Mauss and Livingstone depiction of Gifts and anthropology

High School ・Anthropology ・Chicago

Across different societies, the giving of gifts from an anthropological perspective is an economic, cultural and social experience which enhances social and material communication exchange. This in turn promotes the maintenance of social bonds and expression of feelings across different societies. Traced back to many years ago, the act of giving gift was a common practice in the celebration of major life events. This served as a medium of promoting bonds, encouragement of trade as well as encouragement of certain socialization patterns among children. While anthropologists and sociologists like Mauss saw the practise as something tied to ancient, secluded and primitive societies, religion just as in the case with Livingstone felt that giving gifts was a norm which should be upheld amongst believers. This paper analyses the divergent views regarding the practice of gift giving in the two different disciplines.

In his seminal essay in 1924, Marcel Mauss explored the art of gift exchange and reciprocity as a fundamental aspect of societal integration1. The ancient giving of gifts in this vein was a rhetorical gesture of social communication and was a depiction of communization. The movement in meaning management was an indicator of a social relationship which was deeper than the gift. On the contrary, Livingstone teachings I regard to giving gifts was different from this in that all those who had anything to offer were obliged to give regardless of the social relationship. This meant that the relationship or social bond did not influence the beneficiaries of goods. Livingstone’s teachings were Christian founded and advocated indiscriminative acts of giving to the poor, the needy and any other person who sought assistance with a disregard of the existent or consequent social bond created by the gift.

According to Mauss’ view of gifts, the dimension of the gift reflects on the weight of the relationship formed2. The price, quantity, and quality are some of the parameters used to depict the strength of the relationship and its magnitude. Although this measure is relative, it reveals the level of commitment or devotion to a relationship. The Livingstone perception of gifts is, however, the contrary. The giver is encouraged to offer anything regardless of its value, size, and magnitude, as long as it is from the bottom of their heart. This implies that commitment is not exhibited by the physical attributes of the good but the commitment in the heart of the giver. In his assertion, the level of commitment is measured from the heart since while others offer all and only what they have, which might be relatively tiny; others may offer a small fraction, which might be relatively enormous.

While Mauss concept of exchanging goods emphasizes on the art of equality in the exchange of value and the return of favor, Livingstone teachings emphasize on the act of giving without expecting anything in return. According to Mauss depiction of gifts, it is often an act which is common among people of the same or almost the same societal class regarding social, economic, and status. Hence, gifts in this regard are an act of cementing their relationship thus a social activity for enhancing relationships rather than alleviating the suffering from the economically deprived. In fact, the exchange of gifts was maintained by manipulating generosity acts to ensure the status of the participants is maintained rather than improved. This is evident especially among equals who preferred to exchange similar resources rather than dissimilar resources for maintaining the status quo. This is contrary to the Livingston depiction of gifts as an intervention mechanism aimed at improving the lives of the recipients. This school of thought is derived from the fundamentals of Christianity, and it bases its logic on the argument that gifts should be an opportunity to intervene in the lives of the disadvantaged in offering assistance. This implies that the exchange of gifts between equals is of no importance as no or significant life-changing impact is experienced by either the giver or the receiver hence useless. In this regard, the principle behind this is that assistance is offered to one party and their lives are improved economically, socially or in any other ways.

While Mauss depicts the giving of gifts as an act of personal devotion, but not compulsory Livingstone in his teachings commands the giving of gifts. Mauss emphasizes that giving of gifts is a social practice meant to cement social bonds in the society through the creation of friendships and bonds meant to improve the quality of life. In this perspective, such gifts are simply aimed at soliciting for an obligation from the other party for repayment hence is not obligatory in nature. It is therefore at the giver discretion to decide who, when, and why to offer gifts. Also, the receiving of gifts according to Mauss is not optional as it depicts hostility and unsociability. This is contrary to the teachings of Livingstone which emphasize the giving of gifts as compulsory. In addition to this, the giver is not under any obligation to receive any form of appreciation from the receiver since the act of giving is an act of faith hence devotional rather than physical.


  1. Mayet, C., and K. J. Pine. "The psychology of gift exchange."University of Hertfordshire(2010).
  2. Sherry Jr, John F. "Gift giving in anthropological perspective."Journal of consumer research 10, no. 2 (1983): 157-168
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