February 2006 Archives

the gift economy

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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?

back to blogging/the media and the message

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I've been away from here for a bit, thanks to the holidays and other demands on my time in the past few months. Hopefully, I'm back now, and will be able to continue writing regularly! Among other topics, I was amused the other day by NPR's coverage of a recent study suggesting that low-fat diets don't lower the risk of heart disease and other health problems.

One commentator suggested that consumers (when did we become consumers?) may be confused by the results of this study, given how long the AMA and other medical organizations have been promoting low-fat, high fiber diets to prevent disease. If you actually read any of the many articles online the study, of course, it wasn't all that confusing in the least -- the researchers tracked a large group of women over a number of years, noting total fat intake but not distinguishing between different kinds of fat. Moreover, most of the participants on the "low-fat" diet didn't succeed in lowering their percentage of calories from fat to the target level, so their diets were only slightly lower in fat than the control group. Ultimately, the study concludes that lowering fat in general may not have much of an impact on longterm health, but had little to say on the advantages of a diet low in saturated fat and higher in vegetable oils.

Suffice to say, of course the public finds the study confusing -- reporters all over the country proclaimed "low fat diets have no impact on disease!" and then go on to explain how actually the study is more complicated than that. As far as I can tell, the researchers didn't find the results nearly as surprising as the news outlets, who are selling the story based on its supposed divergence from mainstream medical thought. It's the media creating the story -- and the confusion! So it seems a little ironic for anyone in the media to wonder why the public might be confused. Thanks, NPR!

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

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