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Spheres of exchange

Spheres of exchange

Ryan Schram
ANTH 1002: Anthropology in the world
Module 3, Week 2, Lectures 1–2
Social Sciences Building (A02), Room 410
October 9, 2019
Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/2019/3.2.1

What if...?

What if you lived in a world in which everything you possessed also possessed a hau, and the hau—the spirit of the gift—“wished to return to its birthplace” (Mauss 2000 [1925], 12)?

Tiv spheres of exchange

Everything of value would be embedded in social relationships.

In many societies the embeddedness of value takes the form of a system that organizes objects into distinct, ranked spheres of exchange. One example is the Tiv of Nigeria, who have three spheres:

  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 (Bohannan 1955).

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 a 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 ikpantuna. 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.

Money in Tiv society: Bohannan's prediction

At the time Bohannan conducted his research, Tiv society was part of a British colony in Nigeria, and participated in a growing cash economy. People were earning money, and using money to buy and sell.

Tiv society collectively responded to money to reinforce the spheres of exchange. Money was classified in the lowest sphere along with foodstuffs. It could exchanged for anything in this sphere, but could not be exchanged for items in higher spheres. The Tiv system remained multicentric.

Bohannan predicted that money would eventually overwhelm the spheres of exchange, and a new unicentric system would emerge in which everything was in one sphere, and everything could be exchanged for everything and for money. Everything would have a price and everything would be for sale in a single market (Bohannan 1959).

Bohannan's prediction has proven to be both right and wrong. For the most part, the distinction of spheres is still maintained, and people do not assign a monetary value to everything. At the same time, some of the prestige crafts like cloth have been commercialized.

Private property, a new kind of economy

Buying and selling in markets can sometimes pose a threat to systems of reciprocity, but only when a new social institution develops. This is the essence of Karl Marx's theory of capitalism. When a society develops a new social institution of the private ownership of property, then a new kind of economic system develops.

  • Private property is a form of ownership in which the owner has total control over their property, and can deny other people the use of it. You can sell private property, and when you do, it is alienated from you because it becomes the private property of someone else, and they don't owe you anything else.
  • Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production (or, capital) is privately owned by one group.
    • The means of production is all the things that society needs to produce all the things people need.
  • Because the means of production are held as private property, no one else has any access to the means of their own livelihoods. Capitalism is a system of two classes, the owners of capital (the bourgeoisie) and everyone else (the workers, or the proletariat).

Quiz question: Worker and parasite

Go to Canvas and test your Marx knowledge with Quiz 15! Under capitalism, how do people make a living if they do not own capital (or, the means of production)?

In Das Kapital, vol. 1, Marx writes that a worker under capitalism brings “his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but – a hiding” (Marx 1867, chap. 6).

What does Marx mean by hiding in this context?

Ryan will announce the code in class.

Capital, commodities, and the bourgeois individual

  • When people must sell their labor as a commodity for wages, they are alienated from the value of their labor.
  • This is the opposite of a system of total services, in which everyone is interdependent on the services of others, and every valuable thing is embedded in social relationships.
  • The capitalist social system is based on the social status of the autonomous, and isolated, individual who has no enduring obligations to anyone.

Not so fast: why was Bohannan's prediction wrong?

Bohannan's prediction about Tiv was based on an assumption that his own society in the US was already a unicentric system.

But is it?

An editorial decision

Portland, Oregon, 1997. The Reed College Quest editors meet to discuss an inquiry about a classified ad.

Nobody involved can remember what it said. It was something like this:

“WANTED Healthy female student to help bring joy to an infertile couple. Will pay $3000 plus all medical expenses for a donation of several eggs. Candidates should have a minimum GPA of 3.5 and minimum combined SAT scores of 1600.”

(GPA: grade point average, 3.5 is approximately a WAM of 80. SATs are college entrace exams. Under the old system, 1600 would have been close to an ATAR of 95.)


Wendie Wilson was a student at the University of Washington around the same time. She volunteered to give several eggs for $5000.

“It seemed a relatively small amount of my time for what seemed to be pretty decent compensation.” It was empowering (Tuller 2010).

She later founded an egg donor registry, Gifted Journeys.

Human trafficking?

A friend recalls similar ads in student publications at a university in Vancouver, British Columbia. “We had ads at my college in Canada too, even though selling eggs isn't legal there. I guess they would ship you to the US for the procedure” (personal communication, 2014).

What the ads ask for

  • University students (women who have more and better-quality ova).
  • Preferred hair and eye color.
  • Prefered race.
  • Prefered school. Ivy-league (Harvard, Yale, etc.) schools are especially popular, as are Berkeley and Stanford.

Planet America

Unlike many countries, the sale of gametes is largely unregulated in the US, and the US has generally looser regulations on IVF and surrogacy.

Table of bans on reproductive materials by country

How much?

One source of controversy is how much women should be paid. In general, factors influencing the fee are:

  • Health and family history of disease
  • Grades at university.
  • SAT (university entrance) scores.
  • Prestige of the university. Ivy-league (Harvard, Yale, etc.) students with good grades can be offered up to $35,000.
  • One ad in a Brown University (Rhode Island) newspaper said that “an extraordinary egg donor” would be paid $50,000 (Tuller 2010).


The annual cost of tuition at Brown (excluding financial aid): $59,428

Most students receive some financial aid. A typical student would be responsible for about half of this “sticker price,” or $30,000.

The argument for egg sales

Australia and Canada have banned the buying of women's ova.

One researcher says that this means that this gives infertile couples an incentive to go abroad, where there are no protections for donors (Nash 2012).

Should the US ban the sale of ova?

What are the reasons for a ban?

What are the reasons against a ban?

What else should we ban?

Compensation for plasma donation?

Head-shaving ceremonies?

References and works consulted

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

Bohannan, Paul. 1959. “The Impact of Money on an African Subsistence Economy.” The Journal of Economic History 19 (4): 491–503. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700085946.

Brown University. 2014. “Cost of Attendance.” Brown University Web Site. Accessed August 26, 2014. http://www.brown.edu/about/administration/financial-aid/cost-attendance.

Cohen, I. Glenn, and Eli Y. Adashi. 2013. “Made-to-Order Embryos for Sale – A Brave New World?” New England Journal of Medicine 368 (26): 2517–19. doi:10.1056/NEJMsb1215894.

Health Canada. 2013. “Prohibitions related to Purchasing Reproductive Material and Purchasing or Selling In Vitro Embryos.” Health Canada. Last modified 18 July 2013. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/brgtherap/legislation/reprod/purchasing-achat-eng.php

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. 2014. “Egg Donation and Egg Sharing.” Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Accessed 26 August 2014. http://www.hfea.gov.uk/egg-donation-and-egg-sharing.html

Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital, Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/.

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.

Nash, Meredith. 2012. “Women who donate their eggs deserve compensation - here's why.” The Conversation, 8 November. http://theconversation.com/women-who-donate-their-eggs-deserve-compensation-heres-why-10515

Tuller, David. 2010. “Payment Offers to Egg Donors Prompt Scrutiny.” The New York Times, May 10, sec. Health. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/health/11eggs.html.

Zhai Xiaomei. 2004. “ABA Country Report for China, 2003” Eubios: International and Asian Journal of Bioethics 14: 5-10. http://www.eubios.info/EJ141/ej141d.htm.

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