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Wrapped Gift



True or false: "a free gift makes no friends"

(Laidlaw, 2000)

“A free gift makes no friends” (2000), the title of Laidlaw’s ethnography on Jain renouncers, raises a few questions: What is the free gift? Does it exist? Why does it matter? According to Laidlaw the free gift expects no recompense, it is simply given with no obligation to return. Jacques Derrida would however say otherwise, arguing that actually there is no such thing as the free gift at all. Derrida affirms that the free gift cannot exist because there always exists a balance of exchanges and expectations of return.

Laidlaw uses his ethnography on Jain renouncers to suggest that the free gift can however exist and also challenges the idea that the gift is always reciprocal and inalienable. This argument is raised in line with Mauss’ definition of the gift as a ‘total social phenomenon’, which advocates that because the gift is inalienable from the giver it becomes socially reproductive because it expects a social return (1925). If however the free gift does exist, which Laidlaw suggests it can, then some gifts are in fact alienable, which counters both Mauss and Derrida. 

I will begin with Laidlaw’s work on Jain renouncers to argue that the free gift can make friends in certain contexts. However, I will follow this by demonstrating that the free gift will not make friends in all societies and that exchange relationships constitute the most prominent ties of sociality. 

Laidlaw explains that Jain renouncers strive for spiritual purification and salvation by giving up all food and keeping themselves pure from relationship hindrances. The ‘dan’ in this context then becomes the closest thing to the free gift. The ‘dan’ is food that is given to Jain renouncers by Jain lay families. As renouncers wonder through families during mealtime there is a very carefully worked out performance of rejection by the renouncers and insistence on the part of the families to accept their food. Once families have placed food in the renouncers’ alms bowls, they take it back to their shared home and place all food in a mass. This is crucial as it removes any attachment from any particular family or relationship in a process of anonymising the gift they have received. However, Laidlaw raises that despite much effort going into ensuring this gift is not tainted with reciprocity, it does not mean that the free gift is not socially productive. The free gift still produces a relationship between renouncers and lay families as well as producing the moral universe of Jain society. This free gift helps reproduce the religious and moral lives of the community, which is an extremely social phenomenon. I argue therefore that the free gift can actually make friends in the sense that it is still able to be socially productive despite not expecting any social return. Although, these ‘friends’ are not as deep or as long-term as gift exchange relationships. 


I will now argue that the free gift does not make friends in all societies. Even though it is true that the free gift can make friends to a certain extent, following Mauss, I argue that gift exchange is more prominent for social relations. Yan’s ethnography on guanxi in a North China village advocates that gift exchange is fundamental to sociality (1996). Guanxi are networks of personal connections that cultivate a social space where people are morally and economically bound into exchange networks. Yan argues that guanxi maintains social order by regulating social behaviour and is effective in achieving personal goals. Economically, for example guanxi networks become more valuable than money. Yan also emphasises that if you do not engage in gift exchange, you are socially exiled and excluded, leading to social death. It is precisely gift exchange that constitutes social relations, which again demonstrates how guanxi resembles Mauss’ idea of the gift as a ‘total social phenomenon’. Villagers perceive guanxi as encompassing an extensive variety of personal relationships, which need to be consistently cultivated through exchange. 


Similarly in Durham’s ethnography on ‘soliciting gifts and negotiating agency’ in Botswana the free gift also does not make any friends (1995). Durham argues that agency in Botswana must be consistently reaffirmed through social encounters of both denying and demanding. Gift exchange acts as the platform upon which these social encounters happen, and is the backdrop for their entire social world of achieving personhood, independence and agency. Durham explains how playful demands are forms of encounters that initiate exchange relationships and are fundamental to a long-term process of agency. Playful demands are key to affirming agency because as an asker, you are being independently agentive and are initiating a powerful exchange relationship and as a receiver to the demand, you are also able to enact agency by denying the request. The free gift would not work in this setting, as it would not allow agency and independence to be established, which is key to sociality in Botswana. Gift exchange is fundamental to social life, which is why the free gift would also make no friends here.


I have argued that ‘true’, the free gift can make friends even though they expect no reciprocity, however free gifts will not make friends in all societies. Most societies still depend on exchange relationships as the most prominent way to make friends and constitute sociality, following Mauss’ theory on gifts as a ‘total social phenomenon’. Both Guanxi and playful demands in Botswana expressed this by enforcing that if you do not engage in exchange relationships, you will be socially exiled and not be able to constitute any social relationships. The free gift would therefore not make any friends here. 


Even though the free gift can ‘make friends’ to a certain extent, it is gift exchange that constitutes the deepest friendships.



Works Cited


Durham, D. 1995. Soliciting Gifts and Negotiating Agency: The Spirit of Asking in Botswana. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1(1): 111-128. 

Laidlaw, J. 2001. A Free Gift Makes no Friends. JRAI 6(4): 617-634. 

Mauss, M. 1990 [1925]. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge. 


Yan, Y 1996. The Culture of Guanxi in a North China Village. The China Journal 35(35): 1-25.  

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