French sociologist Marcel Mauss once described Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest who used gift exchange to establish social hierarchies, displaying wealth through sumptuous banquets and excessive consumption. Gift-giving, of course, represents a significant site of consumption in modern American society as well, from birthdays to an ever-growing list of holidays -- Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Administrative Assistant Appreciation Day (or whatever they're calling it now).
In particular, I was reminded this past Christmas of how our entire economy revolves around the seasonal holiday gift exchange -- buying each other iPods and DVDs and all other manner of consumer goods. The retail industry pretty much depends on the Christmas season to stay in business, even if many Americans must accumulate credit card debt to meet their perceived social obligations. But gift-giving hasn't lost its potential to assert and reproduce social hierarchies, as the very act of giving can place the giver in a superior social position, particularly when that person has greater wealth and resources. Parents often give excessively to their children, and in many social rituals, men are expected to lavish consumables on women -- whether it's roses and chocolates on Valentine's Day, or expensive jewelry to cement a long-term commitment like an engagement.
So I wonder, then, about the social implications of a consumer society that depends on financially precarious gift-exchange to sustain itself economically. For many of us, gift-giving may represent an expression of affection and may strengthen social bonds, but to what degree does it further entrench existing social hierarchies of power and dependence?