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Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Gift Culture

A gift culture is one in which the person who gives the biggest gift is the winner.

The notion of a "gift culture" or a "gift economy" is often associated with "primitive" societies that haven't yet evolved to capitalist style economies. For example, you might have a society in which people vie with each other in order to bestow the most lavish gifts on the king. (In capitalist economies, of course, the person who has accumulated the most things is the winner).

So, you may be thinking, how could a gift economy work? If you're giving everything away, then you end up with nothing for you, right? Well, the trick is that the gift giving is reciprocal. For example, in the society in which everyone competes to donate the biggest and best gifts to the king, the king turns around and shares all the gifts with the donors. Or, if I give you a gift, you give me a different gift in return.

I've often thought that the concept of giving gifts is a pretty decent alternative explanation for why people work, even in notionally capitalist societies. Though financial rewards play a role, many people are clearly not entirely motivated by how much money they are making. Otherwise, in ancient times - like two years ago - everyone would have become an investment banker. But the idea of gift giving seems to me to explain at least some types of professional work.

But I think that this idea of a gift economy is an even more compelling explanation for another modern phenomenon. I'll explain tomorrow...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy

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