Paul Cooper on higher education as a gift economy

6 December 2017

Building on the work around gift economies by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowksi, Marcel Mauss, Marshall Sahlins, C A Gregory and Marilyn Strathern, Paul Cooper of the University of Southampton interpreted higher education through that lens:  


Gift exchange is typically cyclical, with recipients striving later to give back more than was initially received. This may mean that they in turn secure prestige and turn the tables on the other parties to the exchange. The social identity of the giver is thus bound up with that which is given, and hence gifts are taken to embody something of the identity of the giver. In this respect there is a clear contrast between gift exchange and the concept of a commodity within capitalist economies - namely, that by virtue of embodying something of the identity of the giver, gifts are thought of not as the alienable artefacts of commodity economies, but as inalienable objects that serve to bind people socially. Things, as well as people, may therefore be thought of as 'persons'. With this in mind, Gregory reformulates Marx's dictum as follows: 'non-commodity (gift) exchange is an exchange of inalienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal dependence' (1982: 12). In contrast to the amoral logic of commodity exchange, the logic of gift exchange is often construed as being fundamentally moral and predicated upon obligations of reciprocity. Both Sahlins (1972) and Mauss subscribe to this view, for example. Mauss further suggests that gift-giving entails a threefold relation of obligations: the obligations to give, to receive, and to repay (1974 [1925]). ... Mauss's threefold reciprocal moral obligations to give, to receive and to repay are also clearly, if somewhat idealistically, reflected in educational processes. Firstly we have the commonly recognized obligation on the teacher's part to prepare and to disseminate his or her knowledge to the best of his or her ability - a responsibility inculcated into me whilst training as a teacher. Thereafter, students have the reciprocal obligation to attend and to fully participate in class, and the further obligation to give of their best in completing assignments and assessments.

Excerpted from his 2004 paper, The Gift of Education: An Anthropological Perspective on the Commoditization of Learning published in Anthropology Today and available on JSTOR.