Tuesday, 10 June 2014

To give, to receive, to reciprocate

When Cocos Malays give presents, it probably makes closer and better relations between them.

Gift-giving forms a major part of social life on Home Island. In this blog, I outline some forms of gift-giving and discuss how an anthropologist might approach gift-giving.

 Gifts for Travel 

Giving selawat and an embrace

When Home Islanders travel to Perth and onwards, they give and receive presents. The travellers take also take presents of fish and other fruits of the sea that they have gathered in an 'esky' (Australian English for styrofoam box).  Inside the box is fish, gong gong, and other goodies.

At Perth airport with Fi and Fitriah. The latter is standing in front of an "esky" sent by Nek Sofia with the anthropologist family from Home Island to Perth. 

People often give envelopes (selawat) in which cash is stored to the travelers. On the ferry from Home Island to West Island for a Friday flight, I saw one woman receive four envelopes. She apparently had another four or five in her possession.

These lucky children received selawat with $5 inside!

 These seemed to have been collected on the way to the ferry. When they return the travelers bring gifts. I've only heard about it, but I've been told that the traveler also receives gifts upon return. For example, Nek Sofia's neighbors, friends and family cooked her dishes to eat after her return from a one week trip to Perth.

Gifts in Rituals

Gifts hanging from the climbing pole
Gifts often feature in rituals. Fundamentally, rituals are actions with meaning. Rituals can also  incorporate chanting and music, dancing, feats, costumes, eating, drinking and so on. Thus, the circumcision ritual I attended had mengarak, silat,  climbing the poll, special clothes for the boy, a large feast, and (in former times apparently) drinking and much else besides.

 Gift-giving can often be apparent in all the above attributes.  The men provided the chanting also did this as a gift, but this is implicit.

Gift-giving can also be explicit. Sometimes the meaningful action is a presentation of a gift  (like when I get a birthday present wrapped in paper and with a card).

Gifts of Food

Perhaps the most common kind of gift is food. A big catch is normally shared between neighbors.

Wives dividing up a haul of fish
Neighboring women give each other little titbits in the course of everyday life. Examples of this include main courses of meals, desert treats, seafood (especially delicacies like gong gong), bought chocolates, et cetera. I have heard of staples like rice and cooking oil being given in this way but I haven't seen it yet. So I think it tends to be delicacies that either take time to prepare, or cost  money to buy. 

Another form of food gift occurs in 'food gatherings' (jemput makan). This is a term that some, but not all, people I have spoken with used to describe gatherings for eating. 'Food gatherings' can take various forms. 

Food gathering 1: Typically on Friday or Saturday nights a group of four or five married couples will bring plates to 1 of the group's house and eat and chat until late in the evening. The group visits the house of alternating members. The group is sometimes called a "klab makan" (eating club). I'm told this is a recent innovation.One does not really have a name, but I have heard the term  'eating club' (klab makan) used to refer to it. Sometimes "geng"

 (gang) is also used.

A klab makan. Four couples, all grandparents attended and me.

Food gathering 2: Gatherings for eating also form an important part of rituals. I have discussed this in relation to circumcisions and funerals. I'm told that more extensive gatherings for eating also occur at weddings. Thus, we could say that in the gift economy, food is an important currency.

Dishes prepared by different women. The men always eat first.
Thus food is exchanged in ritual and non-ritual settings.

Gifts in almost everything

In fact, in many aspects of Cocos Malay life that I have written about gifts feature. When men get together to lay the foundations of a house they are providing a gift. So are the wives who prepare food for the men. When home Island residents allow us as anthropologists to take part in their lives they are also giving us something. In getting together to help prepare food for a wedding, people provide gifts. So far, I have considered some basic elements of the "who" (family, neighbors, and friends), "when" (travel and ritual) and "what" (food and money) of gift-giving.

This widespread nature of giving not specific to Cocos Malay society. Anthropologists are accustomed to see it in many cultures. We tend to attach much significance to it. To understand why we need to look at how anthropologists approach economics.

Payment and Present

My elementary education in economics provided me with a simple overview of economics. Humans started off bartering, then they invented money, and then you got Wall Street. Anthropologists look at economy differently. They reject this idea of economic history and see economy as incorporating much more than barter and buying.

Let's start by saying that humans exchange 'goods' and 'services' among themselves in different ways. If, for example, I clean your windows, I might do it as a present or for payment. Anthropologists have, for the most part, focused on these two forms: present and payment.  

If it's for payment, my labor cleaning your windows is (what I want to call) a service commodity. I clean your windows for an agreed value, based on what I can get for cleaning windows on the market. After you pay me, you do not expect me to stick around for dinner; and nor do I expect a wrapped present. This form of exchange is based maximizing profit, it is based on the market, and one form it takes is capitalism.
Laying concrete as part of road building for the shire. While not entirely devoid of gift-giving elements, this work is, for the most part, the provision of a service on the market.

If it's as a favor, my labor cleaning your windows is a gift. When you do another person a favor or when you give a present, you are engaged in gift-giving. A birthday present, a Valentine's chocolate, a Christmas hamper, a retirement send-off, a graduation gift; these are all examples of gifts. Humans tend to idealize such presents as done simply as a favor, out of love, without expectation of anything in return.

The two forms of exchange often overlap in ways that can be complicating. For example, you invite your boss for dinner, but next month you're the only person who misses out on promotion.

Analysis: Giving, receiving, reciprocating

Stock photo...may not resemble actual Christmas

Plenty of people have provided searing analyses of market-based exchange; Marx probably stands highest among them. As for gift exchange, it was Mauss who spoiled the party. Even though he like gifts, he really ruined Christmas for me with his book The Gift. As he observed, there is no such thing as a 'true gift' as we like to conceive of it. Rather, gift-giving is based on three principles; to give, to receive, to give-back (that is 'to reciprocate').  

 If you come to my wedding and give me a toaster, I should receive it. I should not say "sorry, I already got three toasters, I don't want this!". Also, you would be entitled to expect me to give you a wedding present when you (or if not you, your children) get married.

You should give, I should receive, and I should reciprocate. Aside from pointing out the principles of giving, receiving, and reciprocating, Mauss made an even more significant observation.

Gift-giving ties people together. For example, when I was a young adult, my friends were people who came to my birthday parties and/or gave me presents. My family were people who I might celebrate Christmas and swap presents with. My sweetheart was a person whom I was obliged to provide Valentines' presents too. Exchanging gifts would make these relationships closer; not exchanging these gifts would make the relationships more distant.

In summary,  Mauss made three huge theoretical insights in The Gift

1. Giving gifts is an obligation among humans; 
2. Giving, receiving, and reciprocating characterizes gift-giving; 
3. Gifts bring people (and things) together.

Of course, gift-giving does not necessarily build stronger communities. For, not giving gifts (for example ignoring the birthday of your cousin with whom you have lately been arguing) can pull you apart. But if you give a present to someone, this does tend to form a bond.

Final thoughts

Giving gifts forms a large part of social life among the Cocos Malays. It can be explicit or implicit and can occur during and outside rituals. And in this, Cocos Malay culture is similar to every other culture I have read about.

Further reading

Mauss, M. The Gift. Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies

Polanyi K. 2001 [1944]. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times. Boston MA: Beacon

Sahlins, M. 1972. Stone Age Economics.