Reducing Ambiguity in Gift-Giving: Disreputable Exchange and the Management of Donations in a Police Department

Friday, June 24, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
83 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Daniel Fridman, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Alexander Luscombe, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
Extended Abstract

This paper examines the strategies established by a police department in order to accept donations while preventing them from being interpreted as disreputable exchanges. Given the ambiguities that characterize gift exchanges, organizations like the police require mechanisms to make donations more legitimate and acceptable to the public. This is because in the world of gift-giving, perhaps more than in any other realm of social life, people are often ambiguous or even self-deceiving (i.e. denying links between gifts and counter-gifts). For Godbout and Caillé (2000:4–5), the world of the gift is a world of silences, a world of the unsaid: “the world of the gift is one where the implicit and the unsaid reign supreme. The magic of the gift can only operate as long as the underlying rules are not formulated.” Similarly, Bourdieu (1998:92–123) points to “the taboo of making things explicit” as a dominant feature of gift-giving. By keeping obligations to give, accept, and reciprocate implicit, gift-giving is defined by a fundamental ambiguity first pointed out by Marcel Mauss (2000), namely, that gifts are both obligatory and free. However, in today’s relations between private and public actors, gift-giving is often outlawed or heavily regulated. The distribution of public goods based on the ambiguous, personalized and enigmatic rules of the gift has been ever more interpreted as corruption.

In this paper, we analyze a case in which gift-giving between the private sector and a public agency—the Vancouver Police Department in Canada—is not averted or prohibited, but encouraged. At least since the 1970s, many police agencies in North America and elsewhere have sought additional funding sources from private actors, whether businesses or individuals. While individual police officers cannot officially accept gifts, donations to police departments have been pursued to fund police projects and also to help enhance relations with the community. However, by relying on funding based on gifts versus the public budget, the police also risks being seen as a service that can be bought by private donors rather than a public service for all citizens. That is, it risks being enmeshed in the obligations and rituals that gift-giving entails. In the case of the police department we examine, we have found a set of management strategies aimed at maintaining gift-giving practices while also minimizing the ambiguities of the gift relationship by framing it within a set of bureaucratic rules and procedures. These strategies are in place to motivate donors while assuring givers, receivers, and observers that no obligation to reciprocate exists and that no questionable ties with the police emerge, thereby reducing the possibility of future scandal. Simply put, the police department wants to accept gifts while preventing them from being seen as bribery or labeled disreputable (Rossman 2014).

The first strategy involves the separation of the police department from the giver through the use of officially recognized charity foundations. Donors are encouraged to donate to quasi-independent charity organizations rather than to the police directly. The use of charity organizations also allows donations to be solicited and thanked with a countergift which helps close the transaction and lessen ambiguity. This first strategy of institutional separation is akin to what Rossman (2014) calls structural obfuscation.

Second, the VPD distinguishes sponsorships from donations. Sponsorships are explicit exchanges stipulated by contract, whereas accepting donations explicitly prohibit reciprocation. In cases where reciprocation is likely to be an explicit part of the transaction, it can be classified as a sponsorship, making the obligations of each party explicit in a formalized quid pro quo agreement. Police department and sponsor are prescribed a definite responsibility to give and return the agreed upon services. The exchange is defined as self-interested and reciprocation is an explicit part of it.  

Third, institutional regulations stipulate that donations are special monies that can only cover “extras,” that is, improvements to existing initiatives, projects, or goods. By setting limits on donation use, the police agency discourages the impression that police work can be “bought” through donations or controlled by givers, and maintains the sacred principle that public money is the only legitimate source of funding for the essential activities of the agency.

Finally, donors are subject to a review process that can prevent the acceptance of donations from donors that would discredit the department’s professional image and reputation. This strategy acknowledges that a donation, despite being defined as one-way transfers, entails a bond, and bonds can be risky for the reputation of the agency even when reciprocation is excluded by contract.

Managing donations with the bureaucratic mechanisms that we describe submits gifts to paperwork and checks that have little to do with the rituals, silence, and ambiguities of gift-giving. This is precisely the function these management strategies are meant to achieve: they frame the gift as a “pure” gift (Parry 1986) through written contracts, background checks, limitations, etc., without removing donations completely from the world of the gift in which people acquire obligations while simultaneously denying them. The institutional strategies outlined can certainly limit the potential of divergent interpretations of donations when procedures are carefully followed, but they cannot diminish it entirely. The nature of an exchange cannot be established by matching it with a list of essential features, but by looking at how real actors frame and define that exchange in specific contexts. For an exchange to be and remain in the realm of the gift, relational work (Zelizer 2012) is needed.


Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Stanford  Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Godbout, Jacques T. and Alain C. Caille. 2000. The World of the Gift. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. W. W. Norton & Company.

Parry, Jonathan. 1986. “The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift.’” Man 21(3):453–73.

Rossman, Gabriel. 2014. “Obfuscatory Relational Work and Disreputable Exchange.” Sociological Theory 32(1):43–63.

Zelizer, Viviana A. 2012. “How I Became a Relational Economic Sociologist and What Does That Mean?” Politics & Society 40(2):145–74.