‘Gift Exchange’ and Value Circulation in Migration and ‘Integration’ Research

Understanding how exchange and circulation of values take place is essential to the analysis of how values matter and change shape within the European field of migration and ‘integration’. Ingrid Jerve Ramsöy discusses how the use of anthropological gift theory can support us in such an analysis.

Ingrid Jerve Ramsøy, University of Malmö


From an anthropological perspective one can argue that values are the ‘stuff’ of human social life. In many ways, values – or what we deem essential, important, and inconsequential – is what culture is all about. This influences power relationships, in that those who have access to more of what a particular group of people deems important, are often placed higher in social hierarchies, while this same position might also reinforce their access to ‘important things’. As such, value(s), culture, and social categorization and stratification are intimately connected.

Within anthropology, a key research field connected to these topics is that of exchange, reciprocity, and the circulation of value(s). This field emerged from Marcel Mauss’ seminal Essai sur le don from 1925, soon translated to English under the title The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. In this essay, Mauss explored knowledge on people’s ways of exchanging, gathered from different non-capitalist societies around the world. One of his main arguments was that in such societies, gift exchange was essential to the economy, and, as such, reciprocity became the driving force for exchange. In other words, the circulation of values through exchange depends on a perceived understanding of both giver and receiver that there exists an obligation to give, to receive, and to give in return. This dynamic becomes a way of building and maintaining social relationships on both personal and more aggregated social levels in society. But what does this all mean when it comes to contemporary research of values in relation to migration and integration? Bear with me here! While our global society today looks very different than back in Mauss’ time, particularly considering the spread of capitalism and the global market to nearly all corners of the world, Mauss’ ideas on exchange and reciprocity can still help us approach contemporary topics, such as transnational migration, from a value perspective.

As mentioned, an important feature of exchange is how it is connected to aspects of social stratification and power. In 1988 Marilyn Strathern, renowned anthropologist, used Mauss’ theories on exchange in her book The Gender of the Gift, where she through ethnographic material from Melanesia showed how who gives what, and how, is gendered. One of her core claims is that an exchange must always be understood from its context and from how those giving and receiving are positioned within this context – these factors are important in defining which exchanges are made possible in which situations. And so, while Strathern focused on the significance of gender, other forms of social categorization, such as class, ‘race’, and ethnicity, are arguably equally important in defining situations of exchange, and thus the circulation of values. Another important contributor to this discussion is Michel Callon, who in 1998 wrote the book Laws of the Markets, where he argues that the negotiations around how exchange can happen are done through practice, so that the way we do things, and thereby relate to each other, become the ‘laws’, or social norms within, a ‘market’.

When it comes to research on migration and processes of ‘integration’, the understanding of exchange and of value(s) as sociocultural components becomes particularly useful. In my PhD thesis from 2019, Expectations and Experiences of Exchange: Migrancy in the Global Market of Care between Spain and Bolivia, I wrote about the care work sector in Spain and its connection to Bolivian transnational migration. I used Callon’s understanding of the ‘market’ to investigate how gender, ‘race’, and class become part of how people negotiate their position within this global market of care, a market that involves people, economic processes and transactions, state level legal frameworks, as well as cultural codes from different places in the world. All of these components come together in an intimate labor situation where it is often migrated women who work within the walls of Spanish households to take care of children, sick, or elderly people. My analysis rendered evident that although care workers negotiate their precarious working situations and migrancy through engaging in what Mauss would deem relations of gift exchange, they are still not able to participate in scripting the ‘laws of the market’. This is because care work is in itself marginalized within a capitalist understanding of, precisely, the market, and because these workers are marginalized within this market itself on account of them being ascribed particular identities regarding ‘race’, gender, and class.

When looking at the ethnographic fieldwork I have done within the framework of NoVaMigra, it is clear that the lens of exchange applies to many of the situations both experienced as part of the research itself, and, especially, to situations and musings described by the research participants. I am doing fieldwork in Sweden, focusing on organizations that can be defined as religious and that work with refugees or ‘integration’ in different ways. As in my PhD research, the NoVaMigra project studies how encounters between people from different cultural backgrounds are interpreted. Additionally, it also investigates how the basis for these interpretations – the values and norms – might be undergoing change on account of a large influx of migration to Europe.

In my ongoing fieldwork I have been presented with numerous examples of how norms and values are being circulated and negotiated in these encounters produced through migration. The following quote is from an interview I did with a woman who works as a cultural and linguistic interpreter for a Swedish Christian institution which offers different forms of assistance to newly arrived refugees. This woman also came to Sweden as a refugee, and she identifies as Muslim and wears a hijab. Below she reflects on one situation of value negotiation that she had been a part of shortly before our interview:

“I think it’s important… We refugees, I think we need time to [be able to] understand, for example if my child [would be] homosexual… I discussed [with a Swedish woman] two days ago. We discussed if my boy would be homosexual and if [her] daughter would want to wear a veil… She would talk with her a lot, and she wouldn’t want [her daughter to wear it], but she would accept it in the end. [This was a] Swedish woman who didn’t want her daughter to [wear a veil] … But for me, I wouldn’t want [my son to be gay] either. I said to her, I said ‘no, but in the end, if he wants to, what can I do?’ In my country, maybe I would forbid him, but here I can’t do anything. Yes, we spoke about that.”

This interview quote illustrates how gender identity and roles are interpreted and negotiated in relation to religion, and how frictions between different perceptions become salient in the encounters between two mothers from different backgrounds. For one it would be difficult to accept if her son would diverge from the heterosexual norms of her cultural context of origin, while for the other it would be harder to accept if her daughter chose a different religion than her own, particularly Islam. Both accept that, ultimately, it is about their children’s right to make their own decisions about their lives. As such, the quote hints at both commonalities and differences between the two women, in terms of norms and values regarding, for instance, religion, parenting and gender roles. While it is still early to draw definite analytical conclusions from the fieldwork done so far, these elements have come up in most interviews I have done thus far and are therefore likely to require further scrutiny when attempting to understand how the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 has impacted the way that different people perceive and discuss values in Europe today. For the time being, let the musings here stand as an example of how an anthropological take on gift exchange can aid us in understanding how values are cultural, and are circulated in encounters produced through migration and ‘integration’.


Dr. Ingrid Jerve Ramsøy is a Researcher in Anthropology at the University of Malmö’s Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity, and Welfare. She can be contacted at ingrid.j.ramsoey@mau.se.

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