Marcel Mauss and the Dangers of Philanthropy – Capital Ideas Online

There is no need to seek far for goodness and happiness. It is found in the imposed peace, in the rhythm of communal and private labor, in wealth amassed and distributed, in the mutual respect and reciprocal generosity that education can impart–Marcel Mauss, The Gift 1925, (1967 translation)

Marcel Mauss’s classic essay on “exchange in archaic societies” has made many people stop and think about value and exchange over the last century. Mauss shows that an economy based not solely on accumulation but also on giving things away is not a socialist utopia, but has been the foundation of modes of exchange throughout the world. Homo Economicus is a late-comer and did not evolve out of some natural need to accumulate and barter. By drawing off the ethnographic record of the time, Mauss showed that most human exchange is not and has not been predicated on market value, but by the obligation to reciprocate. His most famous example, the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) of the Northwest’s Potlatch, actually flips the concepts of value and prestige on its head. Leaders go broke out-giving each other to gain prestige. Mauss, with the help of fellow sociologist Georges Davy, uncovered potlatch correlates throughout European history and the ethnographic record and ended with a treatise for France to embrace a gift-based economy.

“Gift economy” or “share economy” is bantered about much nowadays, from vegan restaurants to rideshares. Most of these experiments are based on the notion that if everyone gave freely, all of our needs would be fulfilled. Yet, such a scheme ignores the idea of obligation. When you receive a gift, there is always some sort of obligation to reciprocate, albeit not always directly back to the giver.

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So, what does all of this have to do with open source publishing? Well, academic publishing is big business, but is predicated on the obligation of the academic to give away their work with the expectation of some sort of pay-back. It is a complex notion of generalized reciprocity based on scholarly generosity. As those who have written, edited, or reviewed for an academic publisher well know, those that make it go round are not directly paid. They are obliged to give with the expectance of payment in prestige (or as Bourdieu would call symbolic capital) and monetary compensation through professional advancement. And, as Katherine Fitzpatrick points out, academics tend to believe that prestige comes from the most exclusive journals, usually those which charge exorbitant prices for access.

Fitzpatrick calls for scholars to shift the emphasis from traditional exclusivity to public (open) access. We should look at publications not as a way to pay back all of those who got us to where we are, but to benefit those coming up behind us, to pay our knowledge forward in ways that expand access. This does not diminish quality because if the best scholars decide to gift their labor to open-access journals then, in theory, quality will shift with them. Yet, as Martin Paul Eve points out, prestige takes time and is not just intertwined with the idea of quality, but used as a proxy for it. The other great point in Eve’s chapter on the economics of open source publishing is the reality of the academic economy does not fit into the idealized notion of reciprocity.

Fitzpatrick states that, “Scholarly authors write in order to get their ideas into circulation within their fields and, like many musicians today, are paid not for their publications but for their performances, whether in the classroom or on the lecture circuit.” What about all of those part-time workers? According to the NCES, 46% of professors are part-time, and a quarter of those rely on public assistance. As a veteran of the adjunct circuit I know that many of those “part-time” workers are teaching more courses than full-time professors. Yet, advancement relies upon publication, so you try to squeeze in some research between planning for lectures, grading papers, and working a second job. I don’t include this for pity, but to highlight the incongruities of a supply-side economy which relies upon the accumulation of symbolic (advancement) and cultural (academic publishing experience) capital in place of a living wage among the labor force.

Another thought that came up while reading for this week was the role of the public university in providing access. When stacks were physical, anyone could wander into the library of a public university and browse. Now that it is nearly all digital, the public still can get access if they are on most campuses. But why not make access free off-campus? It is a public institution which pays the subscriptions. Anyone living in the state should be able to remotely access the databases. The green open access (an arrangement where publishers allow writers to re-publish their work) repositories provided by universities is a good step in this direction, but is still limited to those journals which allow it. I understand this does not fix the issue of library costs, but maybe the general public would be willing to increase education funding if they received a tangible product.

Finally, I was surprised that the ubiquitous use of illegal databases was not covered in any of our readings. I am not going to say I have never relied upon the illegal dissemination of scholarly work, especially when quickly putting together a course in less than a week’s notice. Other times I have directly contacted researchers who sent me copies that the library could not get on course reserve in the time needed. There is a robust informal gift economy in the academic world. Most people are wiling to share and I would argue that the majority of academics are not comfortable with the current arrangement and would not care if someone “stole” a copy of their article. It will be interesting to see where this all heads over the next couple of decades. Can scholars shift the system toward a more inclusive model while retaining the necessary exclusivity? Will they keep giving if the system does not give back? Already there have been some major movements against the traditional publishing models, such as the UC system brokering an open-access deal with Elsevier As Eve claims, “at the moment, it is possible to pay, globally, for all the research that is published.” The question is, who will pay and will they pay it forward.

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