The Gift, written in 1925 by French sociologist Marcel Mauss is the most famous book on gift exchange. Mauss’s central point was that regardless of intent, in the act of gift giving a reciprocal social bond is formed. As such gift giving can create and reinforce social relationships, including hierarchies.
This is not because one gives a gift expecting for it to be reciprocated; in many cases that would spoil the act. Rather it’s because gift-exchange is one element in how humans forge social bonds and networks. For social ties or friendships to be nurtured and maintained they imply reciprocity, whether it’s a gift, favour, hard work, time, loyalty, or something else.
For example, amongst equals if you buy a person a drink, most often they will buy you one back, if not that same night, perhaps another. Give someone a birthday present, and while you wouldn’t in most situations (unless you’re my sister) provide a list of what you want in return, you will most likely get a birthday present, some time. Do someone a favour and they can “owe you one”. It’s often the same with letter writing, emails and phones calls; you give, you receive.
But what happens when gift exchange occurs between persons who aren’t friends or family. What happens when persons with different levels of power within the social structure are involved in gift-exchange?
For birthdays and Christmas many parents and adults give gifts to children of a financial value the children obviously can’t reciprocate. Adults understand this, but it does not mean that those gifts aren’t given almost like a sacrifice, in wishful expectation perhaps that in return kids will be well behaved, loving and loyal – whether it does or doesn’t turn out that way.
Around the home some give the odd job man a Christmas gift not expecting a gift in return but the ambiguity can imply continued hard work and loyalty as repayment. And do some old, rich men give young attractive women expensive gifts and luxuries? Are they expecting repayment in kind or is another form implied?
In anthropology these sorts of gift exchanges, where one is made subordinate, are described as the “poison in the gift”. And this gets to the heart of the difference between a gift and a bribe.
In the WaPo piece the discussion concerned a Governor, Robert F. McDonnell who investigative reporting revealed had accepted gifts for himself or family members that included “a $6,500 Rolex watch, a $10,000 engagement gift, $15,000 in wedding catering and a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree, not to mention $120,000 in loans” from the chief executive of a particular company.
For the legal teams the main issue was: were the gifts bribes or were they just gifts? Lawyers want to know whether on receiving these gifts, was it clearly articulated to the Governor that something was expected in return.
Yet anthropological research into human behaviour suggests it isn’t just words that can turn a gift into a bribe. A lack of equity in power – particularly economic power in Western society – does this too.
For example if a local Prime Minister accepted the financial gift of fees for their children’s education, they and their lawyers might naively assume that it was just a gift. But if the personal wealth of the PM couldn’t reciprocate such financial generosity, the anthropologist might suggest the PM had immediately become the subordinate in the relationship.
For Mauss gift giving is mostly premised on the idea of reciprocity. If gifts are given between equals reciprocity can be straightforward. Yet if the gift giving takes place between persons who are unequal, then just like the child or odd-job man scenario, while repayment might not really be expected the ambiguity can mean reciprocity of some sort is still implied.
And this is the crux. When a politician accepts gifts they cannot financially afford for themselves and hence reciprocate, often the only way for them to return such generosity is through the power of their office or political contacts. Gifts then, can become bribes without needing the legal benchmark of a verbal confirmation. And everyone implicitly knows it.