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What Does Sociology Teach Us About Gift Giving?

Not only do gifts make or break relationships, they also tell scientists about society as a whole. No pressure.

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Two day before Christmas, it's time to panic about what to get friends and family. And while getting and giving great gifts can be fun and rewarding, figuring out what that great gift should be can be maddening. And it turns out that sociologists are fascinated by our gift giving anxiety.

At the New Republic, Alice Robb runs down some of the research that anthropologists and sociologists have done about holiday gifts. She starts in 1925, when anthropologist Marcel Mauss theorized that gift giving is actually all about the giver:

Mauss identified three obligations associated with gift exchange: giving, which he equates with the first step in building a social relationship; receiving, which signifies acceptance of the social relationship; and reciprocating, which demonstrates the recipient’s integrity. If gifts are refused or unreciprocated, relationships can be threatened.

Since then, there have been tons of studies on how and why we give. Perhaps the most famous is a two-part study published in 1984 that looked at the town of Muncie, Indiana. At the time, sociologists were obsessed with Muncie—it represented "Anytown, USA" to them. In these studies, researchers gathered data on 366 different Christmases in which 4,347 gifts were given. They found a few key rules. As Robb points out, gifts must be given to the right people, at the right time and of the right type. "Parents are expected to give multiple gifts to young children, and spouses are expected to give multiple gifts to each other," the researchers write.

The study also found some strange "rules" surrounding Christmas trees. "Married couples with children of any age should put up Christmas trees in their homes. Unmarried persons with no living children should not put up Christmas trees. Unmarried parents (widowed, divorced or adoptive) may put up trees but are not required to do so," the researchers write.

Of course, it's likely that since 1984 things have changed. The most common gift given in their studies was clothing—but that could be because gift cards weren't invented until 1994, and Apple wasn't around selling nice white boxes.

More recent studies have found that it's not just adults who fret over gift giving. Last year, researchers looked at gift exchanges among adolescents. "Gift-giving motives and the characteristics of the chosen gifts indicated that adolescents use gift giving instrumentally to manage and protect their impressions among their peers," they write. And Christmas gift culture is, probably unsurprisingly, just as sexist as the rest of society. Another study looked at the pressure felt by men and women when shopping for gifts. "Our rather pessimistic endpoint is that the pressure on women to pull off the perfect Christmas has intensified—at least in these popular cultural texts—over the last 70-plus years," the researchers write, "but at the same time there is a sense here that even the most intensive endeavours are doomed never to entirely succeed."

Of course, for sociologists, a large cultural event like Christmas is a goldmine for understanding how people think and interact with one another. So remember, not only do your gifts make or break relationships, they're also telling scientists about society as a whole. No pressure.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Smithsonian.com's 2013 Holiday Gift Guides
Geeky Gifts for Your Valentine

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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