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Can Mauss's concept of the gift (or prestation) be applied to communication events (like a conversation, instant messaging, even this online discussion)?


Communication as a form of Prestation

Allison Moss

I think that, in terms of obligation, Mauss's concept of prestation can be applied to communication events. One is obligated to receive and repay (or respond) at the risk of coming off as rude or socially marginal. The way in which a person is expected to respond may differ across cultures, but in most cases it is expected that one responds in some form when engaged in conversation. Mauss notes that "the obligation of worthy return is imperative" and that "face can be lost forever" if an individual fails to repay (96). This is definitely a point relevant to communication events--as I type this, I'm neglecting a text message and losing face with every second that I fail to respond.


Mauss also talks at length about the social importance of gift-giving rather than the economical aspect. Depending on the context, refusing a potlatch can either be seen as "admitting defeat in advance" or as "an assertion of victory and invincibility" (96). The individual's choice when presented with a gift thus has the power to define his or her social position, regardless of economic status. This idea is also seen in communication events; in some cases it is inappropriate to reply to an e-mail or voicemail as soon as it is received due to risk of looking desperate. Replying immediately could be a marker of a submissive personality, or it could be simply polite, depending on the context.



communication is not a gift

emma roberts

I do not think that Mauss's concept of the gift can be applied to communication. Prestation is supposed to appear "disinterested and spontaneous" (according to the quote in the footnotes, page 92). I would argue that communication is the opposite. Communication often serves a purpose of showing extreme interest, and when spontaneous is not always regarded as a good thing. (for example, if someone you hadn't spoken to in several years due to some traumatic event all of a sudden contacted you, you might not perceive it in a positive way). Communication can be negative too. It is essentially "giving" something (written/spoken words in whatever form, a picture etc.) to someone, however unlike a gift (from what I understand Mauss to be talking about) communication can be used to sever ties as well as strengthen them. I do think what Allison says about the unspoken social rules of emailing is very interesting and true.


Communication is a Gift

Heddy Waters


I personally think the word ‘prestation’ is an extension of the idea, and is in itself, a social fact. With that in mind, we all know that social facts govern our forms of communication, and thus the prestation, or gift, does as well. Prestations (as listed in the footnote on 92 and on the page) are “disinterested and spontaneous,” yet “obligatory and enacted under a highly specific system of reciprocity.” The system of gift exchange is thus meant to look unclear and undefined, but in practice it reveals a highly symbolic and calculated sequence of events. I believe our systems of communication fit this definition very well. Conversations, instant messaging, and online or telephone discussions all share a similar giving and receiving. A comment is given and received and returned in kind. Not to do so or conform to the social regulations we all are subconsciously aware of could be disastrous, i.e. we don’t leave long pauses, we are nice, we don’t scream at one another, the conversation length is always equal to the strength of the relationship, we don’t call at 3 in the morning, etc. We think that these systems of exchange are “disinterested and spontaneous,” but they are highly governed by a multitude of social factors. Thus, I argue that communication can be viewed as a prestation, or gift, where the “concepts attached to them have less clarity and conscious precision…” but which through action “emerge formally and clearly” (92).



re: Communication is a form of prestation

Jill Coen

So far, classmates have characterized prestation as a social fact involved with maintaining face through giving, receiving, repaying (Moss). Engaging or disengaging in prestation can bring victory or defeat in the larger social context (Moss). Prestation should appear “disinterested and spontaneous” (92) but is in fact “obligatory” and meticulously enacted (Roberts, Waters). Finally, prestation is an example of Durkheim’s social facts (Waters), and should be regarded as a total social phenomena—a morphological social fact which at once concerns the whole of society and all of its institutions (99) including legal, economic, religious, aesthetic, individual, and collective entities. In other words, in a single act, a total social phenomenon speaks to the intricate array of social institutions affecting the individual and the collective.

Summarized in this way, it seems that, as Allison and Heddy argue, communication serves a similar function to prestation, or at least acts as a total social phenomenon in the way prestation does. Communicating involves earning, maintaining, and losing face through and exchange of giving, receiving, and repaying (which are all active roles in their own right, as Mauss describes.) Engaging or disengaging in communication can bring victory or defeat—positive or negative outcomes; in this way it did not seem that Mauss restricted prestation to only those acts which yield positive outcomes. Moreover, communication is subject to specific and unspoken rules which may not be articulated (spontaneous) but which are nevertheless at work. Finally, the social fact of prestation and communication are both total social phenomena, which, in their own right, speak to an array of social institutions simultaneously. The example of this online discussion was brought up in the above question; the communication of these comments engages me in class discussion, in the utilization of tuition dollars, in my relationship with my professor etc., illustrating how on a small scale, communication (like prestation) is a far-reaching phenomenon.



Sara Ray


I think this is an interesting question and I've been going back and forth with myself about how I feel about it. Ultimately, I don't think Mauss' concepts can be applied to language or conversation in the way that he intended in formulating his theories. While there are some implicit rules about reciprocity built into our understanding of how to communicate, something seems inherently "off" to me when I consider any exchange of language in the same category as a gift. Firstly, there are far too many rules governing the way in which we converse to make it spontaneous in any way. A spontaneous use of language would break conventions of inflection or lexicon or frame and this would, I believe, totally undo the purpose of using language. If two people were to be engaged in coversation, gifting each other with an exchange of words, the conversation would be so highly structured and the expectation of reciprocity would be so palpable that it couldn't legitimately be considered in the same category as a gift.

On the other hand, however, I do think the argument could be made that conversation fits in with Mauss' theory. Most importantly, both gift giving and communication are expressions of totally separate events and ideas. Just like the objects exchanged in the Kula ring are, with and in themselves, arbitrary, so are the words and sounds by which we communicate, when separated from their context. This, in addition to Heddy's post, make me unsure of exactly where I stand.

I'm think convincing arguments can be made for either side, but I feel that, in the end, applying Mauss to conversation stretches it a little too much.


In person vs via web


I think the answer to this question differs in the method of communication. Communication can be a form of prestation when in person or on a phone but not really when it is online. When talking in person, I think one would feel more obligation and pressure to keep the flow of conversation. It is awkward if one does not respond and more awkward if one does not repay. It will hurt one’s reputation if one did not respond when talking in person or on a phone. This happens on the phone too. The call is useless and unworthy if the other person doesn’t respond to you. But emails, instant messaging, text messaging, letters, fax and online discussions, one doesn’t feel that obligation (even if it is felt, it is less pressure). It is easier to ignore the communication online or in a letter. In my experience, once in a while I don’t respond to some IMs, emails, and facebook messages (not that I don’t like that person who is talking to me! ) or the person doesn’t respond to me and I do not think that is affecting the reputation or relationship. One does not feel obligated to respond and some emails and IMs do not even expect responses. I remember when I got emails and facebook messages on my birthday, I was trying to respond to all of them but my boyfriend said that I don’t have to respond to all (especially facebook…) and at the end I didn’t respond to them. Thus, I believe that these forms of communication doesn’t really fit into the category of gift that Mauss described.


Forms of Communication

Erin Neill

When someone makes the effort to communicate with someone else, there is an implied expectation of response. In this sense, communication can be seen as a gift. It requires something in response, it generally must be repaid. I think that the difficulty is in determining what is an appropriate response to someone's efforts to communicate and I believe that this is dictated by the form of communication. In conversation, as two or more people interact, it is part of our social code that one responds to inquires and thoughts with similar comments or appropriate responses. When instant messaging or using an online discussion forum, the expectations are not as consistent between people. While one person might expect a response another might not. Additionally there may be expectations, to respect a person's input or to respectfully acknowledge it, and there might not be. Depending on ones expectations, communication through 3rd parties (computers) may not constitute a gift. Rather. that might be limited to person to person communication. However, I do think that when sharing in conversation, this is a gift, as one has the choice when and with whom to share, and there is implied value in that.



The Value of Communication

Tyson Johnson

I do not think that communication could be considered a gift (or prestation) because it is not necessarily linked to value. A key component of any gift is that it carries some form of inherent value--either material or spiritual. However, the same can not be said for communication. When a person gives a gift they are giving away their personal property, essentially they are losing something, regardless of the motivation that compeled them to give. The recipient's knowledge that they are the owner of what was once another person's property is what creates the desire and obligation to reciprocate. When a person communicates with another person or a group, they are not losing anything of value. Communication is--for lack of a better word--free. The recipient of the communication has the option of whether or not to associate value with the information that was communicated. When a person hears from an old friend, for example, they associate a certain value with that communication and consequently feel the need to reciprocate. However, when the same person gets a phone call from a telemarketer they may simply hang up. The same rule can not be applied to a physical gift; all material objects have some value associated with them.



Social Rules and reciprocity

Chelsey Megli


I think that Mauss' theory of prestation, or gift giving is actually very applicable to many other aspects of society. After all, gift giving is just a series of expectations that manifest in social order. I think it can almost be listed as a specific type of Malinowskian "social fact." The principles behind the use of prestation are commonly used in all areas of social interaction, because they are, at the basis, a series of trusts and exchanges, both of which are required to have any sort of functioning society. Therefore it seems obvious to me that communication (and many other things) can be seen as a gift giving. Communication involves the presentation of knowledge or opinion for another person, who is then expected to respond and build off the conversation. There is, in a sense, a level of "interest" on the exchange as well, because repeating the same ideas/phrases is viewed as a failure in communication - each of the inputs must be combined and reinvented to build to a higher discussion that takes place. I also think that, like gift giving, when communication is brought up inappropriately it is refused, but that doesn't make the actual exchanges that occur any less valid.


Credit, Honor, and Conversation

Abigail Parker

I agree that communication is in a different category from prestation.  Difference stems from difference in value, and how credit and honor are interpreted.


Still, in terms of credit and honor, Mauss's themes to frame the concept of communication, communication does share similar structures with prestation.  As E brought up, communication is to some extent reciprocal.  Awareness of honor and status is always kept in mind during communication, for example, one feels it necessary to keep a conversation going with some one one wishes to be courteous with -- even if responding in and of itself is uncomfortable.  This has to do with maintaining courtesy and not violating social norms .  Where it differs from Mauss is in the economic sense.  Communication is no "war of wealth," most importantly, the competitive aspect of "honor" is removed from communication -- except in a few rigidly-defined situations (a debate comes to mind).  Credit, Mauss's other theme, similarly occupies a quasi-position within communication.  I see Mauss's view of "credit" in the three obligations he lists -- to give, receive, and repay.  Implicit in all of these is that the system that maintains this is built upon mutual credit.  Violating this credit undermines the relationship.  In communication, I see nothing that parallels this concept.  As stated above, there are complex social facts and rules in a conversation, even implicit the need for participation, but there are no structures compelling as stringently the need for payment in full of a comment.


When we come down to it, communication cannot be put into the same category as prestation, even if they are both social facts sharing similar structures.  Both are influenced by attention to status and social pressures, however, the economic bookkeeping that is involved in prestation simply does not apply to communication.


!!! Re: The Value of Communication

!! Chelsey Megli


I think that Tyson brings up an interesting point about whether or not conversation or communication is credited with a value. It's especially interesting to me because I think the idea of "value" itself is culturally determined. Surely the tribes that Mauss studied had different ideas about who/what would be considered of value. Furthermore, Mauss does extrapolate on the differences between the types of gifts exchanged in prestation and how certain types are often more "valued" than others. The fact that there is value assessed to these sort of exchanges is unquestionable, but I am more inclined to believe that that conceptualization of "value" is far different from the one we are using to exclude communication as a dissimilar type of exchange. Even the vocabulary modern standard english uses to describe communication is rooted in value judgements (such as having a worthwhile discussion, progressing the argument, making the better point). I think in this sense that communication is given value, even if that value is non-numeric and still believe that these categories of exchange are not exclusive of each other.


Re: Communication as a Form of Prestation

Lauren Deal

I agree with Alison that Mauss' concept of prestation can most definitely be applied to conversation. As I discussed in my other post both culture and conversation (language) are semiotic systems and thus the degree of difference between the two is much less significant than many are arguing here.

As Alison says, there are a number of ways in which exchange happens in conversation. It has already been mentioned that when one speaks she expects the receiver to respond. There is an obligation here. In addition, many of our linguistic instruments, such as turn taking and even narratives construct specific almost ritual obligations of participation for the successful completion of the speech act at hand. If these obligations are not met than the conversation is a failure and the relationship is invariably affected.

One of the arguments presented against conversation as prestation was the concept of value. I disagree that the language, ideas and social position exchanged through the course of conversation is of lesser "value" than the material possessions exchanged in prestation. Malinowski spends a good deal of time unpacking the arbitrariness of value and I believe that the social, personal and cognitive "items" exchanged in conversation are definitely "valuable," albeit not monetary. As a result, I agree that there is most definitely a parallel between the prestation Mauss describes and what we do in every conversation we have.


Re: Communication as a form of Prestation

I definitely agree with Allison that prestation does exist in communication. Expectations within conversation are inherently forms of prestation. Etiquette and reciprocity of deference and demeanor are all aspects of a prestation and are perceived as rude if there is a lack thereof. Communication is an exchange of particular nuances of language and has rules, just like Mauss's idea of prestation. Therefore, being outside of the lines of etiquette and what is expected can be seen as rude and rejecting prestation. We depend on prestation in communication because it extends far beyond the reaches of just communication....we use prestation in communication as a way to gain resources.


Goffman and Conversation

Savannah Fetterolf


In the discussion of whether or not conversation as an act of prestation, I can see both sides of the argument.  I completely agree with Allison's description of Mauss and her interpretation of the phenomenon of prestation.  In many ways, conversation is bound by a strict set of rules - as is gift giving in "potlatch" societies.  Erving Goffman describes conversation as a negotiated situation in which participants must participate with in the acceptible framework created by society.  This framework defines which people may interact, what is appropriate to discuss, and how long/how frequent the conversation can occur.  If a participant attempts to enter the conversational preserve without approval or by using inappropriate means, the conversation is doomed to fail.  In a potlatch situation, the giver must choose the appropriate gift and the receiver must act accordingly.  If the standards are broken, then society looks unfavorably upon the party who did not follow social convention.  However, I can also see how others would argue that conversation is not a form of prestation.  For me the distinction between conversation and prestation occurs with the idea that conversation is something occurs on a daily basis.  If it occured less frequently (as a potlatch does) I would say that it was definitely a form of prestation. 


Internet as Prestation

Sara Coburn

Internet communication can certainly be applied as a form of prestation in our culture, particularly with chats and online discussions. A sort of implied expectation of reciprocity of the act of communicating a response equal to that of the one that the first person initiated is definitely apparent in online chat ettiquete. I think that dating websites are a good example of the type of "internet prestation" that one would be bound to if a person is looking for a partner. The giving and taking of communication via compliments, hopes. expectations of something that will come to be is the kind of prestation that may have evolved from the kind of prestation Mauss described in his ethnologies.


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