The Dark Side of the Gift

Jean-Sébastien Marcoux (H.E.C. Université de Montréal)
Many researchers continue to treat gift-giving as a valorised alternative to commercial exchanges. They praise it for humanising market relationships, for making the market meaningful, and for providing an escape from the commodifying logic of capitalist exchanges. They describe it as a social activity in which a humanising logic is applied at the interpersonal level.
Some researchers interested in the dark side of the gift have highlighted the difficulty of receiving gifts, services, or favours. They have shown how the social indebtedness inherent in the gift-giving process can produce negative feelings, embarrassment, and a sense of dependence.
In spite of the work on the dark side of the gift, most consumer research has ignored the question of how negative experience in the gift economy can affect attitudes and behavior towards the market. Researchers have analysed the gift economy and the market separately as two autonomous entities, and they have given almost no consideration to the moral and ideological hierarchy of the two. They have often demonstrated that the gift economy can be a protective haven against the alienation of the market and that gift-giving can be a means of appropriating the market, contesting it, or even escaping from it. Yet they have been blind to the inverse tendency. They have failed to see that the unattractiveness of reciprocity relations can lead people to turn away from the gift economy and privilege the market.
I have rencently taken a different stance (Marcoux 2009). Drawing on the experiences of a group of informants who participated in an ethnographic study of house moving in Montréal, Canada, my article shows that people often confront the social expectations and consequences of the gift economy—for example, they try to avoid indebtedness—by shifting back and forth between the gift economy and the market. But more importantly, and contrary to what the work of many consumer researchers would lead one to expect, it shows that people may escape to the market.
It is obvious that these observations run contrary to the expectations of consumer researchers, but it is also clear that they put into question some of the fundamental tenets of the research on the gift in the social sciences. They challenge the way many researchers understand the axiology that underpins the gift economy-market antithesis. It is important to recognise, however, that withholding requests for gifts, services or favours from significant others can be a driving force for using the market. Thus we must not overlook the essential distinction between the gift of absolution, which reinforces the fundamental axiology underpinning the gift economy-market antithesis, and the escape from the gift economy, which challenges this axiology. The fear of indebtedness cannot be equated with selfishness in any simple sense. Indeed, freeing oneself from the obligations of the gift economy may mean freeing oneself from emotional oppression and coercion, as they arise or are exerted in the gift economy.
The claim is not that the market can or should be imbued with the higher moral values that scholars have traditionally attributed to the gift economy. The claim is that we cannot avoid recognising and questioning the moral and ideological hierarchy of the gift economy and the market. In other words, we must acknowledge that the antithesis of the two spheres of exchange plays a meaningful role in consumer behavior. By recognizing that people sometimes challenge the axiology that underpins the gift economy-market antithesis, researchers will be able to work out a more adequate analysis of the regimes of value that guide consumer behavior.
Marcoux, J.S. 2009. Escaping the Gift Economy. Journal of Consumer Research. Vol 36.

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