Gifts and Nations
reviewed by Margaret Mead - 1970
This is a complex and significant book, concise, but multi-level. It is based upon work done by Dr. Dillon for his dissertation at Teachers College in the Department of Foundations of Education, and it reflects happily upon the scope which has been traditionally allowed at Teachers College to students of wide-ranging skills and interests. The book is a study at three levels, field work of a most unusual kind: the intimate study of the responses of a French industrialist to American technological advice, a critical use of the ideas of the French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, about gift exchange among pre-literate peoples, and the development of a theory of the role of reciprocity in the relationship between modern nations, France and the United States. Its uniqueness lies in the combination of using French anthropological theory to interpret French behavior, as we move from an armchair French anthropologist's musings through modern American style field work study of a particular situation, to the level of international relations. The use of pre-literate models for the study of complex peoples is of course not new; it was developed extensively during World War II, particularly in the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures, inaugurated by the late Ruth Benedict; and Wilton Dillon during his early student days at Teachers College was in contact with the terminal years of that project.1
We were not yet as keenly aware as we are today of the way in which anthropological theory reflected the traditions of a particular society. This has become increasingly clear in the work of Levi-Strauss and with a re-examination of the work of Durkheim and Levy Bruhl. Dr. Dillon's study is a link between these earlier researches, based upon extensive interviewing of a large number of French people, where his is a much more intensive study of a single representative individual, and later understanding of anthropological traditions.
Dr. Dillon had spent three years in liaison work in Japan before beginning his graduate work. He approached France initially as an anthropology student interested in problems which he initially discussed with the late Alfred Métraux, the Unesco emphasis on the need "to study possible methods of relieving tensions caused by the introduction of modern techniques in non-industrialized countries and those in the process of industrialization." In the role of English tutor and avowed student of his senior pupil, a French industrialist family head, former military man, and Roman Catholic, Dillon was able to explore a relationship in which he was given lunch in return for tutoring—food for knowledge—which later became an exchange of knowledge for knowledge. After his informant, Monsieur B., returned from a visit to American industrial plants, Dillon was able to interview the other thirteen members of the team. The study of his informant's response to the "gifts" from the United States, military aid, the Marshall plan, and the specific technical help accorded French industrialists, with the accompanying comments on the position of France in the world, vis-à-vis the United States constitutes the substance of his study.
Marcel Mauss had emphasized the whole process of interchange as a basic social process, an emphasis which Professor Claude Levi-Strauss has continued, and it is upon this feature of relationships between nations that Wilton Dillon focuses in his study, the unease that results, between nations as well as between individuals or smaller groups, when the exchange is one-sided and cannot be reciprocated appropriately. The specific aspects of such a type of exchange, as developed here, are French, and a wider comparative study would show, I believe, that there are many other styles which come into play when other cultures are involved, with the Soviet Union for example, which includes the Russian indifference to reciprocity.
Based on the theory that lack of the ability to reciprocate will engender—in a Frenchman, at least—an extreme unease, Dillon discusses the extent to which the United States failed to find ways in which the French, whom we were so actively helping, could make any return. By considering forms of knowledge of all sorts as commodities of exchange, he suggests that "Consultation, as a part of the communication process, can serve as a gift-returning mechanism in human groups where knowledge and intellectual services are valued as exchange commodities. When the donor-teacher invites (leads) the pupil-receiver to participate in decisions that are likely to affect both parties, the latter is less likely to seek other alternatives to remove his obligations. Indeed, the receiver-pupil may consider that his advice and consultation constitutes a counter gift," and bases this on the way the French saw our not consulting them about our North African experience and their in turn not consulting us about Suez. The long careful exploration of the responses of Monsieur B. to unrequitable generosity on the part of the United States and the gradual buildup of resentment is climaxed in the epilogue with the French withdrawal from NATO, proud to pay hard cash for the buildings and equipment left behind. Studies made in the midst of a historical process which cannot be repeated have the disadvantage of lack of controls, but when the analysis is correct, history itself—if one can afford to wait—provides the validation. In this case, there was a long interval between the original field work in the 1950's and the publication of this book in 1968.
Meanwhile, not only the French rejection of the United States as a one-sided mentor but episodes all around the world have illustrated the cogency of Dillon's observations and how much we can learn from them. We have been fulsome donors, but we have taken no account of the feeling of the people who sought our aid and then were given no chance to reciprocate. And we have been indignantly surprised at their ingratitude. If the message of this book were to be taken to heart in those centers where the style of aid-giving is developed and altered, it might make a great difference to United States relationships all over the world. Teachers College is a center where such styles are developed, and it should be both proud and anxious to utilize this study which was initiated here under the inspiration of the late Lyman Bryson and Donald Tewksbury.
During the last fifteen years studies of this kind have been few and far between, but there is an awakening interest in what Talcott Parsons speaks of in his preface as "the increasing importance attached by economists and sociologists to 'exchange' and 'interchange' in social relations." There seems little likelihood that the United States will not continue to be deeply involved in the world as a nation with
tremendous resources which most nations cannot reciprocate in kind. Dillon's suggestion that other "kinds" of goods, sharing experience and wisdom, can constitute an exchange could be a life-saving device for many now precarious enterprises.
1. Rhoda Metraux and Margaret Mead. Themes in French Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1954. One set of materials used by the director of the French project were details of the relationships of French intellectuals, including anthropologists.