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Gifts and commodities

Gifts and commodities

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


Monday, August 8, 2016

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/3.1

Reciprocity and the system of total services

  • Mauss's theory of reciprocity as an obligation is one of the most influential theories of society.
  • The gift entails three obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.
  • The gift has obligations because societies are more than the some of their parts. A society consists of people who are interdependent on each other.
  • All societies in some way impose the three obligations of reciprocity on their members, even if they don't realize it.

This holistic model of a social system is also a very useful lens for understanding contemporary societies. This week, I'd like to develop these three ideas:

  • A social system creates separate spheres of exchange.
  • The spheres of exchange in one society determine how people understand new ways of exchange.
  • Many societies opt for 'develop-man' instead of 'development'.

Gifts have spirit

For Mauss, the Maori word hau means the “spirit of the thing given.” When someone gives a gift, they give part of themselves. “The hau wishes to return to its birthplace” (Mauss 2000 [1925]: 12).

What if...?

What if we lived in a world in which everything was a gift, and everything possessed a hau?

Spheres of exchange

Many societies organize objects into distinct, ranked spheres of exchange

  1. Women as wives
  2. Prestige items: brass rods, tugudu cloth, slaves
  3. Subsistence items: food, utensils, chickens, tools

Some things, like land, cannot be exchanged for anything, but are inherited.

Relationships can be organized into spheres, too

We can take the idea of spheres of exchange and apply it to the different ways people exchange:

  • Kula valuables (bagi, mwali) are a sphere of exchange. These objects can only be exchanged for each other, and not for anything else.
  • Moreover, one only does kula with certain kula partners, and one must keep one's kula exchanges separate from other kinds of exchanges with other people, like barter.

The ikpanture relationship is sphere of exchange

Piot describes the relationship among ikpanture (friends).

  • The way you treat your ikpanture is distinct from the way you treat other people. The relationship comes with certain rules.
  • Ikpanture give each other the same kinds of things people buy and sell with others, but they must adhere to the rules of the social institution of ikpanture. The things are not kept separate, but the rules for exchanging them are linked to the people involved in the exchange.
  • One relies on ikpanture to meet one's needs, but this is not always the easiest or cheapest way to meet needs.
  • Ikpanture relationships are not quid pro quo.

Two points about spheres

  1. In spite of predictions to the contrary, money does not collapse all spheres into one market. Often money exchanges are placed in their own sphere.
  2. Western and “modern” societies think of themselves as being dominated by money, but if you think about it, these societies have spheres of exchange too, and worry about maintaining the boundaries between spheres.

A trading network in Papua New Guinea

Making pots in Salamaua

We the people of Salamaua would like to put down the prices of our things in this newspaper so that all of you will see them. We would like this message to all of you people in villages in the area of Markham River and Finschhafen.

Now you all see the prices for all these things and then you all will get it right. So, prices for them are like this: If you see a pot for 4/-, then you pay with (givim long) two big pandanus of 4/-. If a pot for 2/-, then you pay with (givim long) a pandanus of 2/-. The reason is you all always just bring pandanus and get pots. So, you all don’t know the price (pei) of these things. And so, we put them for the pots so that you all can see them.

If a pot is 5/-, or L1, then you must pay (pei) directly with money. It is not good that you should give pandanus for 5/- and L1 and get a pot. You know that the work of a pot is not like the work of pandanus - Pots are harder work than pandanus, so you must pay directly for big pots with real money.

The work of pots is like this:- The very first thing, they must dig the ground and they get really deep. After that, they bring it to the village and the work of women now begins. The women bake the earth in a really big fire - They bake this earth so that it becomes really strong. This work isn’t easy. It’s really hard work. Many days pass, and then the pot is now finished and a man can cook food in it.

We say this because you all have put down many things of yours - So we see this and so we Salamaua people, we support you all. Our message is finished. We all the people of Salamaua.

“People of Salamaua.” 1948. “Pei bilong sosopen.” Lae Garamut (28 August) 2(23): 4.


Bohannan, Paul. 1955. “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment among the Tiv.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 57 (1): 60–70.

Mauss, Marcel. 2000 [1925]. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

A guide to the unit

1002/3.1.txt · Last modified: 2016/08/07 21:45 by ryans