Monthly Archives: October 2008

From Marcel Mauss: Reflections on Gift-giving, Charity, and Justice

a gift
The “Note on Alms” is all but a two page passage in Marcel Mauss‘s famous sociological essay entitled “The Gift” in which this author endeavors to characterize the relationship between giving, receiving, and the obligation to return the gift in tribal societies. Mauss begins to liken the idea of charity to playing God while giving credence to the basis of justice that was previously evident in religious concepts, much like the gift-giving rituals he observes and comments on:

The Arab sadaka originally meant exclusively justice, as did the Hebrew zedaqa; it has come to mean alms. We can even date from the Mischanaic era, from the victory of the ‘Poor’ in Jerusalem, the time when the doctrine of charity and alms was born, which, with Christianity and Islam, spread around the world. It was at this time that the word zedaqa changed in meaning, because in the Bible it did not mean alms. (Mauss, “The Gift,” 18)

It seems natural that with unequal distribution of wealth and religious mandates to give to the poor, we have come to understand this vision of justice for the world in terms of charity, but it has always seemed to me that the power of the concept of justice is that it does not call people to give up things they have no need for and discard them onto the poor.  Rather, it envisions that each one of us gives up something we truly need to acquire something else we truly need as human beings. It requires redistribution of wealth, an act that is much accomplished in Mauss’s observation of gift-giving societies.
In Mauss’s sytem, a gift does not impoverish another person, because it places an obligation upon that person to give back, and of themselves; furthermore, gift produces relationship in these societies, and enhances solidarity.

How does this reflection from Mauss challenge our religious notions of charity and justice when it comes to our own giving? How are we looking to not just change the inequality in the world for the moment, but for eternity…is this not the kingdom of God on earth that we hear so much about?

Just some thoughts…would love to hear yours.


“Don’t compare, don’t despair…”

“Reading Contemporary Ethnography” is the title of my favorite class this semester and my favorite part of the week. On Thursday afternoons I always have this sense of making it through, since I have three classes on Thursday, and this is the last one. We’ve read all these crazy, gigantic books (Market Day in Provence, A Season in Mecca, and Travels with Tooy), but there’s only 4 people in the class, one of which is the professor’s husband! and it is such a great mix of conversation and critical thought. Yesterday our professor shared her photos from her field work in Tamil Nadu, India; she is such a breath of fresh air in this rigorous academic environment, not that she isn’t brilliant heself, but she takes every opportunity to encourage each of us to study what we love, and even tells us not to worry too much over little papers and things.

“I didn’t do well in everything in life, but life always finds a way,” she told us yesterday in her thick French accent. And then in her boisterous style, she told us all, “I always say, don’t compare, don’t despair, just keep going with what you love!”

There’s so much I have to learn about China

little Chinese girl


This sentence roughly translates as, “I am a female student, and I am also a Chinese student,” and is one of the few things I know how to say after taking up Chinese as part of my graduate studies in Anthropology three weeks ago. Much of this thinking toward China has been going on subconsciously, perhaps, for awhile. My advisor at Davidson shamelessly pushed me to go to China (his own interest was in studying the Catholic Church in China), and my husband has been there several times and loves talking about Chinese culture.

But it is only recently that I’ve not only thought about expanding my linguistic and global knowledge to include China, but I’ve also started to think about how international adoptions (1/4 of which are Chinese baby girls) are connected with a political development narrative. I have all sorts of questions about international adoption, colonialism, and culture, many of which were fragmented in an emotional way after watching a silly Lisa Ling spot that my Chinese neighbor over at Butler sent my way. The little Chinese phrase I put above marks some of my confused emotion: in Chinese classrooms today there could be about 28 boys to just 11 girls, while children in America are growing up with little Chinese sisters who, of course, can’t speak Chinese.

Perhaps some of you will watch the video and begin to ask your own questions about the complicated saga of international adoption. There was something eerily meaningful and touching about seeing these families come together, seeing these Chinese baby girls lifted out of the hundreds of cribs in their orphanages to come to America.

But then there were also moments when I cringed–like when one of the fathers proudly says that his Chinese daughter’s name will disappear forever for the American one he and his wife have picked out. Couple all this alongside the growing gender disparity in China, in a country where boys are favored (and for good reason–in the countryside, boys will stick around and care for their parents in their old age, while girls will move away) and girls have been discarded (which is complicated by a policy that only allows one child), and you have not only questions for our country in terms of global responsibility, but questions that in just a few generations will powerfully effect the world, like it or not.

In this way, I am overwhelmed by how much I have to learn even to approach zhong.guo, the middle country, China, but I am also compelled to try to study in and learn about China. No matter where I go, I will encounter Chinese influence, and I want to understand this country and its people better; along the lines of the basic philosophy of anthropology, it will no doubt (at the very least), help me understand myself and my fellow Americans better as well.