The scholarly literature has been dominated by anthropologists and sociologists, who have tended to posit a binary opposition between gift exchange as an economic system and as a social system.
Anthropologists have largely followed the lead of pioneering gift scholar Marcel Mauss by concentrating on non-market societies and their gift exchange economies.
I have found that anxiety about gift giving and debates over what constitutes the perfect gift have a long history, which began with Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-nineteenth century.
This essay will trace how we got from Emerson’s idealism—he defined the gift as “a portion of thyself” rather than something that could be purchased—to the crass pragmatism of the gift registry.
This ambivalence about the registry, rooted in our discomfort with the “audacity” of someone telling us what to buy them for a gift, seems widespread today, judging by the number of outraged letters sent to etiquette columns.
This is particularly true when prospective recipients request the ultimate pragmatic gift of money.Like Hugh, I hate that the registry tells me I cannot figure out the “perfect” gift based on my knowledge of the individual in question, but have to buy what s/he selected, specified right down to the pattern, color, etc., with no room for creativity.But, like David, I love the registry in other cases, when I have no idea what to buy, especially when I barely know the recipient (my boss’s daughter, for instance).Many Americans, myself included, have a love-hate relationship with the registry, which is of American origins but has begun to seep into Europe.The gift registry enables a couple getting married (or, today, someone anticipating just about any life occasion) to publish a detailed wish list of gift items, along with information about how prospective givers can buy and send them.He turns gift-giving into a test, which I don’t think is fair at all.” Sedaris related that he, in contrast, kept a running list of gift ideas for himself, and was always happy to share it with people wanting to give him a gift.He simply didn’t understand why Hugh wasn’t similarly forthcoming (Sedaris). Ellen Litwicki, is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Fredonia.Her research and teaching areas include topics in American cultural history, research methods, public history, and digital humanities.In one of the few historical studies, Natalie Zemon Davis looked at the transition to a market economy in sixteenth-century France, arguing that gift exchange persisted as a cultural system alongside the emerging system of commodity transaction.I would suggest that the social/cultural system of gift giving does not simply parallel the commercial economy, but that the two are intertwined.