The Gift Of Stress? Pontification On The Anthropological Origins of Exchanging Gifts

holiday-shopping-stress-love-christmas-season-ecards-someecardsThe holiday season in the U.S. is a wondrous time of year when we choose to prioritize family over work, corniness over being “cool” and eating tons of fat and sugar over a proper balanced diet. it’s also a time of year when we all gain a few extra gray hairs racking our brains over what to give as holiday gifts, the coolest products must be found. Who among your family, friends you ought to give gifts to, what to have on hand when someone unexpectedly gives you a gift that will need reciprocating and how much to spend.

Then there is the inevitable dilemma of receiving gifts that defy all rules of good taste but you still must feign gratitude for because “it’s the thought that counts” or it was given by your  – fill in blank with “Mom”, “Boss”, “Client”, etc.

We commercialize the giving season to death and days before Christmas you can find hundreds of frenzied last-minute shoppers scouring the threadbare shelves full of chocolate boxes and lotion gift-boxes for the perfect obligatory Christmas tree-skirt filler.

Suffice to say the holiday’s give me hives.  Not that I don’t enjoy giving and receiving gifts.  But I get fiercely stressed out by the feeling that others think they need to give me stuff because I have given them stuff…or at all for that matter.  I’m pretty low maintenance and would rather have my “people” spend time, not money.  I also tend to start the holiday’s with pangs of resentment for this consumerist culture-imposed ritual when I would rather just give people gifts as I find gifts that are appropriate, whether that be on a Holiday, Birthday or just any old day.  I cringe at the thought that people might think me selfish or odd If I don’t give gifts and find it totally odd in general that people would want the gift of my stress for Christmas.

So I ponder when and how we turned gift giving into a budget line-item and obligatory social tax.  Was it always like that?  Well, the short answer is “yes”.  Anthropologists have studied the universal cultural ritual of gift giving and basically defined it as “a vehicle of social obligation and political maneuver”.  You can read an invigorating academic paper on the topic by clicking here:,d.eWU

As  a social tradition, gifting is meant to be an exercise in reciprocity that carries a boatload of meaning to be read into or just understood.  Here is an excerpt from the article linked to above, so you can validate the reason’s for your stress and not feel like you need therapy.  I think we might just all feel the same way.

The gift has been interpreted as an invitation to partner­ ship, and as a confirmation of the donor’s  “sincere partic­ipation” in a recipient’s tribulations and joys, despite the presence of an ulterior motive (van Baall975). Inferentially or implicitly attached strings are a connotative aspect of the gift, social bonds being thereby forged and reciprocation encouraged. The giving of gifts can be used to shape and reflect social integration (i.e., membership in a group) or social distance  (i.e., relative  intimacy  of relationships).

The work of Mauss ( 1924) remains fundamental to con­ temporary interpretations of gift giving. Mauss viewed the giving of  gifts as a prototypical  contract (van Baal  1975) and as a form of optimizing behavior (Schneider 1974). According to an assumed norm of  reciprocity  elaborated later by Gouldner (1960), an individual is obliged to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The imperative nature of this three-fold obligation derives from its cultural embedded­ ness.

Mauss understood the gift as a total social fact. Building on this notion of the gift as an integrator of numerous social behaviors, Levi-Strauss (1949) extended the significance of gift giving through some previously unexpected cultural dimensions. For example, the exchange of women as a vehicle of alliance formation is conducted in ·some societies in the idiom of  gift giving. Underscoring this integration, Riches (1981) has  described the three-fold obligation dis­cerned by Mauss as the ”multiplex predicament.” An in­ dividual evaluates the circumstances of a single transaction in the context of multiplicity: because it is so thoroughly embedded, gift giving cannot be accurately interpreted in isolation from other behaviors.In Western society, giving appears to be somewhat more selective (insofar as all values are not exchanged via gifts), and is juxtaposed with direct exchanges (Schneider 1974). Firth (1967),  Harris  (1968), and Schieffelin (1980) have in tum extended these consid­erations.

Gift dimensions such as price or quality are used to cre­ate, maintain, modulate, or sever relationships with indi­ viduals or alliances with corporate groups. The boundary­ defining potential of gift exchange is frequently invoked in ritual (Schneider 1981). Those to whom we give differ from those to whom we  do not  give. Those  from whom we re­ceive may differ still. Gifts are tangible expressions of so­cial relationships.

The value of a gift partially reflects the weight of the relationship, and the changing nature of the relationship is partially reflected in a change in the value of a gift (Shurmer 1971). A charting of the gift-giving behavior of an individ­ual as one moves through individual and family life cycles, and as one’s social network expands and contracts, would reveal this association.  As an individual accumulates roles, the gift may be used to indicate the relative importance of those roles. As a male acquires the roles of son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather, a gift allocation strategy must be devised in the face of competing obligations.  Sim­ilarly, as he becomes an employee, an employer, or a re­tiree, his giving will be altered. Within culturally prescribed bounds, the reciprocity involved in gift exchange cannot be more balanced than are the respective social positions of donor and recipient, unless the participants are willing to risk imputations of ostentation or meanness (van Baal 1975). Giving too much, too little, or too late can strain a relationship  to the point of dissolution.

Lets get to the point then, shall we.  Gift giving is a requirement whether I like it or not.  So, I should put on my Santa-pants and just bite the peppermint bullet.  I suppose there are still a couple of good shopping days left and I’ve got plenty of Christmas cookies and homemade fudge (thanks to gifts from some friends and my wife’s students) to comfort me when it’s all done.

Happy Holidays, America!  May you not F up any relationships by giving the wrong gift – or by not giving a gift at all.

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Rituals, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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