“Mauss’s Gift, or The Necessity of an Institutional Perspective in Economics

Summary of JOIE article (First View, 29 October 2019) by Mario Aldo Cedrini, Dipartimento di Economia e Statistica “Cognetti de Martiis”, Università di Torino, Angela Ambrosino, Dipartimento di Economia e Statistica “Cognetti de Martiis”, Università di Torino, Roberto Marchionatti, Dipartimento di Economia e Statistica “Cognetti de Martiis”, Università di Torino and Alain Caillè, Laboratoire Sophiapol, Université Paris Nanterre. The full article is available on the JOIE website

Despite the undisputed relevance of Bronislaw Malinowski’s and Marcel Mauss’s work to economic anthropology, mainstream economics has generally stayed out of the debate, within social sciences, on the concept of gift. As known, both Malinowski’s and Mauss’s works, as well as much of the literature that they later inspired, were highly critical of the homo oeconomicus and the main assumptions of orthodox theory in economics. Mirowski (2001: 433) sees the concept of gift as constitutive of a series of “traditions” that have unsuccessfully “relied upon it to explicate various forms of exchange”, and have been “ultimately vanquished qua social theory”. With the result that, Mirowski continues, the attempt itself to use the concept of gift with this ambition in mind would only strengthen the primacy of orthodox economics. The explicit or not-so-tacit assumption of this reasoning, or of the traditions generally referred to in the above reconstruction, is that the gift is the “non-economic” par excellence.  This paper rejects this assumption. It instead seeks to demonstrate the pertinence and relevance of the concept of gift – we borrow the expression from Malinowski (1921: 12) – for “refresh[ing] and fertiliz[ing]” economic theory, by deepening our understanding (Malinowski again) of the “origins and development of economic institutions”.        

The article focuses on the complexity of the gift as proposed by Mauss in his Essai. Mauss’s The Gift represents a sort of (grand) “narrative” (in Lyotard’s 1979 sense, but without the negative traits the French philosopher attributed to the concept) about the foundations of human societies. As known, differently from another, tremendously influential grand narrative, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The Gift established the historical priority of gift-giving over market exchange. By focusing on the use Mauss makes of the available ethnographic sources about “primitive” societies, we advance an interpretation of the gift as (essentially) an institution. We argue that it arises from the self-transcendence of social relationships that gifts themselves are expressly designed to create and according to which individuals orient their behavior. The self-transcendence of such relationships derives from the fact that if two individuals engage in an exchange, it is because a “third term” emerges, being in truth “nothing other than the relation itself, imposing itself as a separate actor entirely” (Anspach, 2002: 5) – and therefore something which is, at the same time, produced by the exchange itself.

Mauss’s The Gift, it is argued in the article, offers a multidisciplinary, comparative, and non-reductionist perspective on both the complexity of human action and the evolving system produced by agents’ interactions. This system is embedded in a wide range of social, cultural, and political relationships, while individuals are influenced by the specific institutional structures characterizing their living environment. What Mauss helps us recognize is that it would be an error to insist on the naturalness of specific systems, and that it is necessary to consider both common characteristics in all socio-economic systems and the variety of particular forms they exhibit (see Hodgson, 2003). By applying to the complexity of the gift an institutional approach resting on the tradition of the Old Institutional Economics and Veblen’s conception of economics as an evolutionary science, we show that it becomes possible to induce a fertile rethinking of the relationships between market and gift exchange, while strengthening the need to adopt an institutional approach in economics. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.