2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 |Translation

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What is a gift?
Alain TESTART, Centre national de la recherche scientifique
Translated from the French by Susan Emanuel and Lorraine Perlman

This article introduces the subject of defining a gift in an ironic way, imagining Martian anthropologists conducting fieldwork among terrestrial human beings, hearing so many times the verb “to give” (for instance “giving” money to pay in a shop, or to pay taxes) and concluding to the importance of “the gift” in modern human society. Such a fiction serves to show that “to give” is not the same as “to make a gift.” It can also be shown from Latin etymology. Finally, the article ends by way of a precise definition of what a gift is, and insists on the notion of requirement to pay. What marks an exchange is the requirement to repay with an appropriate counterpart of each of the transfers. With a gift, on the contrary, the counterpart (counter-gift) may be given, but cannot be required. Keywords: gift, counter-gift, exchange, Mauss, obligation

On the difference between “give” and “gift”
In English, does “to give” mean the same thing as “to make a gift”? In French, donner and faire un don do not mean the same thing. Let’s consider the following example drawn from a common experience of daily life in France. I went to the butcher but did not know what to buy, and I ended up saying to him: “Give me a steak!” And he answered: “I’m going to give you some sirloin, it’s very good today!” When I went to pay, I had no change and I told him: “Can I give you a 50 Euro bill?” Then we went on to talk about taxes, a favorite subject of all small businessmen who always consider them excessive, and the butcher summed things up by saying: “Just think of how much we give them!”

Publisher’s note: This article is an edited translation of Chapter One of Testart, Alain. 2007. Critique du don. Paris: Syllepse. We have retained all references to other chapters. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Alain Testart. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online)

not just to a gift. This is our first observation. etc. designates a particular mode of transfer. we create serious misunderstandings. it is an act that must be paid for). The verb “to give” therefore can be applied to any kind of transfer (exchange. The noun “gift” (don). An initial approximation might be reached through the fact that a gift is a matter of a free or gratuitous act. Dare actually applies to any movement of goods. It is obvious that receiving something as a gift (when it is a gratuitous act on the part of the person who is providing it) is the opposite of having to pay for receiving it (when. But this linguistic inference is incorrect. that such a great difference exists between the two terms might seem strange. from the perspective of the person who furnishes it. donare. on the contrary. and it is indisputable. The first. but not once in the context of a gift. We will return to this observation. signifies to make a gift.250 | Alain TESTART This small example shows that the verb “give” was used four times. “to give” is not to make a donation. since in Romance languages it seems they might have the same root. has a much more general meaning: it signifies to put into someone’s hands. to bestow. The second. we may now summarize these first reflections in a little diagram: “to give” (dare) __________________________________________________________ “to give” (donare) furnish freely make a gift. to make a donation.). a donation ≠ furnish in return for payment (the opposite of making a gift) Or more briefly (retaining quotes for terms used in the most general and ambiguous sense): “to give” (dare) __________________________________________________________ gift ≠ (the opposite of gift) 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . that of don-. concede. nor did he think he was giving away his sirloin. a mode of transfer that possesses a particular quality that we are trying to characterize. However. First of all. grant. our verb “donner” actually derives from a confusion between two distinct Latin verbs. any translation or transfer (the latter is the general term we are going to employ) and is just as suitable to use for a gift as for any other transfer. dare. since. there is also no doubt that if we confuse these two meanings. “Giving” therefore is not making a gift. transmission through inheritance. or that it was a matter of gifts when we talked about taxes. any more than I was giving him a gift when I held out my banknote to pay. taxation. any change of hands. Of course I never thought that my butcher was offering me a gift of a steak.

has made the same mistakes relating to preliterate societies and has correspondingly misunderstood the nature of these societies. and prefer the direct and living observation of what they call “a slice of life. Even the principle of taxation is unknown. 1 2 1. considerable goods must be furnished. “You can see. The words I exchanged with my butcher were quite banal. 3. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . “commercial principles are unknown in this society. More specifically. the Kachin—are associated with particularly large marriage payments.” Imagine that they carefully note down everything said around them. It is likely they would have noted the recurrent use of the word “give. Now. and consequently has tended to overestimate the importance of the gift in preliterate societies. This is curious because most examples of generalized exchange from Burma to eastern Indonesia—for instance. such as several buffalo. Imagine. has always confused gift and giving 2. etc. I believe that social anthropology. how we should label “the opposite of gift”). As an example of the first error. let’s explore some of the simple ideas we have mastered. we can cite the recurrent usage in French and English anthropology of the terms “givers” and “takers” of women in generalized exchange. or else be reduced to slavery for not being able to pay. In order to marry. too. as are the misunderstandings they might infer/promote about the nature of our society. and they could easily have heard similar exchanges with many other customers. Bibliographic references in Testart.” the Martian anthropologists might certainly conclude that “the gift” is very important in modern French society. since taxpayers don’t mind giving to the revenue authorities. he can be prosecuted for debts his grandfather contracted on his wedding day.” Ignorant of its Latin etymology and therefore assimilating “give” and “make a gift. have little taste for law and economics or for studying arid treatises. like human anthropologists from earth. but for the time being. 2. because it has never had a clear definition of what a gift was.” The mistakes of the Martians are clear. a man may even commit himself to be a “buffalo” if he does not have one (meaning he becomes a beast of burden). Mistakes by Martian anthropologists Let us imagine that anthropologists from another planet—let us say Mars—were present at the butcher’s shop and witnessed our conversation. (2002: 34). that these anthropologists. and the concomitant idea (often implicit. occasionally explicit) that this involves a “gift” of women.WHAT IS A GIFT? | 251 It remains to be determined which term should fill the position we have left blank (namely. but gift-giving practices are widespread: the butcher gives his cuts of meat and the customers make counter-gifts. These practices seem scarcely compatible with an ambiance that (usually) involves gifts and presents. et al.” they would say. I maintain that this anthropology: 1. The expression used by Lévi-Strauss and structuralist anthropology that is inspired by a particular form of matrimonial system. from Marcel Mauss in the 1920s to our day.

In numerous passages.” But this mixes up two things as one: the confusion is 3 3. exchange is the opposite of gift. Elsewhere in the essay. And as the children that we all were. let us take a simple social example. we already made a clear difference between a gift and an exchange. my marble that I should “give” in order to obtain the one offered to me plays exactly the same role as the money I “give” to the butcher to obtain the sirloin he offered me. We knew very well that giving (making a gift) was the opposite of exchange. he maintains that certain “primitive” transactions relate to both gift and exchange. and here we are making another point: in the exchange. after school. And in the exchange of marbles. and even tried to acquire them by other means. just as paying for something is the opposite of getting something for nothing. The same is true in any barter economy: the ceding of one good to obtain another represents the payment for this other good. attach no great importance to marbles. The exchange is in all respects an act that is paid for. We can now see that if Martian anthropology confuses the two meanings of “give. Mauss speaks of a “salary-gift” and of “gifts to the chief” that are “tributes. actually. We adults.. We may now complete our diagram by writing: “to give” (dare) __________________________________________________________ gift ≠ exchange Thus.” 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . and he introduces the expression “gift-exchange. In contrast. Children. the expression “I am swapping it for that one” (identical in form to “I am giving it to you for that one”) means that the one who gives (and who is definitely not a donor) only gives his marble if I give him mine.” which would have eliminated the ambiguity). the donor) gives it without any need for me to give him back anything at all. as once was done for taxes. Marcel Mauss was guilty of this in his excessively famous “Essay on the gift” (and. As does social anthropology. The reader can see that in these two different situations the word “give” has the different meanings of donare and dare.” it likewise confuses gift and exchange. should have been called “Essay on giving. The word “pay” by no means supposes the existence of money: one may pay in kind. the marble that is relinquished constitutes the payment for the marble obtained. But once upon a time.e. To be precise: “I am giving it to you” means that the person who gives (i. even if we still remember the charm of the iridescent sparkle of glass balls. “I’m giving you that one!” meant—with no ambiguity possible—that the child engaged in this generous gesture was giving up his marble without wanting to recuperate one in exchange. played games to win them. Handing over my marble is the payment necessary to obtain the coveted marble.252 | Alain TESTART The opposite of the gift In order to fill the empty box in our last diagram. This we already know. still play marbles. we eagerly collected them.

if not racist. on many points. 4 5 First considerations on the counterpart By counterpart. I think that the confusion lies not in primitive structures (intellectual or social). economic. see Malinowski (1963: 238–52). and that they are. We should now progress to the definition of gift. but in the heads of anthropologists. etc. But counterpart may also exist in the activity of making a gift. see also the chapter on the kula.) seem to confuse things that we can distinguish/analyze. see Smith (1940: 146–50). What was implicit in Lévy-Bruhl (in Primitive mentality. more complex than ours) and that their conceptual and linguistic structures are highly subtle (often more so than ours). We call “counter-transfer” the movement (in the sense we spoke of the “movements of goods”) that delivers this counterpart. we forget the intellectual atmosphere in which they worked. in this respect. Such notions were widely shared at the time but today are strongly rejected as ethnocentric. is an instance of a counter-gift. their intellectual categories (legal. for the Puyallup (Salish south coasts of Puget Sound). by contrast. and The “soul” of the primitive. more primitive than children who easily make a distinction between exchange and gift.WHAT IS A GIFT? | 253 either in the heads of the so-called primitive peoples or else it is in the heads of the anthropologists.” 5. when the fault really lies in deficient ethnographic observation. a concept that we were beginning to discern without having yet defined it. we usually refer to what comes back in return for the first transfer. My own position. This. There is no exchange without counterpart: each of the goods exchanged is found to be the counterpart of the other. In other words. Note that it is rare for observers to take the trouble to study in detail the vocabulary of these societies. and as a consequence. social. It also conforms exactly to Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s view that “a primitive mentality” is characterized by a confusion of ideas. is that preliterate societies are extremely complex (and. some time later. There may be a counterpart (counter-transfer) in a gift as in an 4. where he speaks of “the slightly puerile legal language of Trobriand Islanders” and of their vocabulary complicated “by a strange inaptitude to divide and define. For the Trobriand Islanders. make him a present of one of his own marbles: this is a way of thanking and of maintaining a friendly relationship. We may trace this thesis directly back to the old assimilation (common to both anthropology and psychoanalysis): primitive = childish = pathological. much simpler than ours are. English translation of 1923. Mauss’ thesis—and it is explicit—is that the confusion is in the heads of the primitive peoples. partial and incomplete notes always give the impression of simplicity. The child who received a marble from a playmate may. Our example of marble games leads us to think that the question of counterpart (what one needs or doesn’t need to offer in order to obtain something) may be central. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . then. English translation of 1928) is explicit in Mauss’s essay. There would be no argument about this if we examined the great complexity of these societies’ vocabularies relating to the gift and to exchange. But when Lévy-Bruhl indignantly described “the primitive” and Mauss became incensed about it. This atmosphere was governed by two great ideas that oriented all that era’s anthropology (as it does a part of anthropology today): primitive societies are supposedly simple.

and to exchange is “to cede in return for a counterpart. there would be only two smiling humans.” The first meaning is economic: exchange is an exchange of goods.” The second meaning (said to be by analogy. its regularity. linguistics. and therefore it is not the existence or absence of a counterpart that differentiates the two. The address presupposes the hope of a 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . an exchange may be immediate or deferred. The dictionary speaks of “address. But. Nor is it that gift and counter-gift may be deferred in time. Of course. the third. biology) but that they differ in a more profound way because they have different formal properties. It refers to a simple action in two directions.” This meaning easily extends to physics when we speak of heat or fluid exchange. etc. I am not saying these meanings are different because they arise in different domains (economy. Similarly. the second meaning is inseparable from the notion of intentionality. there would not be an exchange of smiles.” In an exchange of smiles. It refers only to a movement in both directions through a permeable partition that nevertheless permits distinguishing between an interior and an exterior. the first two of which correspond to two meanings of the verb “to exchange. Thus we speak of exchanges of smiles. Addressing signifies something. Let’s start with the least rich. a reciprocal action or interchange (in the very general sense that one speaks of a reciprocal action or force. we need to explore “exchange. I think we see well enough that it is not the kinetic aspect—an expression referring to everything concerning the movement of goods. This is a purely mechanical (or kinetic) exchange with no link between cause and effect.) In contrast. If I address a smile to someone. Very well brought-up people may unfailingly respond to a received gift with a gift offered.254 | Alain TESTART exchange. We might pursue this parallel by saying that the regularity that seems to characterize exchanges (in capitalism a regularity interrupted only by crises and serial bankruptcies) may also arise in gift-giving. which does not change the fact that he has indeed received a gift and offered a countergift. and in existence in both French and English in the seventeenth century) concerns any reciprocal communication: to exchange is to address and receive reciprocally. But we see it could be applied to all other domains. without intentionality. What is it? To answer this question. This is why the term can be applied equally well to the cell as to an inanimate body. but the recipient might wish to make a counter-gift on the spot. to an organic body as to a social ensemble like a city. each person addresses a smile to the other. blows—the verb applies to all these situations. or to an invitation received with an invitation offered. but without one to the other. The third meaning concerns only the noun and in French was originally (1865) biological: “the passage (in both directions) and circulation of substances between the cell and the external milieu. aiming at a certain goal. In our example this is the case. Without this address.” The three meanings of the term “exchange” Dictionaries (Le petit Robert and the OED) tell us that the noun “exchange” possesses various meanings. or hoping to do so. it is because I hope for a response that may take the form of a smile or something else.—which enables us to make a distinction between the different modes of transfer. for example if speaking of the exchange of cars between the city and the country. courtesies. the possibility of a counterpart. It must be something else.

To summarize: the third meaning has little relevance for us since it designates simple reciprocity and says nothing more: a thing leaves A and goes to B. since it is more limited than the other two. an idea of response. They do exchange in the second sense. and perfectly specific. But the second sense of the word “exchange” has more intentionality. This is simple displacement in two directions.” In the exchange of goods. in an exchange of blows. a courtesy) responds to a precedent. Now look at the first meaning in the dictionary’s listing. since all the other definitions are impoverishments of this rich and strong sense. And there is an order between the two acts. the preceding one is always the cause of the following one. Thus there is much more in exchange in the second sense than in the third. This is also the fundamental meaning. As the dictionary says. since each of these transfers elicits the other. to exchange is “to cede in return for a counterpart. with its mechanical or biological sense. obviously. we have never seen animals proposing an exchange of goods with each other. signification. while from B something goes in the opposite direction to A. I do not give one in the hope of receiving one in return. and this is also the strict sense. and in proportion to the demand implicit in the first address. any more than I address a smile to someone solely on condition that he smiles back to me. which must precede the acts of transfer. a simple reciprocity of actions taking place in space. an economic sense. There has to be a certain balance between the two. because the characteristics that we have just identified relative to exchange in the first sense distinguish it from other gift transfers. An act (a smile. but not the first. It is human because. Everything in the third is also in the second: a similar reciprocal displacement. one following the other. The second meaning is reciprocity plus the idea of response. Indeed. an “agreement of wills. One does not cede it except on condition that the other does likewise. complex. And this is what differs completely from the second meaning. There is much more as well.” as jurists say about contracts. It is complex because there is a prior engagement or understanding. The first meaning is quite different: it designates an insitution that is human. equally present are address and response. means that something from each goes toward the other. and possibly occasioning a third: the exchange is a series of acts that respond to each other. is suitable. a blow. courtesies) lies in the idea of response. the common denominator of these exchanges (smiles. in a purely kinetic sense. The meaning is purely kinetic. one does not give something on condition that the other promises to give you back an adequate counter-gift. we might say. Of course.WHAT IS A GIFT? | 255 response. desired. since I cede my good only to signify to the other that I expect to acquire his. which corresponds to reciprocate: this reciprocity is intentional. One does not cede it except by reason of the engagement of the partner to cede his. And everything in the second is also there: intention. and finally. but the other person gives me one in response to the one I gave him. as Adam Smith once said. I do not address words to someone only on condition that he speaks to me. one does not cede one’s good unless the other cedes his. address. since in an “exchange” of words. finally. Everything in the third is found here: reciprocal displacement of goods between two actors. There is no exchange except to the extent that there is a response that conforms. But the idea of reciprocity in itself does not take us much farther. an exchange of goods. and causality. causality. signifying. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . blows. And it is perfectly specific.

256 | Alain TESTART We are making progress in understanding exchange. with no concern for defining scientific concepts—and defining them rigorously—in order to be scientific. is equivalent to this one about the importance of exchange. This counterpart is also obligatory.” they see no essential difference separating the exchange of words from the exchange of goods. Perhaps they can claim that the differences in political economy. See the systematic critique in chapter 4. the second with the exchange of words. Let us pause for a moment and return to our Martians. and the only one that is specific to institutions and the social sciences. their failure to differentiate between exchange and gift allows the Martians to assert that a statement about the importance of the gift in Western society (their first proposition. as well as in physics. biology. And thus a complete confusion in Martian anthropology will be established. with all the polysemy and ambiguity that characterize them. and the social world—and does not define any one of them (reciprocal action is one of the fundamental principles of mechanics). we will use the term “exchange” only in the first sense. And after noting the expression “exchange of gifts. This confusion has reigned over structuralist anthropology for the last fifty years. the restricted and economic sense. remember). and this must be understood as simultaneously the condition. and purpose of the exchange. cause. What does that mean? Obligation and requirement to pay back If there is one aspect for which Mauss’ formula of “three obligations” can be reproached. They most likely conclude that our societies are based on exchange. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 6 . in ecology. Since they do not make a distinction between the different meanings of the world “exchange. and the last with the exchange of women among men. and gift as well. Finally. But their statement is a flat and banal one.” they would probably also say that there is no great difference between exchange and gift—for the simple reason that they would not have seen that the term “exchange” in this expression implies the second sense of the word (we exchange presents like we exchange courtesies) whereas in the expression “exchange of goods” the first sense is implied. linguistics. and social anthropology are based solely on the fact that the first deals with the exchange of goods. it is that it appears empty of content since the very idea of obligation is 6. The distinctive feature implied in this exchange is the necessity for a counterpart. More Martian mistakes The Martian anthropologists who are still listening to our conversations and recording them in their ethnographic notes. The result of all this is that if we are interested in the transfer of goods. as most other human societies probably are. they will think they have discovered a great truth of social science by disclosing that human societies are founded on exchange. have not failed to observe how frequently the terms “exchange” and “to exchange” appear in Western languages. Failing to notice that exchange in the third sense was often found simultaneously in biology. as it is true in any sphere—physics. And it will reign over any anthropology and any discipline that employs words from everyday language. (It is always useful—even necessary—to understand non-A in order to understand A).

since you accepted my pen.WHAT IS A GIFT? | 257 coextensive with social life as a whole. But they are not all of the same nature. including by violence. in which we similarly distinguish between moral and legal sanctions. A few days later. this being the normal way of carrying out one’s own justice. we meet and I demand that you give me the hundred euros that represent the value of the pen. This already goes much farther than Mauss (and all of subsequent anthropology ) went. an amorous commitment. you are too kind. My demand astonishes you. In a state society. payment is obtained through violence of creditors (or right-holders) who may resort to a vendetta. Jurists have written comprehensive treatises on obligations. but it carries difficulties linked to the controversial question of how to define legality in preliterate societies—a subject to which we return in chapter 2. A moral obligation merely pricks your conscience. In fact there is no social relation without obligation. Payment may be obtained by all legitimate means that exist in a society. I have given you a present. whether more or less doesn’t matter—no one would deny that because of this act. whereas the gift does not carry such an obligation. I cannot claim to fill this void here. I had given you my pen in the hope that you would render me some service. We might even correlate this with the notion of sanction. What would you say? Simply: “But then it wasn’t a gift!” It is clear where the problem is: the fact that I require a counterpart demolishes the idea that I made you a gift. “Monsieur. but we must at least make the distinction between a moral obligation and a legal obligation. or. in a stateless society. It would have been a gesture with an 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . but finally you accept. If the notion of compulsion to pay appears clear and generally applicable. anthropologists never. as a gesture of appreciation. but I insist. We might say that the exchange includes a legal obligation to furnish the counterpart. First element in the definition of the gift Suppose that you have seen my fountain pen and find it a very nice one. If several days later. there is no reason to. you have a beautiful fountain pen!” you say. Fine. If. obligations are found everywhere. or even to tackle the subject in a significant way. Obligation makes sense only if the type of obligation is specified—without this. this would still make the gesture a gift. from the moment it is conducted in forms recognized as legitimate. You offer effusive thanks and you depart with the fountain pen. It is not. They think the notion of obligation is self-evident. the obligation may be requited by resorting to legal procedures (when agents of the state are involved in the recovery). And I say to you: “I am giving it to you!” You protest. a moral obligation. you make me a present— valued at one hundred euros. or the relation of the citizen to the state. Whether it is a kinship relation. maintaining that. What is specific to legal obligation is that payment is required. in fact. But the idea of legality itself shows us another path. But a legally recognized obligation gives rights to the one who has this obligation over you. and it gives him the means of action. it is almost tautological. The existence of the counter-gift does not cancel the nature of gift in my original gesture. you owe me this sum and that you must pay me. at most. we can now see how it sheds light on the question of gift and exchange.

the offense is the cause of the reparation. What marks the exchange is the requirement to repay each transfer: although the reparation may be obligatory. It certainly was self-interested and my behavior was deplorable. The donor abandons a good. or else I have no legitimacy to demand anything at all and it is indeed a gift. We are always wrong to confuse exchange and reciprocity. The fact of soliciting a counter-gift does not annul the nature of my act as a gift. And they are hardly like exchanges since. The fact of expecting a counter-gift does not cancel the nature of my gesture as a gift. What does annul it is that I claim something in return and that I assert my right to do so. the damage that it is supposed to compensate for is not. In the exchange. but the reparation is not reciprocally the cause of the fault. It allows us to distinguish between gift and exchange. Definition completed This first definition is still inadequate. on the contrary. nor in the actors’ psychology (generous or selfish). Either it is legitimate for me to claim something and so it is not a gift. but you could not say that my original gesture was not a gift. In reparation. for if exchange is 7 7. plus the reparations growing out of a misdeed or a responsibility we are liable for. This point will be developed in the following chapter (Three situations compared). but a gift nevertheless. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . in particular something requiring a counterpart. We may now say precisely in what way Mauss’ expression “exchange of gifts” is (strictly speaking) contradictory: it is because exchange is founded on the right to demand a counterpart. The idea of gift contains the notion of abandoning. If I later asked you to lend me one hundred euros. a selfish one certainly. but still nobody would deny that this gesture was a gift. you might find it hard to refuse me. the kind of reciprocal causality that characterizes the exchange when each of the exchanging partners agreeing to cede a good causes the other to agree to cede his own. there is a difference of scale enters between the two. The key point of this initial approach—which is not yet a definition—is a matter of right: is it legitimate to claim. Nor is there. whereas the gift is a gift only because the right to require it is renounced. on the pretext that I was short of money and reminded you of the gift I gave you a few days earlier. any right over this good. What is the nature of such transfers? They are obviously not gifts. although one sees a certain reciprocity at work in the idea of reparation as in the classic exchange. as well as of any right that might issue from this transfer. Consider the matter of fines. in the reparation.258 | Alain TESTART ulterior motive. We may conclude that the gift is the transfer of a good that implies the renunciation of any right over this good. but it does not distinguish between gift and a third type of transfer. as well as any right that might emanate from its transfer. whoever exchanges something has a right to require a counterpart—and it is the right itself that defines the exchange. nor in their behavior (solicitation of the donor). to require? This key point resides neither in the movement of goods (as does the matter of the counterpart—what we have called the kinetic aspect of transfers). or whatever we are obliged to pay as damages and interest.

which rely on force. We say the same of an individual who caused someone a wrong—once he pays for it. On this basis. Finally. Taxes are another example of a T3T transfer. For example.” The serf’s tax (payment in money) is. but say only that it is a transfer that results from an irrevocable obligation (the wronged party having the right to demand reparation from the person who caused him the wrong) and without counterpart. you still give “as much as you want. is a transfer of a different kind. similar to the ones we wanted to avoid regarding obligation. a transfer of the third type. A payment acquits a debt. a French medieval expression meaning “subject to unlimited exploitation. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . and when there is a collection you know that you cannot really give what you want.WHAT IS A GIFT? | 259 indeed a form of reciprocity. we do not feel “totally free” to not make a gift when it is a matter of a tip or a charitable donation. etc. They are not valid for a serf—taillable et corvéable à merci. “Les trois modes de transfert. the serf’s tax and corvée (labor).” in the hallowed phrase? But note that the tipping rate is known and customary. There are moral pressures that limit freedom and they are quite different from legal constraints. For these transfers. which is absurd. No one can require a gift of you. solicited. A gift is not. being neither gift nor exchange. and this is contrary to reason. a transfer of the third kind. But by furnishing them. Every tax bill states as much. A gift can be expected. In truth. like the corvée (payment in services). our preceding definition of the gift would apply. even if you are not totally free not to give. Now everybody has known situations in which we feel “obliged” to give a gift. A short parenthesis is appropriate here in order to dispel a false solution that consists of observing: by paying the tax. I will not list here all its characteristics. not all reciprocal acts are exchanges. I do not renounce any right as a result of this gesture. these considerations are not general enough and are valid only for the taxpayer and the author of a reparable wrong. it either creates a right or cancels the obligation that others held over us.” was incomplete because reparation was not envisaged there. Now this is our problem: the definition which we use to characterize the gift applies equally to the T3T and so does not allow a distinction between gift and T3T. The compensation payment. A simple solution is found by reconsidering the necessity for payment. what we will call T3T. But.. a topic taken up in the following chapter. Consequently we have to refine our definition of gift so it cannot be applied to what is obviously not a gift. The tax must be paid. Reparation. are similarly mandatory. Could we say that the gift is voluntary and that no T3T (compensation or tax) is? Could we say that the gift is elective. we might claim that our first characterization of the gift suffices to differentiate it from T3T. the serf acquires no right. the reciprocity associated with reparation is not the same as with exchange. since by this gesture I now have the right to no longer be subject to the demand to pay the tax. the notion of freedom covers an infinitely varied range—a range similar to what obligation covers. The presentation of this type transfer in my 1997 article. while taxation is coerced and reparation is compulsory? This would introduce endless and difficult discussions. but not required without losing its 8 8. Where does the line of demarcation lie? Could we say that what characterizes the gift is that. in fact. and so it was partially erroneous due to the overly exclusive link I made with a dependent relationship (which does not exist in the case of reparation). for there a tacit minimum below which you cannot go beneath.

“Les trois modes de transfert. Translated by Wilfred Douglas Halls. Testart. 145–279. edited by Marcel Mauss. 1997. Translated by Simonne and André Devyver. Alain. Les argonautes du Pacifique occidental. These definitions will also permit us to perceive that a form of commercial exchange that has been mistakenly conceived in terms of gift and counter-gift is in fact an exchange—but not a mercantile one (chapter 5). The “soul” of the primitive. Valérie Lécrivain. Smith. Critique du don. 2002. “Le prix de la fiancée: Richesse et dépendance dans les sociétés traditionnelles.” In Sociologie et anthropologie. The Puyallup-Nisqually. Marian W. At this point we return to the discussion we had about the counterpart. we will say that a gift is a transfer of a good that 1. ———. [In the rest of this book (Testart 2007). New York: Columbia University Press. Lucien. 1950. and Nicolas Govoroff.] these definitions will enable me to demonstrate that of the two great institutions of the preliterate world that are considered to be founded on the gift—the potlatch and the kula—only the former actually is based on gift-giving. and 2. In a general way. Alain. Alain. Paris: Syllepse.” La Recherche 354: 34–40. Allen. Testart. The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. 1928. Allen. “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison des l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques. Paris: Gallimard. Testart. To conclude. Bronislaw. 1963. implies the renunciation of any right over this good as well as of any right that might arise from this transfer. London: Routlege. the latter is not (see chapters 3 and 7).” Gradhiva 21: 39–58. Translated by Lilian Ada Clare. 1940. London: G.260 | Alain TESTART character as a gift. Mauss. 1923. Primitive mentality. ———. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . Translated by Lilian Ada Clare. these precise definitions will serve as the basis for a critique of the classic theses of social anthropology concerned with the role and importance of the gift in preliterate societies. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. 2007. Marcel. 1990. that is not itself required. London: G. References Lévy-Bruhl. in particular that of requiring anything by way of counterpart. Malinowski.

and the conception of social evolution. money. slavery. Alain TESTART is Director (emeritus) of Research at the CNRS in Social Anthropology and has published fourteen books on Australian Aborigines. mais pas exigé.testart@college-de-france. Cette fiction sert à montrer que « donner » n’est pas la même chose que « faire un don ». Hunters and Gatherers. insistant sur la notion d’exigibilité. la contrepartie (le contre-don) peut être donné. Ce qui caractérise l’échange est que l’on est en droit d’exiger la contrepartie de chacun des transferts. ou pour désigner tout ce que l’on « donne » en impôts) qu’ils en concluent à l’importance du don dans notre société actuelle. and other topics. Neolithic and Palaeolithic iconography. He is currently working with Prehistorian Archaeologists on the interpretation of deposits. Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale CNRS. religion. On peut aussi montrer cela en remontant à l’étymologie latine. EHESS and Collège de France 52 rue du cardinal Lemoine 75005 Paris France alain. Dans le don.WHAT IS A GIFT? | 261 Qu’est-ce qu’un don? Résumé: Cet article introduit la question de la définition du don sur le mode humoristique en imaginant des anthropologues venus de la planète Mars et entendant si souvent le verbe « donner » (par exemple « donner » de l’argent pour payer dans une boutique.fr 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 249–61 . au contraire. L’article se termine par une définition précise du don.