Research Communications

Gift Exchange 

Scholars explore the history and evolution of gift giving

Nov. 4, 2009

In 18th century England, there was no such thing as a no-strings-attached gift.  Landowners and statesmen provided benevolence and patronage in exchange for displays of deference and support from those of lower social ranking.

Although the rise of capitalism appeared to change that, the concept of “gift giving” is still an essential part of everyday life—even in a culture that’s centered on commodity exchange, says Linda Zionkowski, an Ohio University professor of English.

“We like to think of the market economy and gift giving as separate, but they are always involved in each other,” says Zionkowski. “The split that you begin to see in the 18th century was never entire.”

 Illustration by Alix Northrup

Illustration: Alix Northrup, Ullman Design

Zionkowski and Cynthia Klekar, an assistant professor of English at Western Michigan University, co-edited a recent collection of essays, The Culture of the Gift in Eighteenth-Century England, that examines the evolution of gift giving. The scholars chose 11 essays that focus on topics such as the philosophy of commercial and noncommercial transactions, the relationship of gifts to commerce, the gift’s function in erotic exchanges, and the gift and social conduct.

Zionkowski became interested in the effect of gift giving on social roles after serving as a caregiver for aging parents and a daughter. Her offers of gifts such as time, energy, and attention—and the sense of obligation that prompted these gifts—defined her gender role at home and as an educator.

“When a capitalist society begins to see (the gift) as tangential to the workings of a new competitive system, it often becomes the province of women,” she says.

Women have become the principal gift laborers—those who dispense charity take care of people in need in neighborhoods, engage in unpaid labor, and provide education for students, she explains. Men take on the roles of gift laborers too, she says, but not to the same extent.

Zionkowski also argues that paternalistic gift giving hasn’t disappeared from the capitalist system; it’s been re-directed to philanthropic foundations and developing nations. Richer populations provide gifts of aid that come with mandates to develop educational systems, improve infrastructure, and create a responsible citizenry in the image of the benefactors.

Gift giving also lives on in corporate-funded entertainment. The television show “Oprah’s Big Give,” for example, was sponsored by three major companies—Ford, Sprint, and Target.

“It’s a marketing technique to showcase their benevolence,” says Zionkowski. “It makes them appear generous because not only are businesses involved in the market economy, but the gift economy as well.”

By Samantha Kinhan

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2009 issue of Perspectives magazine.

For more information about Zionkowski, visit: