How he did this he does not say. He even tries to ratify his mistake by justifying that he did implicitly rectify his mistake in Argonauts of the Western Pacific by stating in the same paragraph of father/sons, that ‘a gift given by the father to his son is said [by the natives] to be a repayment for the man’s relationship to the mother’ [Malinowski, 1966: 40]. It is hard to believe that Malinowski really acknowledged his mistake in Argonauts of the Western Pacific for him to ratify it in the same paragraph.
Surely if he realized his mistake he would have taken the effort to omit it from his published account of the Trobriand Islanders in Argonauts. To quote Malinowski’s account in Crime and Custom of the husband/wife and father/son relationship: ‘Correct account of the conditions- correct both from the legal and from the economic point of view- would have been to embrace the whole system of gifts, duties, and mutual benefits exchanged between the husband on one hand, wife, children, and wife’s brother on the other…
the system based on a very complex give and take, and that in the long run the mutual services balance’ [Malinowski, 1966: 41]. One point to note is that Malinowski was writing during the early stages of anthropological literature, where the reader had to take his word of gift exchange in the Trobriand Islands and then generalise it to other so called ‘primitive’ societies.
Hence, after the admitted mistake from Malinowski, the reader has to take Malinowski’s word that in the long run gift exchange in the Trobriand Islands balance out, where there is no notion of the gift being transferred without the expectation of a return of the equivalent. Shifting from Malinowski’s idea of gift-exchange, Mauss’ ethnography, based on Polynesian Maori society shows how gift-exchange between groups is an obligatory social act, which therefore makes the gift interested.
He says that ‘in theory gifts are voluntary but in fact they are given and repaid under (contractual) obligation’ [Mauss, 1970: 1]1. In this book he talks about the spirit of the gift from the donor (whether it is from an individual or group); the Hau, where once a gift is given it has to be received under obligation, and then the receiver has to give to another under obligation, and that gift is then returned to the donor under obligation. It may not necessarily be the same gift, but it is the spirit, the hau of the gift that is reciprocated [Mauss, 1970].
These gifts have the functional aim of ‘buying peace’ [Mauss, 1970: 14], if a person cannot return the hau s/he loses rank and even status. This is much like the Trobriand Islanders. To compare with Malinowski, Mauss says that in the Trobriands the gift-exchange between spouses/families is a sequence of payments made by the husband to his wife as a kind of salary for sexual intercourse, whereas Malinowski says in Argonauts that it is a ‘pure’ gift.
Evans-Pritchard, in his introduction to The Gift  seems to assume that there are differences in observation between the two scholars because Mauss had a vast knowledge of oceanic languages, therefore able to deduce by comparative study of primitive institutions what Malinowski could not, the anthropologist who was thought of as the ‘fieldworker’. He says that Malinowski misunderstood the Trobriand Islanders’ institutions, as he lacked what Mauss had. Thus Evans-Pritchard makes Malinowski’s work questionable [Mauss, 1970].
Another point that is worth noting is what Parry says in his essay The Gift, the Indian Gift, and the ‘Indian Gift’, where Mauss’ Gift is mistranslated often with prejudices of the translator and ‘So elliptical that Mauss himself does not always seem to be on their side’ [Parry, 1986: 455]. Thus this shows how I as a reader may be misinterpreted in what Mauss is actually trying to relate, and would therefore have to make a judgment on the Maori based on the translated versions; that there exists a form of reciprocity that is interested, based on the hau.
Hence in this society, as what the reader is led to believe, gifts are exchanged under contractual obligation, and where it is individual, there is a moral obligation to reciprocate. However, as Parry distinguishes, cases where the ‘gift is not reciprocated are virtually excluded from Mauss’ purview’ [Parry, 1986: 457] Though Parry shows that Mauss’ work may not be accurate, what is important though is that he shows that the interested gift is exchanged between groups and not individuals; it is only in the individuals of modern (Western) society where gift-exchange between individuals is interested.
One example that I can think of is birthday gifts, though there is no immediate reciprocity required, one would expect a return of some sort. However I doubt that Maori individuals do not exchange reciprocated gifts. As opposed to Levi-Strauss’ structuralist approach to gift-exchange, where he believes the French anthropologist, Mauss, to be mystified by the native, Parry believes, or is suspicious, that the gift Mauss talks about is not a Maori one, nor a French one, but an Indian one [Parry, 1986: 456].
To put in short, Parry thinks that the Indian gift is also interested in the sense that donors give the dana (Indian spirit of the gift) to the receivers in order to transfer inauspiciousness. This is similar to the hau that Mauss talks about. He says that the spirit of the gift is not only Maussian but also Indian. I would like to briefly refer to Raheja’s ethnography to illustrate Parry’s point. Raheja’s ethnography The Poison in the Gift was conducted in a north western village of Uttar Pradesh, Pahansu. She shows that there is dominance in gift giving without reciprocating.
This unbalanced exchange of gifts occurs between the Gujars, who are economically dominant, though subordinate in caste to the Brahmans. The Brahman has an obligation to accept the gifts dan (dana) from the Gujar caste. They often receive portions of the harvest which makes up their livelihood. The Gujar themselves never accept dan at all, but they give because they believe it promotes the ‘well-being and auspiciousness’ achieved through gift giving. This reinforces their hierarchical dominance. For the Brahman this creates complexities as it undermines his/her hierarchical independence, and only reinforces the castes interdependence.
The ethnographer suggests that the whole hierarchical organization of the village has ended up in an atypical Hindu system because of the village’s particular set of historic and demographic circumstances have underscored the ‘centrality’ of this caste system in the local configuration of castes [Raheja, 1988: 36]. She does not really explain what these circumstances are though. This sort of gift giving and receiving understates Malinowski’s idea of the gift being reciprocated in the long run, as Raheja suggests that the Gujar never accept equivalent reciprocated gifts in order to establish its economic dominance.
This proves that different societies have different ways of exchanging gifts, and there is no conformity to gift-exchange. This is contradictory, however, to Yun-Xiang Yan’s ethnography conducted in Xiajia village of Heilongjang province in China, where in some situations gifts are only received by dominant people, and to reciprocate would undermine their position in society [Yan, 1993: 16]. To go back to Parry he thus shows how the same idea of the hau is not reciprocated in the Pahansu Indian society. As he does mention earlier how Mauss does not include any examples of where the gift may not be reciprocated.
Thus Mauss’ work becomes questionable [Yan, 1993: 5]. Hence, the reinforcement that not all societies are the same when it comes to reciprocating gifts. In this essay I have tried to show the various arguments put forward by anthropologists in relation to gift-exchange. From the evidence above the fact that societies do not have just one mode of gift-exchange is evident. In some societies there is reciprocation, whether moral or economic, and in others there is no reciprocation of gifts when it comes to certain aspects of gift giving or receiving, and in the cases shown above to create social dominance.
I believe that there is no ‘pure’ gift that exists in society, as it is disinterested. All gifts are interested, as shown above. Though gift giving is widely thought of as a voluntary act without the expectation of an equivalent, it does, however, make the concept of gift exchange paradoxical. I would like to add a personal experience here to conclude that gift is always interested in some way or another. When coming back from holiday, I wanted to get presents for my closest friends, in order to show my gratitude for their kindness towards me, as they economically provided for me.
I felt that I must give them something in return. Thus I realized that there is a moral obligation to reciprocate, though not explicitly mentioned, and if I do not show my gratitude in an equivalently economic way, it would be considered as rude and selfish. But this of course only applies to me, and not society as a whole. Hence, societies vary when it comes to gift-exchange.
Word Count: 2,103 Bibliography Malinowski, B. , (1999) Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Routledge and Kegan Paul Malinowski, B. , (1966) Crime and Custom in Savage Society, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Mauss, M. , (1970) The Gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic society, London: Cohen and West (Introduction by Evans-Pritchard and Translated by Ian Cunnison) Parry, J. , (Sep. , 1986) The Gift, The Indian Gift, and the ‘Indian Gift’, Man, New series, Vol. 21, No. 3, p. 453-473 Raheja, G. G. , (1988) The poison in the Gift, University of Chicago Press Yan, Yun-Xiang, (1993) The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and social networks in a Chinese village, UMI Dissertation services A Bell and Howell Company, printed in 1994 by xerographic process. 1 Edited by Evans-Pritchard.