The gift economy

by Alexis Calvé-Genest & Heather Morrison

Are there other modes of exchange besides the market? Are we overestimating the place of market exchange when we look at the nature of human transactions? If so, are there lessons to be learned concerning possible approaches to sustaining the knowledge commons?

It has been almost a hundred years since this question has been considered and reconsidered by anthropologists and others since the publication of Mauss’ seminal work The Gift (free version at Internet Archive here: https://archive.org/details/giftformsfunctio00maus). The focus of this work is a much bigger question about human nature than we can address in this post. However, let’s consider the possibility that human exchange includes the possibility of a quality that lasts long after the exchange is concluded, whether the exchange is between groups or individuals. Let’s consider the principle of reciprocity and in contrast with the one-time market exchange.

The gift economy as conceived by Mauss nearly a century ago, based on empirical anthropological studies of actual human societies, contemporary and ancient, involves moral and social obligations that creates a bond between groups and individuals without necessarily being obligatory obligations.

Without denying the importance of market exchange, Mauss presents this as superficial in comparison with the gift economy that has pervaded human societies since ancient times. We argue that the gift economy is every bit as relevant today. At the heart of the gift economy are the obligations to give, receive, and give again. Rivalries in giving both create and reinforce social bonds. Remember that in most societies, hoarding is not well received; redistribution, often through ceremonies such as the potlatch, is the norm. Perhaps by studying the gift economy we can work towards both scholarship and societies that are more sustainable, reciprocal, and just.

Can the theory of the gift economy be applied to scholarship? Consider the worldwide network of institutional and disciplinary repositories, the over 2,600 repositories listed in OpenDOAR http://opendoar.org/, the more than 72 million documents scholars have gifted to the world through the repositories indexed by the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine http://www.base-search.net/about/en/index.php

Each scholar gifts their own work – an article, a book, a dataset – with no expectation of immediate rewards in return, rather the hope of having an impact, having their work built upon by others and recognized as a contribution to the collective knowledge of humankind. This fulfills the obligation to give. Others read and use these gifts, which may be met with applause and appreciation, or derision and critique. No matter; either one fulfills the obligation to receive. The receipt of a gift carries with it a social and moral obligation to build on the gift and share one’s own work, not with the original gift-giver but rather with the whole world; this is the downstream obligation to give (or re-give). Like the potlatch, prestige accrues to the giver of the best gifts. This is not one-time barter, rather a worldwide network of givers and receivers that looks a lot like the basis of an emerging global gift economy in scholarship.

Reference

Mauss, M. (1924, 1966 english ed.). The gift. London: Cohen & West. Available via Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/giftformsfunctio00maus

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