What is the Difference between a Gift Exchange and a Market Exchange

Gift exchange and market exchange both involve the exchange of goods and services, but they differ in the social, cultural, and economic contexts in which they occur.

Gift Exchange vs Market Exchange

In gift exchange, the emphasis is on building social relationships, promoting cooperation, meeting ritual obligations, or enhancing social status, rather than on maximizing material gain.

Market exchange, on the other hand, is motivated by economic or material concerns, such as maximizing profit, gaining wealth, obtaining goods or services, and meeting individual needs or preferences (Hann, Hart 2011; Wilk, Cliggett 2007).

Furthermore, gift exchange has cultural, social, or spiritual meaning beyond the value or function of the gift, and it often involves symbolic or emotional significance. However, market exchange has limited cultural, social, or spiritual meaning beyond the economic or material value of the goods or services, and it is often based on self-interest, rationality, or utility (Hann, Hart 2011; Wilk, Cliggett 2007).

Examples of Gift Exchanges

Examples of gift exchanges include the community giveaways and potlatches in Polynesia, where ‘Big Men’ give away assets such as pigs, or host large feasts, with no expectation of their generosity being reciprocated by the recipients, but with the goal of cultivating their personal power and status (Sahlins 1963; Hann, Hart 2011).

Another example is the Kula, where islanders engage in ritualized gift giving of highly prized necklets and armbands between men, both within the same community, and also between communities.

Gifts are regularly exchanged between the same partners (karayta’u), creating lifelong relationships that foster trade, hospitality and an obligation to help each other in times of need (Malinowski 1920). Furthermore, the men gain in status as they acquire more partners in the gift exchange and are gifted renowned ‘first class’ necklets or armbands (Malinowski 1920).  

The two abovementioned examples illustrate the social and cultural rationales that underpin gift exchanges, where goods are exchanged not for financial or economic return, but rather to foster strong social relations and to increase the power and status of the giver.

Example of a Market Exchange

A market exchange, on the other hand, is an economic exchange where goods or services are traded through a market-based mechanism of supply and demand. Unlike gift exchange, market exchange is not based on social or spiritual motives, but on maximizing material gain (Hann, Hart 2011; Wilk, Cliggett 2007).

To illustrate this type of exchange I will return to the Kula, where Malinowski tells us that alongside the gift exchange, the islanders also engage in barter (gintvali), both between karayta’u  but also with unrelated third parties, where they exchange goods such as obsidian or red ochre on the basis of market principles, such as the laws of supply and demand, with none of the ritualised or social implications inherent in the gift exchange (Malinowski 1920, p. 105).


In conclusion, while both gift exchange and market exchange involve the exchange of goods or services, their underlying motives and expectations are different. Market exchange aims to satisfy economic or material needs through rational, self-interested behaviour, whereas gift exchange aims to satisfy social or spiritual needs through ritual or symbolic behaviour.


Hann, C., Hart, K. (2011) ‘The Golden Age of Economic Anthropology.’ In Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique. Polity, pp. 55 – 71.

Malinowski, B. (1920) “Kula: The Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea.” Man (London), pp. 97-105.

Sahlins, M.D. (1963) “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5(3), pp. 285-303.

Wilk, R.R., Cliggett, L. (200). Economic Anthropology An Undisciplined Discipline. Routledge.

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