Social scientists usually regard a gift as an expression of the relationship between donor and recipient. In The Gift (1954) Marcel Mauss argued that gifts are widely obligatory and reciprocal. This behaviour could not be explained in terms of the ‘rational economic man’ model espoused in much Western formal economic thought. Mauss asserted that the economic is inseparable from other social fields. In every society, economic relations are infused with values and moral relations, and it is misguided to separate the rational and the non-rational—or affection and self-interest. Mauss came to the conclusion that economic value has a religious origin, a perspective shared by his mentor, Émile Durkheim. The utilitarian values of things are renounced in order to gain social status; so ceremonial values transcend economic values. To give an example from the fieldwork of Bronis-law Malinowski, people in the Trobriand Isles deny their desire to eat yams, and stockpile them in order to give them away and gain prestige. Among the Kwiakutl of the American Pacific Northwest, such conspicuous ritual gift-giving reached epic proportions in the so-called potlatch, when vast quantities of possessions would be destroyed (see H. Codere, Fighting with Property, 1950). In both of these societies the gift relationship has been seen by anthropologists to be a major political institution.
Marshall Sahlins (Stone Age Economics, 1972) has created a typology of gift-giving relations in different societies, ranging from the gratuitous gift at one pole, to the exploitative relationship at the other. Generalized reciprocity refers to the European ideal of gift-giving, where one does not give in order to receive, and the return of the gift is not constrained by time, quality, or quantity. Generalized reciprocity usually operates within a kin network. Balanced reciprocity, on the other hand, expresses a continuation of social relations in a way it does not within the family, signifying more non-contractual, long-term relationships. In this form, equivalents must be exchanged within a relatively short time-scale, as with the buying of drinks in a bar: there may be some temporary imbalances but these cannot be tolerated indefinitely. Sahlins's third category is negative reciprocity, where each party is looking to maximize his or her own advantage, at the expense of the other.
The above analyses of gift-giving have been developed primarily in relation to so-called traditional societies, yet 5 per cent of consumer expenditure in the United Kingdom is on gifts, and the proportion of gift-goods in the modern West is as high as in more traditional societies.
Gifts of money in Western societies can be problematic, since they may focus attention upon the economic value of the gift, rather than its symbolic meaning. It is for this reason that, at least in most Western societies, the use of money as a Christmas gift is highly circumscribed, and generally acceptable only if it passes down a status hierarchy, such as from older to younger generations within a family. If a gift of money conforms to this pattern it can reflect a recognized difference in status without loss of face for the recipient and is an accepted means of expressing affection by providing for his or her material needs. By comparison, it would generally be judged unacceptable for a grandchild to give a grandparent money, since this runs the risk of commodifying affection (see T. Caplow, ‘Christmas Gifts and Kin Networks’, American Sociological Review, 1982).