four principles of gift – getting down to basics

The number 1 rule for understanding Gifts:    Gifts are not repayable.

This is not to say that there is no obligation to repay, or return when receiving a gift. Rather, quite the opposite. There is a strong, and to some degree mysterious power in the gift that puts you in debt, and it is the nature of this debt that is key to understanding how aside from market economy, there is a completely other economy that makes the world go round: Gift Economy.

The main reason for this post is to clarify and build upon yesterday’s post where I proposed a graph of four fundamental terms of the Gift. This is improvisational thinking, so it’s a think-along. The Gift vector image I re-post at the top here. The aim is to define these terms a bit, explain why I chose them, and perhaps get into how such a diagram can help us design better social media and marketing exchange.

This may get a little abstract, so reel me in and ask questions.

Just What is a Gift

First I’m going to start with defining the terms. Each gift situation has I believe 4 components. Sometimes one or more of these will be quite minor, but optimally, or ideally there are these four:

incalculability –  This is the rule that gifts cannot be fully or exactly repaid. The emphasis is on the barring of exactness. If you give me a nice book for my birthday, the only way I can nullify this gift as a gift would be to offer you the exact price of the book back. Even if I refuse the book I cannot nullify the gift of it. Your gift would still be on my social ledger, so to speak. This impossibility of exact reciprocity is what characterizes Gift Economy from the Market Economy.  Market Economy’s exact payment exchanges actually threaten to end relationships – once the ledger is even, all is done. As anthropologist David Graeber likes to point out, if Gift Economy cultures exact exchanges are only something someone does with enemies. Gift Economy relationships bind together and perpetuate themselves through the uneven passing of social debt. The unpayability. As I hope to talk about at another time, this unpayability takes on many forms, with different kinds of thresholds, and the nature of its “incalculable” can help us figure out what kind of gift it is.

the rite – I’m going to say that all gift-giving in some way embodies a rite, which is to say that it embodies some invested human action with specific rules or expectations, the repetition of which adds value to the act. The rite, or ritual, or custom of the act means that when repeated certain values of the group are reaffirmed or re-inscribed. When you give me a book on my birthday, part of the value of this gift is not just what you mean to me, or what I mean to you. The value also comes from the affirmation of the act of birthday gift giving. And because of this, there are likely many social mores on how to give a birthday gift (and how to accept one) which govern the transaction. So, when we ask ourselves what kind of gift something is, we need to ask: how much of the value of this gift lies within the invocation of rite or custom? For some gift scenarios this vector might be fairly non-apparent  – maybe competing in an opensource contest – for others substantially so, like shaking someone’s hand. This is one of the dimensions of a gift.

status change – This is a very significant, and perhaps difficult to measure dimension of the gift. All gift giving by degree has bearing on the identity of the giver – even if only as a factor in self-image. It also has bearing upon the identity of the receiver (and additionally others in the group, and the group itself). These questions of identity are perhaps most easily thought of in terms of status change. When a gift is given: What is happening to the status of the giver, and to the receiver or witnesses? And how much does this status change factor into the value of the gift? This factor of status change is most evident in “agonistic giving” found in “primitive” or archaic Gift Economy cultures where members compete and even exhaust themselves over who can give the bigger donation. But one doesn’t have to travel to exotic locations or times. Agonistic giving drives many gift scenarios, some of them as close as the nearest pub or as transnational as the SETI@home supercomputer project (Benkler).

There is some complexity here though. One might see how status change can be related to incalculability, the unrepayable nature of gifts. Your gift of a book on my birthday both cements us as friends, but also puts me a bit in the hole. I am, paradoxically, both raised up (honored) and put in your debt. You are both diminished – humbling yourself as gift-giver – but raised up as being the one with surplus enough and power enough to give, placing me in your debt. It is this double bind of status changes that secures our bond in that example. Of course it is more than this bond. If we are part of a group, the status of the group is changed. And if others in the group witness the gifting, their status can be affected as well: “Gee, I wish I brought something for his birthday”; or, “I love that my husband, my family, got such a nice book!”  In any case, if one wants to know better just what kind of gift something is, look to the changes in status that come from it, and how much status change is involved in the value of the gift itself.

historical record – The last vector I can identify is the idea that in some way or form the gift has been recorded. There is a value to gift giving that comes from the fact that the donation has been marked down, a sense of permanence. There are of course gradations. It can move from just something that you and I will remember between us to something inscribed in the annals of history, or perhaps even the Mind of God. Or, it can be the way that your gift becomes a functional part of a solution. If you designed a software program, or a carburetor, the “historical record” or permanence may consist in knowing that your contribution is going to be functioning over and over again in all variations of the larger product. There is an aspect in which this is similar to “the rite” – because socially rites or customs can be seen as machines of a kind, records of permanence – but I count these as different vectors. The value that comes historical record indeed can create rites or customs (e.g., it is customary for whomever who dies in war to have their name inscribed on this wall), but looking to HOW something is recorded, and the degree to which that recording influences value produces different observations than asking what pre-existing rite or custom is being reinforced.

Getting Down to the Real World

Okay, that is a lot of words, but I think it is worthwhile to try to flesh out these concepts. Next though is to start bringing these terms alive and making them applicable. The first analysis is pretty bold and simple. If you have a gift giving situation – blog comments, Twitter RTs, customer reviews, opensource solutions, Digital Tribe building, Freemium offers, customer bonuses, etc, etc. to be common about it – and you want to strengthen or enrich them, look to each of these four vectors and ask youself: How much value of the gift is found on this vector, and is there anyway for us to increase it?

  • Is there a way for us to record more fully the fact of the donation? Can we give the giver a deeper sense of permanence? The mark that it matters.
  • Can we improve the sense of status change, or produce agonistic giving to forward the process? Can we indicate status change distinctly among a group?
  • How repayable is this gift, and is there a way to make it feel even less repayable, or generate more cycles of back and forth positive debt and gift exchange. What are the standards of repayment, and can we deepen these or invent new ones?
  • Does this gift scenario in anyway draw it’s value on custom or rite? If not, can we establish one or tap into pre-existing customary forms? If so, is there a way we can amplify this sense of repeatable value, to make it more a part of process when suitable?

Those are just a few preliminary questions that arise. I’m going to have to stop here, but hopefully soon we can cover how to graph out actual examples on this diagram, and start diagnosing specific Gift Economy situations. The hope is to come up with a diagnostic that keeps our eye upon the important factors that are happening, with an aim to making the exchange more meaning and therefore more lasting. A number of these aspects are somewhat invisible because they are just assumed, and become part of the social fabric. We want bring them out into the bold.

Follow our just starting Twitter conversation on Gift Economy at the hashtag #gifteco


5 thoughts on “four principles of gift – getting down to basics

  1. You are embarking on some very interesting analysis here, Kevin. What you say is true, even though most of us just go about these things naturally and as part of our everyday sense of right and wrong.

    It will be interesting to see how you continue to “bring it home” and develop useful, practical insights and diagnostics that we can all use to be more effective social media citizens.

    • Paul,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts.

      Despite my abstract groundwork here, I definitely and fully have in mind the practical applications. In fact my head is full of illustrative examples of all sorts. It is only a question of when and how to introduce them. I think next might be the gifts of the Digital Tribe #usguys, and thinking about #ringthetribalbell, including why it works so effectively, and also the challenges that surround that “gift”.

      With so many Gift Economy examples in social media, it really is a daunting task to figure out the best introductory ones to help bring things four vectors into the light. For instance I’m very interested in opensourcing.

      Much on this horizon.


  2. What a cool read. Trying to determine the axes and parameters is worthy to perhaps shed some light on truisms of gift giving. Your statement on status change is of interest here: “There is some complexity here though. One might see how status change can be related to incalculability, the unrepayable nature of gifts. Your gift of a book on my birthday both cements us as friends, but also puts me a bit in the hole. I am, paradoxically, both raised up (honored) and put in your debt”

    I wonder too if “incalculability” might better considered as “value” of the gift. For some reason, it strikes me as a truism, that yes, you are correct that a gift creates indebtedness. And what’s more interesting – the larger the value of the gift, the greater the indebtedness. So methinks it gets somewhat illuminating if the incalculable parameter is changed to “value” instead. Then its possible to plot that the higher the value of the gift, the greater the status chamge (indebtedness), smaller gift, less indebtedness/status change.

    I see value of gift also of interest in exploring other interactions, for instance, the interaction of the gift with ritual. It seems the same gift given as part of a ritual has less value than one given for no reason/no ritual…probably due to the element of surprise. That’s a sort of double mitzvah.

    BTW i think there is another aspect of the relationship of status change and gift-giving which is captured in a wonderful little essay of the Latin American writer, Julio Cortazars’ Preamble to Instructions on How to Wind a Watch
    (4th story down at Cortazar captures in this little essay that in giving a watch, the giver is giving you also the maintenance of the watch and a whole series of other obsessions of worrying about the watch. It’s a strange Wittgensteinian view but holds some truth…ending with the note that “you have been given to the watch”. In other words, you are now burdened by the watch. The humor of this rings home when we remember being given a gift of some hideous home decor by a relative and having to fish it out of the closet and place it prominently in the home before their visit. Similarly, if a friend gives me tickets to a sports event, I am then “burdened” by having to revise my schedule, change priorities, in order to attend the event and not waste the gift. Remote spooky interactions, eh?

    • Wow, what a beautifully framed response. I haven’t read the story yet – and in many ways I am a Wittgenstienian, so I am very much looking forward to it! – but I love the questions you raise Lisa. In fact I devoted my next blog post to part of what you raise. In short, answer to the idea that “value” could replace “incalculability” I think that my notion is to attempt to explain how all four of these elements can create Gift value.

      Relatedly, perhaps, I’ve confused the issue some by picking an x/y axis on which to display my four vectors. At least as far as I have gliimpsed, it is not meant to show that movement on one is a factor on another. In fact I suspect that gift varieties may indeed exhibit every kind of combination. But the relational concept of value dependent upon status change is a worthy one.

      Returning to the notion of the Watch and the burden of upkeep. This certainly points towards Mauss’s original concept of total prestation, that a gift drags with it all sorts of social/spiritual obligations, how an entire cultural apparatus presents itself in gifting, so to speak. Wittgenstein’s notion of “the rest of the mechanism” does invoke so much of the social mechanism that is pulled in through unspoken obligation.


    • Lisa,

      I realize as well that I neglected a really good observation you had as to ritual:

      “I see value of gift also of interest in exploring other interactions, for instance, the interaction of the gift with ritual. It seems the same gift given as part of a ritual has less value than one given for no reason/no ritual…probably due to the element of surprise. That’s a sort of double mitzvah.”

      I would answer on this that because I’m trying to track the dimensions that actually contribute value to a gift, it isn’t necessary hat the ritual dimension adds value, only that if it does I want a way to indicate that – for instance, your great example that a book given on a day that is not your birthday might actually have MORE value than one perfunctorily given on your birthday (I would place that added value in “incalculablity”). But I would have to add, the ritual dimension must be one that each party has invested in. The point of the ritual vector is that the mere repetition of the rite itself reinscribes values essential to participants, and that the causal force for added value is found in the rite itself. If people are not particularly invested in a rite (let us say, the values communicated by birthday gift giving) then definitely non-rite giving could have higher value. A big part of this is that in Western conception the “free will” of the giver plays a heavy part of our valuation of actions. If we perceive that someone is fulfilling a role out of compunction and the rite itself is unimbued, we cannot trace out a gift’s value in that direction.

      But to use the same area of rite. Indeed, we may be more moved by a best friend giving us a book not on our birthday (see, our friendship exceeds mere robot friendship), but on the other hand if someone we do not know well realizes it is our birthday and gives us a book, this indeed may be tapping into a deeper sense of value between us – if acceptable. The invocation of the rite signals a change in status between us. The other person is petitioning to become someone who “remembers our birthday and gives us a gift”.

      One can see this perhaps also with Valentine’s Day gifts, etc.

      Anyways, those are off the top of the head thoughts on a fantastic point. Thank you so much for thinking along with me on this.


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