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Shop shelves loaded with specially packaged items signal the advent of Christmas in mid October. What do we become involved in at Christmas? What is the meaning of our engagement? What are we doing in group behavioral terms? How is giving at the heart of what we do? The academic discipline which can give us significant answers is not Philosophy or Theology or consumer research within the study of Marketing

What helps us understand our gift-giving tradition is Anthropology. It studies group behaviours in communities and has an extensive body of theory derived from ranging fieldwork across the globe in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. An important base of theory is focused on systems of exchange and their significance. The sociologist-anthropologist Marcel Mauss analyses gift-giving systems in his work An essay on the gift: the form and reason of exchange in archaic societies1. He demonstrates that early exchange systems are based on reciprocity in order to build social connections between groups. A classic example of reciprocity is the exchange of sisters in marriage that took place in e.g. the Bambuti society in the Congo. Or another, the Kula ceremonial exchange system in the Trobiand Islands which created social cohesion and was distinctly different from their commodity exchange approach.

Now the web science question which is begged is can we apply these theories to online user behaviors outside of the Christmas context? What is happening in the online communities within and around internet services deploying the Free business models coined and analysed by Chris Addison2? Is there evidence of the classic anthropological gift-giving system between users and entrepreneurs?

Find out more in my next instalment!

1 In L’Année Sociologique, 1925.

2 Free: how today’s smartest businesses profit by giving something for nothing, Chris Addison, 2010.

Written by Caroline Halcrow on October 14th, 2012

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