The gift economy

by Alexis Calvé-Genest & Heather Morrison (Français)

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: 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, the more than 72 million documents scholars have gifted to the world through the repositories indexed by the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine

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.


Mauss, M. (1924, 1966 english ed.). The gift. London: Cohen & West. Available via Internet Archive at

Cite as:

Calvé-Genest, A., & Morrison, H. (2015). The gift economy. Sustaining the Knowledge Commons / Soutenir Les Savoirs Communs. Retrieved from

One thought on “The gift economy

  1. Excellent discussions! British political economist and communication scholar Graham Murdock’s work in this line might be useful for conceptual review and further argumentation.

    Political Economies as Moral Economies: Commodities, Gifts, and Public Goods
    Graham Murdock
    Book Editor(s): Janet Wasko Graham Murdock Helena Sousa PhD
    First published: 15 April 2011
    This chapter contains sections titled:
    Goods and the Good Life
    Putting the “Political” into Political Economy
    Competing Moral Economies
    Commodities: Possessions, and Dispossessions
    Public Goods: Reclaiming the Commons
    Gifts: In Search of Generosity
    Digital Enclosures
    Creativity, Convergence, and Exploitation
    Digitalizing the Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.