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It’s Better to Give: On Gift Economies and the Origins of Gift-Giving

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. In honor of Northlands’ festive essence, this month’s Seasonal Story explores the origins and meaning of gift-giving. 

In March of 2019, a Twitter user by the name of Stuart Dahlquist made a post to celebrate a pair of curious gifts he had recently received: two sprigs of pine adorned with soda can pull-tabs, like two miniature Christmas trees out of season.1

What made these gifts special were their givers: a family of four small crows that Dahlquist had been feeding for the past few years. The internet, understandably, erupted in response to this heartwarming tale of interspecies friendship. The ornithological community was a little more muted: Was it really accurate to call these “gifts,” or was that a bit of fanciful anthropocentrism?2

The gifts a family of crows left behind for Stuart Dahlquist, who had been feeding the birds for several years. Source: Stuart Dahlquist

It’s always hard to say for sure what motivates animals to do things — we can’t, after all, ask them why they do what they do. But some scientists, like the ecologist John Marzluff, were on Dahlquist’s side. Over the course of years studying crow behavior, Marzluff has collected numerous accounts from people who have received similar presents from crows they have fed, ranging from keys and earrings to candy hearts and rocks.3

Regardless of whether the decorative branches can be considered “gifts” in the way we humans understand the term, they highlight the fact that giving isn’t a uniquely human activity. It is ingrained into the rhythms of nature itself — and because of that, the act of gifting has been with humankind from the start. In fact, some human communities have built entire economies out of gifting.

An Economy of Relationships

When most of us think about “the economy,” we’re thinking about what is more accurately called a “market economy.” That is, an economy in which goods and services are exchanged for money in direct, discrete transactions. You pop into a cafe to grab a coffee. You hand the barista your $5, they hand you a fresh steaming cup of joe, and you both get on with your days. That’s a market exchange.4 

But the market economy isn’t the only kind of economy. As the ecological economist Dr. Valerie Luzadis puts it, an economy is any model for how people “organize ourselves to sustain life and enhance its quality. [Economics] is a way of considering how we provide for ourselves.”5 Under the abstract umbrella of economics sit a variety of models for organizing our communities — including that of the gift economy.

Photo by Nina Mercado on Unsplash

Unlike a market economy, a gift economy doesn’t involve trading goods for services — or even goods for other goods. Rather, in a gift economy, goods are given freely without the expectation of immediate remuneration.6 Think about passing out presents to your friends and loved ones around the holidays. You don’t do it because you want them to give you something in return; you do it because you care about those people, and you want to show them you care. Now amplify that to the level of society itself. That’s a gift economy. 

Of course, when you do give people gifts around the holidays, they usually give you something in return — not because they’re expected to, but because they also care about you. That reciprocity is the heart of a gift economy, because gift economies are first and foremost about cultivating relationships of mutual care and respect. Rather than striving to accumulate material wealth, people in a gift economy strive to accumulate social wealth through the act of giving.7 As the author Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it, “In a gift economy, wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away. … A gift economy nurtures the community bonds that enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is ‘we’ rather than ‘I,’ as all flourishing is mutual.”8

“That reciprocity is the heart of a gift economy, because gift economies are first and foremost about cultivating relationships of mutual care and respect.”

The anthropologist and designer Maggie Appleton notes that gift economies typically focus on creating a kind of “positive debt” between people. The gift establishes a relationship between the giver and the receiver. The receiver is now bound to the giver, but this isn’t seen as a burden. Instead, as Appleton says, the act of gifting is “a purposeful way of entwining lives and communities together.”9

Gift economies rarely exist on their own; they’re usually instituted alongside barter and market economies. That’s because barter and market systems do have their benefits — that is, the ability for a person to proactively get what they need when they need it. As beautiful as gifts are, it would be hard to depend on a system of gifting to meet all of one’s material needs.10

But the downside of a pure market economy is that it does remove social relationships from economic transactions. Think back to the example of buying a coffee: The relationship between you and the barista doesn’t extend beyond that moment. Once you’ve paid and received your coffee, nothing is keeping you tied to one another. On the other hand, the transactions in a gift economy are all about relationships: building new ones, strengthening existing ones, and emphasizing the connections between ourselves and our communities. 

From Shell Necklaces to Software

So what do gift economies look like in practice? Perhaps the most well-known example is the Kula ring, a ritual exchange of goods between 18 island communities located in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. The Kula ring was the subject of the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski’s 1922 book Argonauts of the Western Pacific, a foundational work in the field of modern ethnography and one of the first formal studies of gift economies.11

A shell necklace exchanged in the Kula ring. Source: Kula ring - Wikipedia

The Kula ring is called a “ring” because the 18 islands involved are arranged in a roughly circular pattern. Two kinds of goods are traded around this ring concurrently. Red shell necklaces, called “veigun” or “soulava,” travel clockwise from community to community around the ring. White shell armbands called “mwali” travel around the shell counterclockwise. These items have no practical use; they aren’t sold for money, nor do those who receive them hoard them. In fact, people only keep the necklaces and armbands briefly before sending them on to the next community in the ring. The whole purpose of the exchange is to reinforce the relationships between the communities involved.12 The constant movement of the gifts around the islands ensures that each community remains tied to the others in a cycle of, to borrow Appleton’s words again, “positive debt.”

Another example is the Sepik Coast exchange, which takes place among the communities of people who live along the Sepik river on the island of New Guinea. Families in one town form bonds with families in other towns through the regular exchange of gifts like baskets and tobacco. This has the effect of creating a system of extended social networks throughout the region. The members of each connected family are expected to house and feed any members of their social networks who come through town. These relationships last for generations.13

“The constant movement of the gifts around the islands ensures that each community remains tied to the others...”

For an example that may be more immediately recognizable to the average reader, the open-source software movement is often considered a kind of gift economy. Open-source software is software that gives users access to its source code, allowing them to modify the software directly and distribute new versions to other people. While not all open-source software programs are available free of charge — although many are — the movement shares with traditional gift economies a strong focus on doing things for the good of the community rather than for the purpose of accumulating material wealth. To quote

In the gift economy of the Free and Open-Source Software world, the community is larger, more open, and non-exclusive, thus tapping a larger reserve of intelligence and experience to formulate and cultivate ideas and implementations. So the gift economy approach is more conducive to the formulation and development of new ideas and technologies, and in that respect it is beneficial to both the consumer and the developer. 

Why We Love to Give

It may sound like a silly question, but it’s worth asking: Why do people give each other gifts in the first place? Sure, we all know it feels good to give (and receive), but why? 

The anthropologist Marcel Mauss was one of the first to think deeply about this subject in his 1925 essay, “The Gift.” Back then, many anthropologists considered gift-giving a later development, a custom that only sprang up in industrialized societies where people could afford the luxury of giving something away for nothing. But Mauss found evidence that gift-giving was essentially universal, serving as a means of building relationships throughout history and across cultures.15 

And if we dig even deeper, we find gifting isn’t just limited to humans. Like those crows thanking Stuart Dahlquist with sprigs of pine, animals of all kinds like to give things to one another. Evolutionary biologists call it “reciprocal altruism”: an action in which one animal temporarily behaves to its own detriment in order to help another, with the expectation that the animal it’s helping will do the same for it in the future.16

The concept of reciprocal altruism was first developed by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers in 1971 to explain why animals cooperate — which, believe it or not, had long been a sore spot for scientists. From the standpoint of basic Darwinian evolution, it makes little sense for animals to help other animals outside their immediate gene pool. There doesn’t seem to be any benefit in such charitable acts for the animal. And yet, the natural world abounds with examples of animals coming to one another’s aid.17

Vampire bats are known to share meals with members of their group who return from a hunt unsuccessful. Source: Vampire bat - Wikipedia

Trivers’ notion of reciprocal altruism answered the question of why animals work together by pointing out that purely selfish behavior only seems like an advantage on the surface. In reality, cooperation confers much more of an advantage because, in helping others, animals ensure they’ll be able to get help when they, too, eventually need it.18 

Examples of reciprocal altruism in the natural world are easy to find when you start looking for them — and they’re not limited to the “smarter” species like crows and apes. Vampire bats, for example, will routinely share their food with members of their groups who haven’t eaten in a while. Moreover, they’re more likely to share with bats who have shared with them in the past — and less likely to share with bats who haven’t.19

Rats, too, have been shown to exhibit altruistic behaviors — even toward rats they’ve never met before. In one study, researchers trained Norwegian rats to pull a stick that would dispense food not for themselves, but for other rats. The researchers found that, if a rat was the recipient of such food in the past, they’d be much more likely to pull the stick for other rats.20

“While the individual members of a species may rely on one another to survive, they also depend on the continued flourishing of the rest of the ecosystem.”

Indeed, when you step back, the entire natural world can be considered a kind of gift economy. While the individual members of a species may rely on one another to survive, they also depend on the continued flourishing of the rest of the ecosystem. To quote Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing about an excursion to pick serviceberries:21

This abundance of berries feels like a pure gift from the land. I have not earned, paid for, nor labored for them. There is no mathematics of worthiness that reckons I deserve them in any way. And yet here they are — along with the sun and the air and the birds and the rain, gathering in the towers of cumulonimbi. You could call them natural resources or ecosystem services, but the Robins and I know them as gifts. We both sing gratitude with our mouths full.

Serviceberries. Source: Amelanchier - Wikipedia

‘Tis the Season

If the world is one giant gift economy, then we have a responsibility to give to it as much as it gives us. A gift economy reminds us that we don’t exist in a vacuum — that we rely on one another, our lives deeply entwined with every person, plant, and animal we meet.  

Marcel Mauss, the anthropologist, stressed the fact that gifts are always inextricably linked to their givers. That, he said, is why we always feel compelled to gift something right back. In giving us a gift, a person gives us a little part of themselves. We want to give them some of ourselves in return.

Right now, of course, is the time of year when gift-giving hits its peak. As we festively wend our way from party to party, giving and receiving in equal measure, let’s remember that the gifts we offer and accept are so much more than just tokens of appreciation. They are emblems of our interconnectedness. How can we more fully honor that interconnectedness in our everyday lives moving forward?

— The Keap Team

We select a Seasonal Scent of the month to send to our candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to cover seasonal themes through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition zine, art print and matchbox in their monthly package.

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