Monday, December 19, 2011

Visions of sugar plums and Marcel Mauss

How I spent the last week: Giving finals. Grading finals. Drawing long eyelashes on Beanie and her seven comrades-in-arms for five performances of "The Nutcracker."

Watching Beanie march on stage before a packed house - it was something to see. It makes me wish every child had opportunities like this. To perform and to transform and to learn - and to teach her mother what it means rise to the occasion and act with grace. I am so proud and so hopeful for her :)


I like to think of Christmas as the Mauss wonderful time of the year.

Yuk, yuk, yuk.

A friend posted on FB the following link to comedian Jimmy Kimmel's shtick urging parents to punk their kids with prank Christmas presents.

She posted the link, commenting that while she found it side-splitting, she also wondered whether or not it was abusive. Others then mused about the potential for children to draw lessons about gratitude from the stunt.

I hope not. As a parent, I hope that my children never learn to be grateful for a gift deliberately selected to be just plain bad.

As an anthropologist, I also hope that they learn a bit about the meanings of gifts.

Marcel Mauss observed that a reason why it might be better to give than to receive is because gifts create obligation to the giver from the recipient. Or as anthropologist Lee Cronk wrote in an article that is widely taught in introductory anthropology classes, gifts always come with strings attached.

It is at this point when I am teaching on gift economies in ANTH 100 that I need to remind students that it is not necessarily "bad" to be under obligation. When you think about it, feeling obligation, as individuals and as groups, enables us to live together. We call it a sense of responsibility and of belonging. I think when my students start to feel the weight of obligation as "bad," they are responding to their understanding that giving gifts can be assertions of status and power - and receiving gifts (or feeling obliged to receive them) can be experienced as a loss of status and power. (For more on this, see the classic ethnographic film, "Ongka's Big Moka," with the memorable line from Ongka, "In giving so much, I have knocked you down."

As much as we tend to want to forget that status and power exist between adults and children and within families, they do. This is perhaps what prompted my friend to think aloud about whether or not the prank Christmas presents were abusive.

I will open myself to accusations of being utterly humorless and say that I think punking your kids with prank Christmas presents is mean.

Of course, having no sense of humor is my specialty as a woman, in particular a feminist, and a member of an ethnic minority in the U.S. The former also makes me fiercely sarcastic.

However, I say with complete sincerity: Enjoy your winter holidays :)


  1. Enjoyed yor blog...a friend sent me your URL a year ago and only now did i actually look. My name is Claudua Chang and I have taught anthropology for more years than I'd like to admit being almost two decades older than you. I am an archaeologist but ended up teaching more cultural than anything else. Mauss is colleague and I talk about him all the time..perfect for undergrads...the hau of a gift. Just think about the most puzzling gifts you have ever received and your estimation of the material item in light of your presumed knowledge of the giver. I remember my French frien giving us the ugliest sculpture I had ever seen..a eproduction of

  2. Thanks for your comment, Claudua! I agree about Mauss. So apparently do my students, who have more than enough to say on the topic of gifts. I am thinking that we need more Mauss...