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Defining the gift

  • Dave Elder-Vass (a1)


Economics has tended to neglect giving, and thus both its important contemporary economic role and its potential contribution to alternative, non-market systems. To remedy this, it will need to draw on the broad debates on the nature of the gift that have developed in and across the other social sciences. This paper addresses several of these by asking how we should define the terms gift and giving. It rejects definitional associations of giving with obligation, reciprocity and the development of social relationships. Such definitions exclude many phenomena commonly understood as giving and underpin misguided attempts to analyse gifts in contemporary late-modern societies in terms derived from anthropological discussions of very different societies. Instead, the paper develops a definition of the gift based on contemporary giving institutions. A more open, contemporary definition of the gift helps to sensitise us to the continuing importance of gift institutions in social and economic life.


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