The illicit gift and the offer you cannot refuse

The illicit gift and the offer you cannot refuse

The Gift by Marcel Mauss is one of the most profound essays in sociology and anthropology. Mauss was interested in what happened between people, as that is where the social can be found. The structured obligation of the gift is a recurring act. Seen ‘in totality’ as Mass put it, the gift affirms and reproduces cultural values, social relationships and hierarchies. The millions of gift giving acts that take place each day throughout the world are unremarked other than between giver and receiver. Yet these acts bind and symbolise social relationships. They are systems of ethics, resource distribution, status maintenance, and conflict play.

Mauss implies (or Evans-Pritchard interprets in the intro to the 1966 edition) that there is a fundamental difference in the gift exchange between ‘archaic’ and modern societies. Modern economies have substituted a secular, instrumental exchange for the previous thicket of moral-ethical universes. He leaves open the question of whether the instrumental exchange is another type of generalised human moral exchange or is distinct in belonging entirely to the mechanical realm. I put my money on the former, though it does have unique characteristics. Anthropological data shows societies where instrumental necessities are exchanged using non-monetary, non rational means.

Exchange in the marketplace is every bit an invocation of morality and principles of the social system. We can tell that when the rules start to be broken. The reaction is not as one might expect to an instrumental error but a moral breach. As Douglas points out in her foreword to the 2002 edition the distinction creates the category of charity, giving without expectation of reciprocity. A free gift is doled out without social ties between giver and given to. It is a calculated insult, a power play, or worst of all, beneficent pity. Hence the meaningless ‘thank you’ given in return. A gift that is given in expectation or obligation of reciprocity is something else: it is an opportunity for action and solidarity. It presents a challenge to honour to be met. It is creative and socially binding.

Just a quick pro-tip for students here: referring to the subtle differences between two or more different editions of a classic gives you ultimate nerd points with us.

Dr. Masson and myself (Masson and Bancroft, 2018) examined some aspects of reciprocity at work in illicit markets. I want to recap this a little and examine how it applies in more explicit gifting contexts with illicit drugs. We used Parry and Bloch’s (1989) morality of exchange to show how illicit exchanges involved a moral accounting among their members. These elements of obligation to a wider ideal of the illicit market ecosystem helped maintain the resilience of drug markets in the face of a fragile infrastructure.  There are more coercive examples of the offer that binds as examined in the use of credit by drug dealers (Moeller and Sandberg 2017). Higher level dealers use partial debt forgiveness as a way of maintaining control over lower level dealers. In other environments drug users employ micro-exchanges of opiates to maintain a persistent gift economy which maintains a degree of solidarity in otherwise highly atomised and unforgiving surroundings. That can extend to a more generalised reciprocity which does not rely on dyadic exchange. As we said in the article, none of this is necessarily ‘nice’. Gifting can go along with aggression, exploitation and intimidation.

Masson K and Bancroft A (2018) ‘Nice people doing shady things’: Drugs and the morality of exchange in the darknet cryptomarkets. International Journal of Drug Policy 58: 78–84. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.05.008.

Mauss M (1966) The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Cohen and West.

Mauss M (2002) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Routledge classics. London: Routledge.

Moeller K and Sandberg S (2017) Debts and Threats: Managing Inability to Repay Credits in Illicit Drug Distribution. Justice Quarterly 34(2): 272–296. DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2016.1162321.

Parry, J., & Bloch, M. (1989). Money and the morality of exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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