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Friday, 9 December 2011

A Query About the Socially-Embedded Economy

If I want to avoid the word 'gift' - because I don't think that the exchange of objects or food in return for alliance/service/reciprocal bestowals counts as a gift - what word could I use that would be better?  Any advice appreciated.  I haven't, btw, read the most recent Davies/Fouracre collaborative opus.


  1. If it is unbalanced reciprocity then gift is the right word, if it s for an agreed exchange (as in Irish clientage)thne I can see your point; 'payment' springs to mind...

  2. But payment suggests a fixed price to my modern mind and I don't think that's what our good Historian wants. Is it?

  3. Then 'gift' is the word he wants, 'something given'.

  4. Barter, truck, paid in kind, or maybe just 'exchange', perhaps qualifying it as commercial exchange?

  5. What about the neutral word 'due'? (or perhaps contribution) ...

  6. Hmmm, I don't suppose swap would do--doesn't have the gravitas required.

    @Chris M: if neologisms are fair game, then how about something like owage?

  7. Yes, Alex - or should I call you Isidore? - that's the etymology of gift but we don't really use it thus (as anything given), do we? Otherwise the horrible neologism 'gifting' would not have appeared, would it? I think that we conceive of 'gift' as 'present'. The key dimension is the expectation of reciprocation. Whether or not one gets a gift back from someone at Christmas can cause strained relationships, but not - I think - in the way that the failure to reciprocate did in the early middle ages.
    The equality or balance of the reciprocal relationship is clearly an important variable. So too is the time over which the relationship is maintained. As Bourdieu said, if you give a 'gift' back straight away, that can be an insult in some circumstances as it effectively denies the relationship created by the initial 'gift'. If you leave the original donor waiting too long, on the other hand, that can be just as bad.
    For me, though, the point about all these situations is that reciprocal relationship is held to be instigated by the original donation. The reciprocation can be in service, political support, etc. but there is still a counter-payment. When lobbyers give or politicians receive 'gifts' in return for influence, access and so on, we regard this as corruption. Not just gifts at all - which interestingly is often the initial defence against the charge of wrong-doing.
    So, although 'gift-exchange' is sanctioned - sanctified even - by repeated use since Mauss at least, I'm not sure I like it, or that 'gift-exchange' isn't an oxymoron. It's not the only possible theorisation either; Derrida thinks the gift in a quite different way.
    Perhaps I'll use exchange, without modifier. How about 'bribe'???

  8. I like exchange. Question: can such an exchange be documented in a concambium? Also, what about a benefice or usufruct?

    I have read the latest venture, but will have to delay looking things up till finished with the current hell. But apart from that (unless I internalized it?), I think you have to consider the purpose of the gift, and how much importance the symbol and/or ritual of the exchange has. If any.


    maybe you should flip this on its head and ask where we get the notion that gifts are not supposed to be reciprocal and/or that they are freely given?

    And also, why do some charters use the phrase "dono et trado"?

    Ok -- I'm babbling. time to leave.

  9. I'm not sure "gift-exchange" is an oxymoron. I'd have thought it was tautologous, or repetitive (so, bad joke). All gifts are given as part of a gift exchange, with the sole exception of gifts to a one year old child who has no idea what's going on. All parents will admit that gifts to older children are really part of an extended higher-purchase scheme involving good behaviour (a la Santa only giving to good girls and boys). English has a distinct word that implies no sense of reciprocity - donation.

    Mark H.

  10. At least Mauss could tell his dons from his cadeaux -- English is weirdly impoverished when it comes to gifts. I've always thought that a medievalist's 'gift' sounds like something a Kray twin might have asked for in inverted commas. But 'exchange' and 'bribe' both sound a bit problematic to me.

    In the first case you're imposing an unfamiliar concrete meaning on top of a commonplace abstract noun and a homonymous verb (which now, whatever you /want/ it to do, will also have to accommodate the meaning 'give', since the reciprocal actions of gift-giving can be so widely dissociated). You're also replacing a countable noun with a blobby mass-noun.

    In the second case you're replacing a usage that requires further explanation with a term that will often not have any pertinence at all. Few will be surprised by the observation that gifts aren't usually given with no strings attached. But if you have to explain that what you've called a bribe wasn't actually a bribe, then it's a canard.

    Personally I'd be tempted to develop a nasty new latinism. Why not 'muneration'?

  11. JPG: Yes. Good points, all. I wasn't entirely serious about 'bribe' (though not entirely flippant either).
    Still, ADM raises an important point. What if these proleptic payments (maybe that's the term I want) weren't seen as 'gifts' by contemporaries, even in the sense that modern people see gift. The point with gift in the modern sense is that even if we all 'know' that there are relationships etc engendered by the giving of a gift, such expectations are never foregrounded or specified. To receive a gift by saying 'Thanks. What do you want for it?' - or similarly querying the motivation for a gift ("What's this for?") - is (or would be) the height of bad manners. We all maintain a pretence ('Je sais bien, mais quand-meme...', in one of Zizek's favourite Lacanian quotes) that a gift is precisely that even though we know that some ill-defined thing will be expected in return. Or, as (I think) Derrida put it, the gift is the condition for its own impossibility.
    However, what I am not sure about - indeed what I doubt profoundly - is whether that was how the early medieval 'gift' worked. I think that in the contexts that I am talking about, the expectation of reciprocation was very clear and quite probably specified. Cp. Visigothic Law's provisions about what a bucellarius can keep out of his lord's 'gifts' if he leaves his service.

  12. How about first analyzing the original terms found in the sources to see what they tell you on contemporary conceptions/ideas, and only subsequently see if a corresponding word can be found? If not, use the Latin terminology, after defining it.

  13. I'm analysing archaeological sources... But yes I should go back and look at corresponding cases in the documents.


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