Commodification – The Transition from Gift to Commodity

For centuries, humans have been engaging in economic activities through various systems that have evolved over time. Among these systems is the transition from gift-giving to the commodification of goods and services. In anthropology, this evolution has been documented and analyzed for its impact on society and culture.

The evolution from gift-giving to commodification is not a sudden change but a gradual one that has occurred over the course of human history. The concept of gift-giving is rooted in the reciprocity principle where gifts are exchanged as part of a social relationship. In traditional societies, gifts played a vital role in maintaining social relationships, creating alliances, and establishing prestige.

However, as societies began to expand and develop, the simple exchange of gifts became inadequate in providing for the needs of a growing population. With the introduction of agriculture and animal domestication, people were able to produce goods in larger quantities, leading to the emergence of a surplus economy. As a result, exchange became more complex, and the need arose for a more organized economic system.

The Characteristics of ‘The Gift’

In anthropology, the concept of ‘the gift’ refers to the exchange of goods or services without the expectation of a direct return. The gift can be seen as a reciprocal exchange that strengthens social ties between individuals, families, and groups within a community. The study of ‘the gift’ has become essential for anthropologists to understand the social and economic systems in traditional societies.

Voluntary Exchange

The first characteristic of ‘the gift’ is that it is a voluntary exchange between parties. It is not imposed, but rather given freely out of the generosity of the giver. The recipient is not obligated to give something back in return, hence, it is not a transactional exchange. However, accepting the gift does come with expectations of reciprocity, which means that at some point in the future, the recipient will give a gift of similar value to the giver.

Ceremonial Contexts

‘The gift’ is usually given in ceremonial contexts. For example, in traditional societies, weddings, funerals, and other important ceremonies provide opportunities to exchange gifts. The ritual exchange of gifts serves to create an emotional bond between the giver and the recipient and helps to solidify social relations. Ceremonial exchange also serves as a way to redistribute wealth and resources in the society.

From Gift to Commodity - The Evolution of Economic Systems

The Creation of an Obligation

The third characteristic of ‘the gift’ is that it creates obligations between the giver and the recipient. When someone gives a gift, they are expecting the recipient to reciprocate in some way. The obligation to reciprocate can be seen as a social tie that strengthens the relationship between the parties involved. This obligation creates expectations of future exchange, which can help maintain the order and stability of the society.

Wrapped in Symbolic Meaning

The fourth characteristic of ‘the gift’ is that it is often wrapped in symbolic meaning. The act of giving a gift often carries with it some symbolic meaning that is significant to the parties involved. For example, the type of gift, the way it is given, and the timing of the exchange can all carry symbolic meaning that is important for social and cultural reasons. Symbolic meanings attached to gifts can range from the demonstration of wealth and generosity to the representation of spiritual and emotional ties between individuals.

The Value is Not Necessarily Economic

The fifth characteristic of ‘the gift’ is that it is non-hierarchical. In contrast to market exchange, where the value of goods and services is determined by the market prices, ‘the gift’ is non-quantifiable. The value of the gift is determined through the act of giving and receiving, rather than through its economic value. This means that the giver and the recipient are on equal terms, and the exchange does not create any hierarchy among them.

What is a Commodity?

A commodity is a raw material or primary agricultural product that is bought and sold, typically in large quantities. They are generally ubiquitous and standardized, meaning that a commodity product is homogeneous, interchangeable with other products of the same type and produced in large quantities.

Examples of commodities include but are not limited to metals, such as gold and silver, agricultural products like wheat, corn, and soybeans, energy products such as oil, natural gas, and electricity.

what is a commodity

Commodity markets allow people to buy and sell these products, providing a platform for producers and consumers to exchange goods based on freely determinable and competitive prices. The price of commodities is determined by the supply and demand relationship, market trends, weather patterns and in some cases, geopolitical events.

The Impact of Commodification

Gift exchange was once the norm, where items were given and received, creating social ties and strengthening connections between individuals, families, and communities. However, as societies grew and developed, this informal system of exchange became inadequate to meet the needs of expanding populations.

The commodification of goods and services emerged as a solution to these problems. The economy shifted from one based on gift-giving to one based on market exchange. In market exchange, goods are no longer exchanged as gifts, but rather as commodities with a monetary value. The value of a commodity is determined by its supply and demand in the marketplace, and it can be bought and sold by anyone who has the money to pay for it.

Another effect of commodification is the standardization of goods and services. In a market economy, goods become standardized, which means that they are produced in large quantities and are identical in quality. This standardization improves efficiency in the production process, reduces the cost of goods, and increases accessibility for consumers. On the other hand, however, standardization can also lead to a lack of diversity and uniqueness in products, as companies try to appeal to the largest possible audience. This can stifle creativity and reduce the variety of goods and services available to consumers.

Additionally, the push for standardization can result in a race to the bottom in terms of quality and production costs. This happens when companies seek to produce goods as cheaply as possible in order to increase their profit margins. As such, it is important to recognize both the benefits and drawbacks of standardization in the context of commodification, in order to make informed decisions about the types of goods and services we produce and consume.


In conclusion, commodities are goods or services that are produced for exchange and consumption. Their value is determined by market forces such as supply and demand, and they typically have standardized qualities that make them easily transferable. Sometimes, things that are not traditionally treated as commodities, like ideas or personal attributes, are turned into products that can be bought and sold. The commodification of these non-material things often carries negative social implications. This includes objectification or alienation, and can focus individuals and communities more on economic gain rather than their intrinsic value.

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