What is a gift economy? – Alex Gendler

This holiday season, people around the world will give
and receive presents. You might even get
a knitted sweater from an aunt. But what if instead of saying “thanks”
before consigning it to the closet, the polite response expected from you was to show up to her house
in a week with a better gift? Or to vote for her in the town election? Or let her adopt your firstborn child? All of these things might not
sound so strange if you are involved in a gift economy. This phrase might seem contradictory. After all, isn’t a gift given for free? But in a gift economy,
gifts given without explicit conditions are used to foster a system
of social ties and obligations. While the market economies we know
are formed by relationships between the things being traded, a gift economy consists
of the relationships between the people doing the trading. Gift economies have existed
throughout human history. The first studies of the concept came from anthropologists
Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss who describe the natives
of the Trobriand islands making dangerous canoe journeys
across miles of ocean to exchange shell necklaces
and arm bands. The items traded through this process,
known as the kula ring, have no practical use, but derive importance
from their original owners and carry an obligation
to continue the exchange. Other gift economies
may involve useful items, such as the potlatch feast
of the Pacific Northwest, where chiefs compete for prestige
by giving away livestock and blankets. We might say that instead
of accumulating material wealth, participants in a gift economy
use it to accumulate social wealth. Though some instances of gift economies
may resemble barter, the difference is that the original gift
is given without any preconditions or haggling. Instead, the social norm of reciprocity obligates recipients to voluntarily
return the favor. But the rules for how and when to do so
vary between cultures, and the return on a gift
can take many forms. A powerful chief giving
livestock to a poor man may not expect goods in return, but gains social prestige
at the debtor’s expense. And among the Toraja people of Indonesia, the status gained from gift ceremonies
even determines land ownership. The key is to keep the gift cycle going, with someone always
indebted to someone else. Repaying a gift immediately, or with something of exactly equal value, may be read as ending
the social relationship. So, are gift economies exclusive
to small-scale societies outside the industrialized world? Not quite. For one thing, even in these cultures, gift economies function alongside
a market system for other exchanges. And when we think about it, parts of our own societies
work in similar ways. Communal spaces, such as Burning Man, operate as a mix of barter
and a gift economy, where selling things
for money is strictly taboo. In art and technology, gift economies are emerging
as an alternative to intellectual property where artists, musicians, and open-source developers distribute their creative works,
not for financial profit, but to raise their social profile
or establish their community role. And even potluck dinners
and holiday gift traditions involve some degree
of reciprocity and social norms. We might wonder if a gift is truly a gift if it comes with obligations
or involves some social pay off. But this is missing the point. Our idea of a free gift
without social obligations prevails only if we already think
of everything in market terms. And in a commericalized world, the idea of strengthening bonds
through giving and reciprocity may not be such a bad thing,
wherever you may live.

100 thoughts on “What is a gift economy? – Alex Gendler

  1. If I have to do one up each time someone gives me a gift then it's a Commie ponzi scheme with gifts and utterly retarded since value is subjective, what I may perceive as a better gift, you may perceive as a piece of shit/gag gift.

    This is why we have the price system, it communicates value on an infinite scale. This is like using banana's for scale.

  2. So many close minded individuals in the comment section. A very nice video Ted-Ed.  I have actually understood this concept since I was around 13.

  3. Let's replace our current economy with THIS!
    Imagine if, instead of people camping in front of their stores each year, Apple made a huge list of the people who had contributed the most to society each year and those people were gifted a new iPhone. Then the iPhone would be a real status symbol, not just a symbol of rampant consumerism.
    How would people treat each other if getting food, shelter and luxuries depended on the social bonds you had created within your neighbourhood.

  4. The one experience I have had with this term is when it used to describe the open-source community as described in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and as mentioned in the video. As there is no resource to be depleted in this community, a gift economy develops where a person releases software for free and in return gains some social status in the community (depending on quality, usefulness etc.). This increased status is advantageous as it strokes one's ego, may result in some real-life advantages (e.g job offers), and makes it more likely for people to collaborate with you. It's quite interesting.

  5. ''Artists, musicians, and open source developers distribute their creative works not for financial profit, but to raise their social profile or establish their community role'' and then die of hunger. Dying of hunger is important, folks, otherwise it means you're not committed enough to your art. It's like a rite of passage. When you're dead you get your shot at being deified as one of humanity's great men. But you have to die first. Deal with it.

  6. Thank you for making this.  This helped me finally tie in Jacques Derrida's idea of "The Gift" to the play about the sexual objectification of others I'm directing.

  7. I've thought about something with similar "structure". All of the actions which any person performs are those that in one way or another will benefit that person. Thus, all actions people do are selfish.

  8. My opinion about the difference between market economy and giving gifts is that, in market economy, we give something, and expect to receive something else at the moment, or later in the future(or we pay for something(not a gift) we received earlier) while in general we give a gift to say thanks for something we already received(another gift, love, a good gesture, appreciation etc., etc.,)  . And if you give a "gift" expecting to receive back a gift or something else, love, appreciation etc., etc., it is not really a gift, it is payment or investment.

    So what is the difference between payment for something you received and giving a gift, since both you do for the same purpose(because someone else gave you something)? The difference is that when it is a payment it is expected and necessary while giving a gift is not necessary and you kind of do it because you feel the need to do it, nobody else but you feel the need for the gift you are giving. 

    And I think there is also one another case. In this case you receive right after the moment of the giving the gift – the good feeling for doing something good. When you do something, for the one reason, the happiness of the other person will make you feel good too.

  9. Marxist use as their historical example for the gifting economy how well a family works. Surly extending the size of the family makes sense. So as long as the tribe is small, the free rider problems doesn't exist; you keep bumping into the guy you support, or the one that supports you. The only drawback is the inefficiency of the giver as the decider of what to make rather than the user. Limiting the size of the socialist institution allows productive members to know well enough when to cut support of those who have become infected by the moral hazard of free stuff. Widely knowing among all members that such arbitrary cutting of support is possible, is most important to eliminate shirking before it happens. But with increased size of the socialist institution, arbitrariness can become an abuse of power without a bureaucracy with its book of rules. The magic of the market is how effective cooperation works without this constant-meeting requirement and without a book of rules. Just: “will customers buy more?” That allows an infinite number of people cooperating with each other. Cooperation is distinct from collaboration, the other Marxist ideology, in that each individual can have his own unique set of goals and still work for each other’s needs. More important than the ability to specialize, which truck and trade allow, is the long term result of market operations. The larger the pool of cooperating actors, the more innovation, the more improvement in life style.

  10. There is no such thing as a voluntarily obligation. Obligations are not voluntary coz they are coercive, based on the use of force, and that would destroy the point of the gift. The same way that a criminal cannot say that he/she give you the gift of life for sparing yours.

    A gift is no different than charity, is wealth that you can spent on others coz you can afford it not just with money, it also could be and investment in other kinds of resources like time and/or ability.

    I do agree that gifts are to enforce social bounds, but in that same perspective you can refuse the gift, or expect none. None is obligated to receive/give a gift, if that was the case it cannot be called a gift.

    #GiftEconomy #SocialWealth #SocialBonds

  11. I see strong signs of a gift economy here in Japan. It is a bit more formalized than in the presentation. For example, the price is clearly displayed on the gift so you know how much to pay for a return gift. Also, it seems typically only for relationships outside your family and close friends (ex. neighbors, co-workers, etc.).

  12. So instead of being indebted to one single central entity like the Federal Reserve; one is indebted to many many entities like your neighbors. I like the idea; however, I wonder how society will transition to this gift economy.

  13. We're already in this type of economy.  Wealthy entrepreneurs often run major charity events and try to outdo each other.  Businesses will publicly support charities (like giving a few bucks to breast-cancer research, and then painting their signs pink to let everyone know), so that their public image will improve.  Non-profit organizations give out free gifts (usually stationaries) before asking for donations.  Corporate interests give campaign contributions to political candidates in the hopes of getting special benefits later (which is technically not bribery, even though it totally is).

  14. "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves, by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings." – Jesus,  Luke 16:9

  15. Cool vid ! Can u please do a video on THE STORY OF TAJ MAHAL! Or if u alreday have please share the link… +TedEd

  16. Imo a bad idea.. since gifts arent ment to be payments for goods, and this idea seems like trade. Which is the reason why money was invented in the first place.. To avoid carrying heavy boxes / bags of stuff to trade with, around with you. 

    I get that we need to either reset the economy, or replace the money system, but this is simply not a valid solution.. sorry

  17. Gift economy is a former form of market economy. Money has evolved from gift-to-gift trade as convienient means of exchange. You can't expect people to come back to the prehistorical times, sorry You can of course exchange your goods for other goods when and only when it is convienient to you, but money is more useful. Money can be every good that both sides of the trade accept to use as a equivalent of worth for their goods. 

  18. There is already a gift economy online..there is Patreaon, and the donations to keep up Wikipedia are also like gifts

  19. I guess you could say there is a gift economy in the most powerful circles of America. You give me millions of dollars for my presidential election campaign, and in return I make sure to pass bills that makes your billion dollar industry turning huge profit.

  20. I think more interesting than a "gift economy" will be a "charity economy". In the former, as the narrator mentions, there is a hidden expectation+obligation of a gift in return. But the reason people do charity is much more subtle. There is also a hidden expectation in charity, but that expectation (or at least a significant component of it — the one besides immediate publicity/fame) is truly impersonal. Typically it is the expectation to find the society around oneself to be in a better condition, which, in the long run, will of course benefit the individual's business (or the future of it).

  21. Love the message here, a gift economy would also enable more conscious consumer habits! Research from Professor Liad Weiss explains how product ownership helps people understand themselves within a material environment. (http://wsbresearch.tumblr.com/post/113180417302/our-products-ourselves)

    By recognizing this, consumers can bridge social consciousness with the products they choose to purchase, and the way they choose to gift. Interesting stuff all around. Thanks TedEd!

  22. I would have loved to see mentioned the gift economy that runs alongside our political process. They make a gift economy seem like a folksy quaint idea, perhaps not recognizing social privilege, networking and outright political contributions as a major force in the world.

  23. so giving really is better than receiving. Because when you give something, the person you give it to is now in your debt. Conversely, if you receive a gift, then you are in debt. Giving is a market strategy then.

  24. This not ghe beautiful thin it's made out to be. First because giving gifts expecting return or recognition is such a self-righteous asshole thing to do. Second because the giving here is not genuine. Third, there will be no such thing as a genuine gift, a gift out of sheer appreciation or love expecting no return, ever again. Imagine earning a living by making people feel guilty. Makes me want to puke!

  25. I honestly think I would simply be exploited by others as always. Whenever I am helpful to people, they simply start to think that I have the obligation to serve them. And as such I would become some kind of slave who would eventually be killed for creating machines that eliminate my work.

  26. And who is going to give me the food for free in the market? What can I do for them?… mmm… it's impossible in a big city. Possible in a small town.

  27. Great video! Alex Gendler framed the lesson very well. I thought the wording describing the Kula ring could have been simplified though

  28. „Instead, the social norm of reciprocity obligates recipients to voluntarily return the favor.” Wut?

  29. This video is about the Kula you folks. I watched it for my anthology class! Why do you take it so personal? Wait. What are you even watching it?

  30. I respect Open Source developers… The best part is that I am myself an open source developer 🙂

  31. Yeah, don't fall for it. my mother grew up in a family that valued honour and reciprocity, that whole Asian thing of filial duty, of parents pouring their blood into their children's future in exchange for a cushy retirement. In the end, it broke her to the point of clinical depression. Gift economies are all about guilt.

  32. It feels natural to me: If someone gave me something on my birthday, I feel obligated to give them something in return on their birthday.

  33. This is what happens in Argentina. A zig-zag economy. During electoral years, GDP grows and during normal years it decreases… It's basically a gift economy, as the government gets into debt the country to give out public works and infrastructural projects to create jobs and for them to be voted, but then the rest of years we have to pay the debt so there is no money coming from the government

  34. Giving for the purpose of the joy it returns to self makes sense. A reciprocated or obligatory gift is not a gift.

  35. South indian marriages are run through this system. People gift small amounts of money in marriages and new couple are expected to pay in other's marriage. Helps to pay for the high expense of marriage.

  36. the words utilized to describe this system do not help to illustrate or illuminate how this process works, even utilizing "gift" or "economy" really diminishes the core values of this
    ancient indigenous practice

  37. The gift circle, & the many new forms of gift economy emerging on the Internet, are ways of reclaiming human relationships from the market.

  38. A gift ceases to be a gift once there is an expectation of a return, it is no-longer out of kindness, it becomes a product of trade. This stands regardless of whether the said gift is a good or a service, or in form of money.

  39. Loved the story of the island people sharing beautiful items and staying close. After living in two gift economy communities, I can say that the feeling of support was very tangible. In the context of things we needed and used daily, like cooking, cleaning, repairing and building, seeing things taken care of without any worry for return felt great. When we share resources, then we all get to enjoy greater variety of experiences and products.
    I'm still unsure how this could work in a larger sense though. With such a huge community in a given city or nation, how does, for example, a coffee shop manage to keep afloat with hundreds of people visiting every day. Is there a sharing infrastructure going on under the surface? Perhaps it could be a universal income..? I'd like to hear from someone who has any ideas.
    For sure if the work we do reflects what we'd like to contribute to the world, rather than just trying to get some money together, then we'd probably progress well and not destroy our home in the process.

  40. We live in a gift that God gave to us. God needs to be in us who gave it. Places where things are found should be the main places where a person should go to ask for whatever a person is looking for. A person goes to a pear tree, to get a pear. Artie Whitefox.

  41. But in the examples given, like natives exchanging necklaces, it's simply trading a single luxury item for another. This is not the same thing as "an economy" which serves the needs of sustaining an entire civilization.

  42. 무상의 행복은 없어요… 너도 나한테 줄수 있을까? ?
    뎃슨 봉사하는데스!

  43. FBI: So it seems that you've given the president two $40 million dollar houses and two weeks later you were appointed as vice president.

    Me: oh yeah that's just uh…gift economy

  44. The concept of a “free gift,” commonly used by many American companies, is truly comical in other parts of the world. A gift is, by definition, free. I’ve heard people giggle when they first hear the term. What these companies actually mean is, “If you buy x, we’ll throw in y, as an enticement.” Try getting the “gift” without purchasing the product in question and you’ll see it is not a gift at all, certainly not in the traditional sense.

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