About Gift and Reciprocation

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It is sufficient to state right away that giving presents is one topic that various anthropologists have looked into. This essay aims to answer the topic of whether all gifts entail a duty to reciprocate. The presentation will also provide a thorough comparison of Katherine Rupp's chapter on giving gifts with Mauss' theories in this area.

Background Knowledge on the Custom of Giving Gifts

It is essential to gather some background knowledge about the custom of giving gifts in order to set the stage for this comparison. The "Potlatch" is essential to comprehending the idea of a gift. In this system, gifts are always exchanged and entail the acts of giving and receiving gifts. The underlining issue is giving gifts the act of reciprocation. This paper contends that giving gifts is always accompanied by expectations of restitution. The Potlatch tradition is synonymous with the Polynesians and the Melanesians.

Mauss Theories and Explanations about Gifts

It is crucial to point out that Mauss’ theories and findings regard gift reciprocation, the concept of ‘pure’ or ‘free,' and honor without an agenda. According to Mauss, understanding the meaning of responsibility and generosity of wealth can be traced from the Polynesians. Consequently, Mauss has explored the obligation on us to give gifts. According to him, reciprocating gifts can be done in either greater or equal value about what was given initially. Mauss impresses upon people to understand the re-encountering of the obligation to always reciprocate gifts. He attaches a lot of value to returning of gifts so that people can maintain alliances at all level of interaction.

Mauss contends that out of the obligation to give gifts, the symbolic nature of generosity can be explored. In his theory, Mauss points out that generosity versus greed is a core theme that defines the moral intention that is quite inherent in the process of gift exchange. To him, if gift exchange is viewed through the lenses of moral contract, then we must attach moral implications on how many gifts should be given and why. In his argument, Mauss asserts that nobody will ever give a gift for free. In essence, he firmly believes that the giver should expect the recipient to reciprocate later on.

Additionally, he is of the opinion that gifts which bear a lot of value and given in the wrong context invite ill feeling to the recipient. In such a scenario, there is a vulgar display of wealth and a challenge of further reciprocal wealth. According to Mauss, this display defeats the essence of the generosity of given wealth. In other, the giver intends to challenge his/her rivals. In this regard, recipients develop a fear of being ‘beaten’ by superior gifts. Mauss is of the view that there are no gifts. In essence, he argues that any gift giver expects reciprocation at the end of the day. In his arguments, Mauss contends that giving wealth to the gods enforces faith as opposed to giving to men. According to Mauss, the Melanesian and Polynesian archaic societies confer honor and credit. Mauss posits that an individual who refuses to receive a gift can be likened to being afraid of not being able to reciprocate.

Kathrine Rupp’s View of Giving Gifts

The ethnographic studied that informs argument by Kathrine was conducted in Japan. Ethnographic studies are valuable because they provided an emic view of the society. Kathrine bases her argument on giving gifts to a study she conducted in Japan. According to her, no single, generic word expresses ‘gift’ in Japan. There are numerous terms to refer to specific types of giving. For instance, Oukurimono no shukan is vital in the Japanese society. She describes that people usually invest large amounts of money in its practice. In Japan, Kathrine notes that it is not uncommon for people to be overwhelmed by their act of obligations to give. People often agree among themselves not have invitations to the wedding of their children. It is crucial to point out that when people plan to go for a trip, they do not inform their neighbors. By doing this, they ostensibly avoid being told to come back with gifts for the neighbors. In other words, Kathrine asserts that it is not an obligation to give gifts.


Going by the literature on the early societies, giving a gift was an obligation in both the Melanesian and Polynesian. an excellent example of a ceremony for offering gifts among these communities is the Potlatch. In his argument, Mauss reinforces the notion the giving gift is an obligation and that the receiver is expected to reciprocate. To him, giving gifts enhances the building of relationships for mutual gain. In the case of Kathrine, giving gifts is not an obligation at all. She supports her argument by an ethnographic study she conducted in Japan. In a nutshell, there is a sharp contrast between the view of Mauss and Kathrine.


Mathews, Gordon. “Katherine RUPP, Gift-Giving in Japan : Cash, Connections, Cosmologies, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, 235 Pp.” Japanese Review of Cultural Anthropology 4 (2003): 159–62. https://doi.org/10.14890/jrca.4.0_159.

Zollo, Lamberto, Guglielmo Faldetta, Massimiliano Matteo Pellegrini, and Cristiano Ciappei. “Reciprocity and Gift-Giving Logic in NPOs.” Journal of Managerial Psychology, October 13, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMP-04-2017-0140.


March 17, 2023

Sociology Life Science

Subject area:

Anthropology Gift Theory

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