Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

Gifts and commodities

Gifts and commodities

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


Monday, August 13, 2018

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.

Moral limits on exchange

Gift systems are not static or unchanging. They adapt to contact with colonial power, money, and markets. They do so in different ways.

One way is by quarantining money and market exchange. For instance,

  • Auhelawa market food but consider buying food to be shameful, especially seeds.
  • In the past, Wedau people earned money from selling copra, and bought steel tools, but prohibited the use of steel tools in gardens.

When a gift system meets a commodity system

When a society organized on the basis of gifts encounters a globalizing capitalist market, many different outcomes are possible. In the next lecture and next week, we will look at other possible responses:

  • Separation, tension, and conflict
  • Efflorescence
  • Transformation


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

1002/2018/3.1.txt · Last modified: 2020/01/25 15:28 (external edit)