Give and Take: The Art and Science of the Gift

Last year I traveled to Nigeria, where I knew some people, and where I also had some work to do. Before I left, I racked my brain for small gifts that I could give to friends and others I met along the way.

At the time, I was a bit low on funds. I wanted to give something meaningful, useful – and affordable. Because a lot of the people I would be seeing were journalists, I thought a great idea might be flash drives – the storage system of the future! I’d been to Nigeria a few years earlier and had not seen them anywhere.

So I stocked up. When I landed in Lagos, I proudly handed over my gift to a friend who took it, turned it over, and said, “Thanks. I could use another one of these.” And he pulled a small handful out of his pocket.

Welcome to the global economy, where everything is available everywhere, and simple abundance is no longer unique to the United States. So much has changed so fast, it often seems that giving gifts isn’t as simple as it used to be.

But gift giving has always been complicated. Fraught, even. In his 1925 essay The Gift, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss argued that in preindustrial societies, the “gift exchange” was part of a complex social cycle made up of three interlocking obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.

Read the rest here.

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