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The Moral Economy of Digital Gifts

Dave Elder-Vass

Keywords: digital economy, giving, open-source software, reciprocity

Abstract

The significance of giving as a contemporary socio-economic practice has been obscured both by mainstream economics and by the influence of the anthropological tradition. Andrew Sayer’s concept of moral economy offers a more fruitful framework for an economic sociology of contemporary giving, and one that appears to be largely consistent with social quality approaches. This article analyzes giving from the perspective of moral economy, questioning the view that giving is a form of exchange, and opening up the prospect of seeing it as the outcome of a more complex constellation of causal factors. It uses examples from the digital economy, in particular the phenomenon of open-source software, which nicely illustrates both the progressive potential of digital gifts and the ways in which they can be absorbed into the commercial economy.

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