Ethnography as Gift Exchange

A critical workshop recapitulation

Zainabu Jallo

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper’s view on gift exchange. Episode “The Big Bang Theory, Episode “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (2008)

Sheldon: Wait! You bought me a present?
Penny: Uh-huh.
Sheldon: Why would you do such a thing?
Penny: I don’t know. ‘Cause it’s Christmas?
Sheldon: Oh, Penny. I know you think you’re being generous, but the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation.

The conversation above, from an episode of The Big Bang Theory, reveals Sheldon Cooper’s displeasure over a Christmas present Penny got him.  His distress does not stem from the gift itself but the obligation of reciprocity that is associated with gift-giving.

Penny: Now, honey, it’s okay. You don’t have to get me anything in return.
Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me. It’s no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.

Sheldon illustrates one of Anthropology`s oldest conundrums; Gift-giving as an object of study as well as a quagmire researcher`s grapple with in the field. In what is considered the foundational social theories of exchange, Marcel Mauss, in The Gift (1925), begins his inquiry via two questions: first, what are the standards by which a gift received must be repaid? Second, what intensity of meanings is contained in the gift given that obliges the recipient to reciprocate? From his findings in North West America, Melanesia and Polynesia, Mauss states that every gift given is constituent of a structure of reciprocity in which the respect of giver and recipient are involved. The exchange of gifts in this sense, is not reduced to generating economic profit but in establishing and maintaining social relationships, according to Mauss, “a total social phenomenon”. There have been quite a number of diverse theories on gift-giving after Marcel Mauss, of course, but we wouldn’t want to open a can of worms here.

Let`s face it, we are in one way or the other entangled in the quagmire of reciprocity, from friendships, workplace and social etiquettes and even gestures as mundane as smiling back at someone on a bus.

But it does get even more intricate with researchers in the field! My colleagues and fellow anthropologists converged with our musings at the workshop, “Ethnography as Exchange: Power, Money, Debt” organized by Prof. Heinzpeter Znoj, Director of the Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern at Schlöss Ueberstorf from September 20-22, 2018. The workshop set out to explore the myriad ways Anthropologists engage with their research partners. It provided a platform for Ph.D. researchers to share and analyse various intricate situations where an equilibrium in reciprocity with research partners is attempted. Can both parties hold an equal number of aces?

The workshop at first sought to identify newer epistemologies stemming from early 20th-century conceptions of gift-exchange as pioneered by Franz Boas and Marcel Mauss. A quick recollection; Boas recorded the competitive gift-giving of the Kwakwaka’wakw; a lavish ceremony characterized by excessive gift-giving, as practiced amongst the peoples such as Kwakiutl, Chinook, Tlingit and Haida of the Pacific northwest coast. Mauss, on his part, developed a comprehensive inquiry into the concept of exchange on diverse facets of social life, while placing importance on the social corollaries of gift exchange rather than their economic significance. Bronislaw Malinowski, the father of modern field research, in his observation of symbolic exchange in the Trobriand islands, identified the practice of gift economy as some sort of social architect that enhances reciprocal relationships, generates social hierarchies through cultural ceremonies and formalities that preserve social order.

Bronislow Malinowski amongst the Kula traders of the Trobriand Islands (circa. -1920s). We`ve trudged a long way from 20th Century pioneering field-anthropologists such as Malinowski who conducted research under significantly hierarchized fieldwork relations.

But Anthropologists are not merely studying gift exchange. They are always already deeply involved. Znoj, preoccupied with the complicity between anthropologists and their research partners, indicated during the workshop that “we experiment with cooperative ethnographic strategies, such as performance ethnography, and we experience our work as consisting of an ongoing and potentially never-ending give-and-take, with mutual debts and obligations binding us together beyond the research project.”

While presenting her project, guest speaker Kathrin Oester along with project partner Bernadette Brunner illustrated the “give-and-take” relationships between them and their project partners. Their project, modelled after Jean Rouch`s “Ethnofiction”, is a blend of documentary film and fiction in which ethnography is combined in the staging of reality. Oester and Brunner adopt the method of `Shared Anthropology` as a precise form of Maussian exchange relationships while underlining its pedagogical implications for teaching students in media production.  Following a screening of one of their ethnofictions produced in collaboration with 8th and 9th graders, Oester and Brunner noted that “as a gift, representation is never free, and representing someone is always part of a relationship between giver and receiver. In the process, someone`s prestige is either decreased or increased”. Does this then infer that the notion of equilibrium is improbable? They went on to assert – based on their exchange setting – that “representation is linked per se to responsibility in a given power structure where the represented plays either an active or passive role.”

Other workshop participants shared their various fieldwork quagmires; a researcher whose project aims to apply discursive objects of “culture” and “value” in a technology firm, grappled with appropriate ways to build conducive grounds on which successful acts of exchange could be carried out. In self-scrutiny, another participant asked, “Am I doing anthropology correctly?”, as he shared the dilemmas he encountered as he navigated the paths of exchange relationships with his interlocutors on complex political grounds in West Papua.

Znoj warned that it is dangerous to think that gift exchange and reciprocal relationships are in themselves egalitarian and innocent. As the gift economy has been generally identified as elemental to nurturing social connections as well as a means of accruing social wealth, anthropologists have since Mauss dedicated significant deliberation on the subject of reciprocity. Gifts are, therefore, more tended towards their corollaries – social relationships – than to the material or immaterial gifts themselves. Studying reciprocity within the scope of fieldwork offers anthropologists insights into the moral and ethical procedures through which cultural standards, dogmas, and social constraint impact our conduct as researchers.

Fieldwork experiences were also shared by Aldo Haesler who, as a young man of 23 in the 1970s, encountered his first trauma in the field. His research project required fieldwork in Appenzell where he had to interview prostitutes on their decision not to vote. He had thought to himself “what do I have to offer?”, and with each potential participant at whose door he knocked, he got the door shut in his face. A similar situation played out again in the 80s when he engaged in research in informatics asking about the future of money to a group of engineers. “If I wanted to get any information, I had to share their positions.” Sharing positions here means establishing a rapport on somewhat common grounds. But what did he have to offer to establish such a common ground? Nothing really…

Thus, one cannot be led to suppose that with established relationships, all else would be smooth sailing but practical and logistical obstacles among many others often arise. In the two cases mentioned by Haesler, there was an apparent asymmetry and distance in the positionality of both parties. Haesler outlined the ambivalence of gift-giving and how gift-giving is overdetermined by human sentiments. Perhaps it would be easier if we were Martians studying human interactions. “There is the need to make a distinction between goods and gifts,” he emphasized. Quite broadly, gift-giving is construed by anthropologists as a constituent of relational dependency, where the giver goes on being a component of the gift and does not estrange him/ herself from it. Haesler gave an example of Nicolas Thomas` Entangled Objects (1991) that addresses themes crucial to modern anthropology. The book points out the cultural and political undercurrents of colonial relationships as well as the transaction, meanings and understandings embedded in a gift. “Sometimes what we (as anthropologists) see as symbolic objects could be seen as economic objects by the receiver …so we have to be very sensitive about these canonical distinctions when we go into the field.” Therefore, we need to pay heed to the who? What? When? Why? And to whom? Thus gift-exchange is always also about inferences associated with particular gifts.

Nerd Sheldon Cooper, again, hits the nail on the head in an other Christmas-episode, when Penny yet again comes up with a gift:

Sheldon: [Opens Penny’s gift]  Oh, a napkin…
Penny: Turn it over.
Sheldon: [Reading]  “To Sheldon: Live long and prosper… Leonard Nimoy!”
Penny : He came into the restaurant. Sorry the napkin’s dirty – he wiped his mouth with it.
Sheldon: [Face twitching excitedly]  I POSSESS THE DNA OF LEONARD NIMOY?
Penny: Yeah, yeah, I guess, but look, he signed it.
Sheldon Cooper: [Now litteraly shaking with excitement]  Do you realize what this means? All I need is a healthy ovum and I could grow my own Leonard Nimoy!
Penny: Okay, all I’m giving you is the napkin, Sheldon.

Just a used signed napkin for Penny, but for Sheldon, a huge Star Trek geek, it represents a materialized dream before his eyes. He disappears in his room and comes back with half a dozen gift baskets.

Penny : Sheldon, what did you do?
Sheldon Cooper : I know! It’s not enough, is it? Here…
[gingerly hugs Penny] 
Penny : Leonard, look! Sheldon’s hugging me!
Leonard Hofstadter : It’s a Saturnalia miracle!

How do you reconcile an unequal gift exchange where different degrees of value are placed on a gift by receiver and giver? The Big Bang Theory, Episode “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (2008)

Haesler`s nudging questions regarding corollaries of human relationships led him to launch research into reading human relations, reciprocity and outlining differences between a traditional versus a modern grammatic. His investigations culminated into Hard Modernity (2018), in which he proposes new commentaries concerning the origin and historical development of modernity.  At the workshop, he recommended that we (all of humanity) ought to reconsider the origins of modernity: “I have developed a theory to explain the genesis of modernity from the 17th century and discovered a new kind of thinking. Human relations are no more zero-sum games but political sum games” The transition from ancient societies to modern societies, he explained, also consists in leaving a world based on a relationship of mutual indebtedness in a zero-sum game, for another where the exchange is a “win-win.” Here, we traverse economic and game theories in where a person’s profit is equal to another’s loss!

The objective of Hard Modernity appears to be an attempt at illustrating that modernity merely is the configuring of a new social grammatic; a manner of connecting the things of this world and vice versa. Haesler’s book rationalises that, in older “cultures,” the world was closed, and everything was related to each other according to a relation of reciprocity which was conscientiously established. In a modern structure, the world is accessible and unbounded, and human relationships have become more entangled, giving way for a mounting symphonic disorder. Stagnant ancient grammatic has therefore been usurped by a modern, dynamic, grammatic. The traditional grammatic was preoccupied with the scarcity of the world and contrarily, the modern grammatic involves sharing of intelligence and goods of the world. In conclusion, Haesler strongly suggested the search for new methodological paradigms. He gave examples of the two dominant paradigms in sociology: individualism and collectivism as somewhat outdated. “We need new relational paradigms that are not static. A new kind of human relations needs to be conceived of, such as a Meta-conscience.”

One could understand Meta-conscience as a careful listening to one another within this symphonic revolution called modernity.  According to this thought, conscience stimulates us to act in accordance with moral principles or dogmas we already acquired. Meta-conscience is an intensified sense of moral obligation to our own conscience. It is the state in which our consciousness towards responsiveness is heightened. As the world transfigures, our ways of thinking also need to follow suit. How does this affect reciprocity in our research – as well as most other professions that require investigative research? Even when armed with the codes of field ethics, there is undoubtedly no potion that absolves us of the intricacies of exchange in the field. The idea of Meta-conscience within academic research and fieldwork, where interactions are often facilitated by anticipations of reciprocity and exchange (amidst pending deadlines) sounds like an intensified level of reflexivity. Keeping at the back of a researcher`s (or indeed a journalist’s) mind that collaborative processes in the field are often framed by debt, and that some form of reciprocity is anticipated.

Like Sheldon Cooper, we often find ourselves in obscure exchange situations and even though Haesler’s idea might appear too nebulous to be fittingly applicable to investigative research and his conception of a singular modernity (there are many) misleading, Meta-Conscience might indeed be a  profitable tool for navigating field relationships in the 21st Century.

Prof. Aldo Haesler and Prof. Heinzpeter Znoj with workshop participants. Photo by the author.

Boas, Franz. The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. Johnson Reprint Corp., 1970.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

Douglas, Mary. “Foreword: No free gifts,” In The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, vii-xviii, New York & London: W.W. Norton, 1990.

Haesler, Aldo J. Hard Modernity: La Perfection Du Capitalisme Et Ses Limites. Éditions Matériologiques, 2018.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, Translated by W.D. Halls, New York & London: W.W. Norton, 1990.

P. Bourdieu, “Marginalia – Some additional notes on the gift”, In The Logic of the Gift: Towards an Ethic of Generosity, Alan D. Schrift (ed.), (1997), 231-241, New York: Routledge.

Sluka, Jeffery. “Fieldwork Relations and Rapport: Introduction.” Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader, by Antonius C. G. M. Robben and Jeffrey A. Sluka, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp. 137–142.

Thomas, Nicholas. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific. Harvard University Press, 1991.


1929 [1, Uncredited before, likely Billy Hancock, a pearl trader resident of the Trobriand Islands, who died. English: Picture of Bronislaw Malinowski with Natives on Trobriand Islands. October 1917. London School of Economics Library Collections.


Lorre, Chuck, and Bill Prady. “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” in The Big Band Theory. IMDb,

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