Researchers first began to theorise about gifting in the 1920s.

The earliest work, by Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) and Marcel Mauss (1925), studied the ways in which certain non-Western cultures interacted. They interpreted some of these interactions in terms of gifting and thus established concepts about gifting that have been extrapolated to cultures around the world and continue to dominate or influence thinking on the topic to this day.
Probably the most important of these early ideas is reciprocity – the idea that although gifts are freely given, one cannot usually receive a gift without some social expectation to return the favour or remain in the giver’s social ‘debt’. For this reason among others, gifting is regularly understood as a key means of binding individuals into a social system. (One well-known but contested study suggests that debt-free gifting is possible between romantic partners.) The concept of gifting as it is most commonly understood – such as giving birthday or wedding presents – has over time been applied to a range of behaviours involving discretionary giving, such as tipping waitstaff or even bribing government officials. We use the terms ‘relational’ to refer to the more commonly understood type of gifting, which we use as the basis for gifting intimate experiences in museum settings. The other forms of gift-related behaviour (such as tipping or bribery) are referred to as ‘transactional’ and do not underlie this work.

In the past half-century or so, gifting has become a significant research topic, not only where it started in sociology and anthropology but in marketing and consumer research, where a great deal of very detailed work has been done around gift-givers’ attitudes and selection processes (with less attention paid until recently to the gift receiver). Researchers have also paid attention to the negative aspects of gifting, primarily feelings of obligation and anxiety. In terms of digital gifting, two observations have dominated the discussion. First, the fact that giving a digital gift is relatively easy – in a few clicks you can have a voucher on its way, or a link to a song or video that you might not even have to pay for – is a major contribution to the fact that people tend to value digital gifts less than they do physical gifts. Second, discussions of ‘gifting’ sometimes mix with discussions of ‘sharing’, and it is not always clear exactly where one ends and the other begins. However, digital sharing seems to suffer from at least as much perceived lack of value as digital gifting. Our work on intimate gifting in museum contexts makes use of existing theories around transactional gifting, looks at the experience from both the giver’s and the receiver’s point of view, anticipates negative feelings of obligation and anxiety, and makes a point of creating a sense of personal value in the exchange of digital gifts.

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