Dec. 5, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 7

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    What's in a gift? Clues to our society

    Like all of us, Arjun Appadurai's mailbox is flooded with catalogs during the holiday season. But unlike most of us, Appadurai has been inspired by the catalogs to do more than buy things -- he uses them to explain the role of gifts in American society.

    "Anthropologists have long studied the giving of gifts in large ancient societies like Rome or Greece, and in small-scale societies like Fiji or the Trobriand Islands, but they haven't concentrated on contemporary American society," said Appadurai, Professor in South Asian Languages & Civilizations. He looked at American gift giving for the first time in a book he edited called The Social Life of Things (1986), which put commodities in cultural perspective, and most recently in his book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996).

    "Gifts accomplish two main tasks -- they hold people together and they show others who we are," Appadurai said. "Like people in all societies, Americans make many calculations when it comes to giving gifts: What kind of relationship do we have? What did I give them last year? What did they give me? What are they likely to give me this year? After all, it would be very awkward if you gave someone a Cadillac and they gave you a pencil.

    "Gifts always carry something of the giver," he added. "Some cultures would say gifts carry the spirit of the giver -- and in a way Americans think that, too. That's the power of a gift. Things become more than just things. They reflect the person giving, the person receiving, and the relationship between them. A gift carries the mark of you. And when we wrap a gift, we are saying, this isn't just something that can be bought. This is something that has a part of me with it."

    It gets even more complex. Since America is an industrial society with mass production, choosing a gift leads to innumerable ironies. Because we want gifts to reflect who we are, we want them to be one of a kind, unusual -- which translates into rare, handmade or expensive. But then we look for these unique gifts in catalogs that are mailed to millions of people by companies that make hundreds or thousands of the same item.

    "The world of catalogs is fundamentally about the world of social relations," Appadurai said. "In a large society like America, we lose relationships over time. We lose contact, we go on to other things. Gifts are a way of re-establishing a relationship, or of maintaining a relationship that has weakened. Part of us thinks that the perfect gift to make that connection is out there somewhere, if we can only find it. That's why looking for gifts is so stressful."

    We see the challenge most clearly when we try to buy a gift for the person who has everything. "What we mean is that they can buy anything they want. So the obvious answer is to make them something. But people also turn to catalogs like Hammacher Schlemmer or Brookstone and get them the unusual gadget, or to Neiman Marcus and get something very expensive," he said.

    To cash in on this, catalogs have become more and more specialized. "There are catalogs for chocolate and for embroidery, catalogs for horse lovers and for gardeners. Each catalog wants you to think they are selling unique gifts -- but they are selling them to millions of people."

    He shrugs. "But if they really succeeded, they would fail. If they only carried unique gifts, they couldn't sell as many, and they'd go out of business."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco