The Importance of Reciprocal Gift Circulation in Maintaining Social Relations

The Importance of Reciprocal Gift Circulation in Maintaining Social Relations

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What is the basic idea of a gift? It is when one party makes something of theirs to another (Laidlaw, 2000). In many cultures, gift giving is a norm for establishing and maintaining relationships, rituals such as birthdays and Christmas (Belk & Coon, 1993). In some cases, these exchanges are of a ceremonial nature, having stylized ritual content involving items of little intrinsic value, as in the kula ring (Malinowski, 1922). Mauss (2002) states that free gifts are virtually non-existent and describe gift giving as a paradox which is employed to create a contract of obligation. This paper seeks to understand the complexity of reciprocity and the circulation of gifts in social relations, through various examples such as gift exchanges of yam, banana bundles, skirts and kula shells among the Trobriand Islanders in various contexts like familial love, marriages and even death. The social and economic implications of reciprocal gift exchanging on forming and maintaining social relationship in Trobriand Islands will also be discussed.
The Debt of Reciprocal Gift
Weiner (1988) describes caring and generosity of reciprocal gifting as an attempt to control others by establishing a debt. This act of giving expresses not only caring but also the intention to “sweeten” or “turn” the minds of the receiver (Weiner, 1988). For instance, yams are highly valued and seen as food, wealth and power, are sometimes employed as gifts (Malinowski, 1922). When a villager gives another a basket of yams, he cannot ask something in return but to wait. He hopes that he will eventually receive more than he gave. However the receiver may not be won over by the gifts, he or she may not have been persuaded to repay the debt (Weiner, 1988).
A Father’s Care...

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...nd hierarchy in the kula ring. American Anthropologist, 88(1), 108-115. doi:10.1525/aa.1986.88.1.02a00070
Laidlaw, J. (2000). A free gift makes no friends. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 6(4), 617-634. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.00036
Malinowski, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London, England: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Mauss, M. (2002). The gift. London, England: Routledge.
Powell, H. A., & Mosko, M. S. (1997). Trobriand chiefs and fathers. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 3(1), 154-159. Retrieved from
Weiner, A. B. (1988). The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Ziegler, R. (2012). The Kula Ring of Bronislaw Malinowski: Co-evolution of an Economic and Ceremonial Exchange System. Review of European Studies, 4(1), 15. doi:10.5539/res.v4n1p15

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