The duties linked to the acts of giving, receiving and repaying are constant universals found in all known societies. Every exchange of material goods is always accompanied by symbolic values. They unite any religious, juridical, moral, political, family or economic institution which presupposes specific ways of provision, production, consumption and distribution of goods. The object given is not neutral in the sense that it carries with it a spirituality or supernatural essence as well as something from the giver himself, this requires repayment, a payment for the debt, and particularly the gods, considering they are the original providers and owners of all things in the world. Gifts represent the relations men maintain with themselves, co-ordinated with their relations with the world around them which, although embodied in material objects are simultaneously, social, emotional and intellectual.
Empirical observation demonstrates that the obligations linked to giving, receiving and repaying are a universal constant in all known societies. Marcel Mauss was a pioneer in studying the phenomenon and took as his model “potlach”, or kind of gift in the form of a complete provision. “Potlach” (literally, “feed”, “consume”) is a typical, evolved and relatively rare form of total social provision found among North American Indian tribes. There is total provision in the sense that it is the whole clan or community that agrees to it, in the name of all and by everything it owns, through the mediation of the chief. However, this service hides a clearly agonistic behaviour on his part as it is driven by the principle of rivalry and dispute in order to gain power and influence, “potlach” is, therefore, a kind of total antagonistic social service.
Symbolic values are always present at all exchanges of material goods. It is a constructed and performative value. That is, the exchange is not reduced to the simple interchange of objects that change hands, obviously it is not just a physical property of the goods, rather, it is representative of whatever values underlie any religious, juridical, moral, political, family or economic institution and presupposes specific ways of provision, production, consumption and distribution of goods. To the extent that it constitutes a whole, which is greater than the sum of the individual acts of exchange that social life may be deconstructed into, it constitutes a total social phenomenon, as Claude Lévi-Strauss states. In primitive societies, exchange has an aspect which is voluntary and free but, at the same time, is imposed and self-interested, like a social obligation where, however, you must take the initiative, as if it were an act of generosity.
The exchange process begins with a gift and it was Marcel Mauss who worked out the, at first sight, rather enigmatic mechanism which conditions it. The gift is not a simple act, taking into account that it is not entirely neutral or free of obligations, it is surrounded by a supernatural spirituality or essence - called mana in Polynesian cultures - besides this, it also transmits something of the giver himself and his personality, which requires a repayment, a return to the original state that was temporarily altered. The giver thus creates an obligation to repay the gift by the act of giving it. The obligation to repay the gift with another one, of at least equal value, appeared in this way and has determined such exchanges between humans just as it also determines exchanges with spirits and gods, where it is hoped that a gift will deserve bountiful repayment. In effect, and considering that the gods were the original creators, bountiful providers of all that exists, this places human beings in debt with them right from the beginning.
A community (clan, tribe, family) cannot free itself of the obligation to accept presents, share hospitality, engage in exchanges, make alliances, share a meal nor ignore an invitation, as this would be the same as breaking an alliance and the coherence of the group or declaring war. All exchanges of material objects involve the spiritual world which surrounds man and things in a constant exchange process between classes, sexes and generations.
On the other hand, non-western societies, may, in some cases, distinguish between objects which may be given (men’s tools or western objects) and those which may not (often those corresponding to the dowry that the wife brings to the husband’s family upon marriage, or certain sacred or cult objects). In the latter case, although the objects may not be subject to exchange, any eventual beneficial effects may be.
The study of “potlach” in primitive economies casts a light on how such societies functioned and evolved, long before the market we are now familiar with was created. That is, financial exchange compared with a universal model of the circulation of goods and services. In a final analysis, gifts are an expression of the relations that occur between men, sometimes co-ordinated with the surrounding world, and although they take the form of objects, they are also simultaneously social, emotional and intellectual. This is where the precious value of the exchanged object lay before currency appeared as a universal value to exchange. Religious texts which constitute our tradition preserve the solemn forms of contracts (from ut des Latin); the concept of alms comes from a moral idea related to gift and fortune on the one hand, and the concept of sacrifice, on the other. The poor and the gods are compensated for the excess of happiness and wealth that some men possess and that they should distribute freely, thus transforming gifts into a principle of justice.
Mauss, Marcel (1988), Ensaio sobre a dádiva. With an introduction to the work of Marcel Mauss by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lisbon: Edições 70
Godelier, Maurice (2000), O enigma da dádiva. Lisbon: Edições 70