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|
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
|Wives dividing up a haul of fish|
|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.|
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.
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.
|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.|
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.
Sahlins, M. 1972. Stone Age Economics.