist societies’ ... capitalist market transactions have not replaced gifts. At the core of capitalist societies, gift exchange ‘has legal characteristics which distinguish it from other forms of non-commodity transactions’ (Cheal 1988: 11). The explanation of the importance of gifts in the west is that gift exchange, by which he means redundant (unnecessary) gifts, has increased in importance as family life has been broken up. They are symbolic media ‘for managing the emotional aspects of relationships’ (ibid.: 16).

Gifts create social relations. As the form of social relations changes, the ways that gifts do their work may vary.

This brings me to another piece of Waldfogel's research that Ezra Klein mentions, which begs for a less economic and more anthropological understanding:

gifts from siblings, parents and significant others were rarely or never exchanged, while gifts from aunts and uncles often were.

Klein's discussion suggests that this effect registers the greater knowledge that closer relatives have, resulting in identifying gifts the recipient appreciates more. It fits nicely within an economic frame: with closer to perfect knowledge, gifts are more efficient economic transactions; little "value" is lost.

Undeniably, it helps to know what kind of music someone listens to, or what books they read, or even what size sweater they wear, to be able to buy a good gift.

But it is also the case that a gift from a closer relative is a social bond as much as it is a desireable thing.

If you want to call this "sentimental value", fine-- but then "sentimental value" is the glue that creates and strengthens our ties to others. The surplus value that gifts create is literally priceless: it is belonging and identity.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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