Anthropological Reflections: When Does a Gift Become a Bribe?

Anthropological Reflections: When Does a Gift Become a Bribe?

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December 27, 2016

For many people, the holidays—a time of tradition and generosity—also represent a short respite from their day-to-day work and business obligations. That makes it an appropriate season to step back and think about the relation between gift-giving and the contemporary world of commerce.

In fact, the study of gift-giving practices plays a central part in the development of the modern discipline of anthropology. An early debate between Bronisław Malinowski and Marcel Mauss centered on the nature of gifts in certain non-market-based societies—whether they should be understood primarily as material transactions between individuals or, instead, as symbolic transactions among kinship communities. Both sides of the debate, however, recognized the role of gift-giving in establishing and maintaining a coherent social order.

The world now functions almost entirely under a market economy, both regionally and globally. But the social importance of gifts hasn’t really diminished—nor has the complexity of the norms that govern their meaning and their effect. (Think, for example, of the potentially catastrophic social consequences of being caught in an act of “re-gifting”.)

Not surprisingly, then, gifts and other forms of hospitality continue to be indispensable elements in the conduct of business. Gift-giving practices help support social ties, which in turn help make high-level commercial transactions possible. But there are also gifts that go beyond the maintenance of social ties. When a gift is used to influence a decision-maker with respect to a particular business deal, it may cross the line into bribery.

Given the formal similarity between a gift and a bribe—and given the general agreement that there is a significant ethical difference between the two—the law necessarily adopts various ways to make the distinction. Sometimes it is done with a value threshold, sometimes by reference to standards like “corrupt intent” and “legitimate business purpose”. When doing business globally, it is essential to know how the world’s various legal systems resolve this problem. (TRACE’s online library of country-specific “Gifts & Hospitality Guidelines” can be a helpful resource here, particularly with respect to public officials.)

But it’s also worth recognizing the qualitative distinction embodied in this line between gifts and bribes. Gifts have always been a central part of defining human interactions, and the ties of reciprocity and goodwill to which they give rise are there whenever humans engage in dealmaking. But the deals themselves, to the extent they are part of a market economy, take place in a different conceptual order. Losing sight of that difference can end up costing you and your organization more than mere social standing. 

FOR MORE ON THIS TOPIC, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING RESOURCES:

Giving the Perfect Gift: 4 tips for avoiding compliance risks this holiday season
Anthropology in Practice: The Obligation of Gifts
Congratulatory and Condolence Gifts in South Korea
Wikipedia: Gift economy
TRACE Member Resource Center

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Indonesia: An Increasing Focus on Corruption Involving Private Companies
Sweden Prepares for New Non-financial (and Anti-corruption) Reporting Rules
Justina Song Anthropological Reflections: When Does a Gift Become a Bribe?

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