A gift economy or gift culture is a system of exchange where valuables are not sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards.[1] Social norms and customs govern giving a gift in a gift culture; although there is some expectation of reciprocity, gifts are not given in an explicit exchange of goods or services for money, or some other commodity or service.[2] This contrasts with a barter economy or a market economy, where goods and services are primarily explicitly exchanged for value received.

The nature of gift economies is the subject of a foundational debate in anthropology. Anthropological research into gift economies began with Bronisław Malinowski's description of the Kula ring[3] in the Trobriand Islands during World War I.[4] The Kula trade appeared to be gift-like since Trobrianders would travel great distances over dangerous seas to give what were considered valuable objects without any guarantee of a return. Malinowski's debate with the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss quickly established the complexity of "gift exchange" and introduced a series of technical terms such as reciprocity, inalienable possessions, and presentation to distinguish between the different forms of exchange.[5][6]

According to anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, it is the unsettled relationship between market and non-market exchange that attracts the most attention. Some authors argue that gift economies build community,[7] while markets harm community relationships.[8]

Gift exchange is distinguished from other forms of exchange by a number of principles, such as the form of property rights governing the articles exchanged; whether gifting forms a distinct "sphere of exchange" that can be characterized as an "economic system"; and the character of the social relationship that the gift exchange establishes. Gift ideology in highly commercialized societies differs from the "prestations" typical of non-market societies. Gift economies also differ from related phenomena, such as common property regimes and the exchange of non-commodified labour.