Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700

Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700

Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700

Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700


Three hundred years ago people made most of what they used, or got it in trade from their neighbours. Now, no one seems to make anything, and we buy what we need from shops. Gifts and Commodities describes the cultural and historical process of these changes and looks at the rise of consumer society in Britain and the United States. It investigates the ways that people think about and relate to objects in twentieth-century culture, at how those relationships have developed, and the social meanings they have for relations with others.Using aspects of anthropology and sociology to describe the importance of shopping and gift-giving in our lives and in western economies, Gifts and Commodities :* traces the development of shopping and retailing practices, and the emergence of modern notions of objects and the self* brings together a wealth of information on the history of the retail trade* examines the reality of the distinctions we draw between the impersonal economic sphere and personal social sphere* offers a fully interdisciplinary study of the links we forge between ourselves, our social groups and the commodities we buy and give.


In this book I work through an intellectual problem that arose when, in 1987, I returned to the United States after four years in England, followed by eight years in Papua New Guinea.

With the perspective granted by long absence, I was struck by the vast number of things Americans had and by the extraordinary amount of time, energy, space and money they devoted to them. Certainly, Americans are not the only people who value objects, but they seemed to do so much more and in different ways than the people in the places where I had lived for almost a third of my life. This is not just another rediscovery of American materialism. It is true that Americans seemed intensely interested in acquiring objects, especially in shopping; but equally I was struck by the interest in giving objects and the almost bizarre mixture of commercialism and sentimentality that went with that giving. This mixture was most striking in Christmas shopping, which was starting earlier and more garishly than I had remembered. I noticed it as well, however, in the more mundane, fabricated ceremonies like Secretary's Day.

Although I did not know it at the time, and certainly did not intend it, my experiences in England and Papua New Guinea made me more sensitive to these aspects of American life. However, and equally fortuitously, my academic work was providing me with the ideas that would help bring the problem into focus. That work was the anthropological study of Ponam Island, a small Papua New Guinea society where I lived in 1979 and which I visited repeatedly over the following seven years when I was teaching at the University of Papua New Guinea. What intrigued me was the way that villagers were involved both with the urban, monetized world of wage labor and commodities, and with the rural round of kinship and ceremonial exchange, as well as the ways that these two parts of their lives affected each other.

This research interest led me to ideas then being developed among anthropologists of Melanesia, of which Papua New Guinea is a part, that drew on the work of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Mauss was especially attractive to Melanesianists for two reasons. He was interested in

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