Altruistic Gifting: The Unconditional Economy of Burning Man

August 27, 2014


The Life Cube 2013 – Image Credit: Skeeter

The nature of the gift economy forms a fundamental and fascinating debate in anthropology. Malinowski’s Kula Ring research (one of the oldest studies on gifting behavior) places emphasis on the non-altruistic motives of giving gifts. Reciprocity, he stated, is an implicit part of gifting wherein the gift giver expects a return gift of equal or greater value. Marcel Mauss, author of The Gift, stresses that gifts were not exchanged between individuals but between representations of larger collectives. Mauss argued that a return gift is given to keep the relationship between givers alive; and failure to do so would end the relationship and promise of future gifts.

A case for the debate’s flip-side is taking place right now within a self-contained society that springs forth each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The gifting spirit at Burning Man creates magic as boundaries between total strangers dissolve and genuine human connections form on the basis of gifts. As one of Burning Man’s core principles, gifting for its own sake without any contemplation of a return or exchange sets up a culture where people authentically take care of each other while being radically self-reliant. Members of this micro-community give away things and services not because they’ll need or expect something back but because they embrace pure generosity.

Gifting is an innate part of Burning Man because members of this unique metropolis aren’t supposed to sell or buy anything (ice and coffee are the only exceptions). While people raise interesting points on the nature of gifts at this week-long arts and culture event, it would be nearly impossible to always gift appropriate things tailored to the recipient’s exact needs, desires and personality. This is because some gifts are abstract, not an actual handing over of a physical item. “Radical self-expression” is defined as a gift at Burning Man, which to say the least, gives rise to some interesting gifts. However, in the spirit, gift givers are asked to respect recipients’ rights and liberties.

When recipients at the playa receive a physical gift, let’s say a glass of water, because someone noticed how thirsty they are, the recipient should gulp it down and thank the gifter. That’s all. Or when an artwork moves the heartstrings, the only knowledge to keep is some participants spent hundreds of hours in a challenging environment to give this gift to others. The greatest realization of the spirit of the gift lies in the altruistic act of joyful giving and the gracious receiving. Each year, the epic city continues its social experiment into human scope and social process that gives rise to human culture. “This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support,” as Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities when he described the spider-web city of Octavia.

While there are many examples of gifting as an act of reciprocity, Burning Man is a fascinating case study for behavioral science of altruistic gifting within small-scale communities.

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