The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Rethinking Gift Theory: An Interdisciplinary Comparative Study of "Gift-giving", "Exchange", and "Sharing"

Joint Research Coordinator KISHIGAMI Nobuhiro

Reserch Theme List


gift-giving, exchange, sharing


The Gift by Marcel Mauss is an anthropological theory that explains the exchange of foodstuffs and other goods between individuals or groups. Lévi-Strauss developed the concept of reciprocity proposed by Mauss into a generalized theory of social exchange. The theory of the gift has been criticized by Weiner, and Godelier has proposed the concept of “things that cannot be given.” Prior to Mauss, Malinowski’s research on the Kula gave rise to a separate stream of thinking about exchange. Anthropologists who studied hunter-gathers experimented with distinguishing sharing and redistribution from exchange. Models related to this thinking include the Sahlins model and the Testart model. This project will be a multidisciplinary comparative study of ethnographic case studies of gift-giving and exchange in the Americas and Oceania, Asia and Africa whose purpose will be to examine the content and validity of concepts of gift-giving, exchange and redistribution in a global context. In addition, we would also like to examine changes in gift-giving, exchange and redistribution resulting from globalization and the spread of the market economy.

Research Results

(1) Marcel Mauss considered gift-giving essentially as an exchange of things that was constituted by the obligation to give, receive and return although it ostensibly appeared as a one-way flow of things. He conducted comparative studies of the Kula people in the West Atlantic area and the Potlatch protocol on the Northwest Coast of North America as the cases of gift-giving and concluded that such cases were total social phenomena common in human society. As a result of our review of Mauss’ conclusion by using contemporary cases of gift-giving, exchange and sharing in North America, Central America, Oceania, Eurasia including Japan, and Africa, however, we found that some cases supported Mauss’ conclusion but other cases did not.

(2) Ethnographies described and characterized the exchange of things around the globe by using various concepts. Some cases described the phenomena that appeared to be the same by using different concepts and other cases described the phenomena that appeared to be different by using the same concept. It is necessary to revisit the definitions of “gift-giving”, “sharing”, “exchange” and “redistribution” as the concepts for description and analysis in order to clarify the difference in these concepts.

(3 ) As a result of our comparison between the transfer of things among primates and that among human beings, we found a huge difference between them and confirmed that giving and exchanging of things including food is a social phenomenon or behavior that is unique to human society. In other words, human beings are animals that can give things, and such giving of things constitutes the basis for forming human society.

(4) While the form and content of one-way gift-giving, sharing, exchange and redistribution of things in human society were recognized to be diverse in terms of ethnicity, culture, regions and history, we confirmed that the actual practice of these activities was deeply related to the creation, maintenance and loss of social relationships among the parties concerned and groups, and that some cases were linked with the plural effects and functions that Marcel Mauss called the total social phenomena.

(5) Although there were some problems and a limit to “the gift-giving theory” argued by Marcel Mauss, we confirmed that the theory had potential that could be useful in understanding and studying social phenomena such as organ transplants, international cooperation activities by governments, international development agencies and NGOs engaging in development, and disaster relief activities by individuals and NGOs in contemporary society.