Exchange and reciprocity

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Why, and how, have anthropologists argued that exchange is the basis of social life?

"Exchange is an act of giving something to somebody or doing something for somebody and receiving something in return."[1]

According to the Encyclopaedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, 'exchange' is the transfer of things between social and actors.[2] Things can be human or animal, material or immaterial, words or things. The actors can be individuals, groups, or being such as gods and spirits.[3] In wide interpretation, trade and barter are examples of some kinds of exchange. In this essay, I assume that the gift-exchange is the basis of social life.

From the 18th and 19th century, anthropologists became more interested in the topic of exchange. In the past century, there is a growing concern on the complex societies, i.e. the West. It leads to a more critical investigation for the anthropologists on exchange in West, when anthropologists such as Gregory discovered that exchange is linked to economy. By now, exchange is a universal activity. Moreover, anthropologists realized exchange is central to all people's lives. Mauss stated that, "exchange is a total social phenomenon."[4] In the following, I will discuss why anthropologists argued that exchange is the basis of social life.

Exchange and Reciprocity

The ideological "pure gift" is very rare in primitive societies. In most of the time, it is a moral to return the gift to the giver. Parry (1986) take the point that the gift is always am 'Indian gift,' which means an equivalent term in return is required.[5] Parry took this point from his investigation on "the gift contains some part of the spiritual essence of the donor. And this constrains the recipient to make a return."[6] Thus, we can see that the exchange is related to reciprocity.

According to Mauss, "gift are the primitive analogue if the social contract, then they clearly carry a social load which in centralized politics is assumed by the state."[7] This is the reason why anthropologists argue exchange is the basis of social life. Let us take the classic example of gift-exchange: the Maori hau. Logically, the hau explains why gifts are repaid.

Mauss traces different forms of exchange in order to make out the relation between exchange and reciprocity with the social life. In this essay I will trace different form if In this essay, I will discuss about different types of gift-exchange in different types of society, ranging from tribal societies, i.e. the Trobrainders and Kabre, to the modern daily lives exchange, i.e. Christmas gift exchange and garage sale exchange. These rituals shows how anthropologist argue the statement with the observation or fieldwork

The Trobrianders' Kula

During Malinowski's fieldwork in Trobriand, he clearly examined the essentials of the Kula for Trobrianders and other Melanesia islands in Papua New Guinea. The Kula is a form of intertribal exchange between the Melanesia Islands. It is different from the Oceanic form of exchange. The Kula is based primarily upon the circulation of two articles of high values, but of no real use. The gifts are carried in a circular route which covers miles away over many communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands. All the main transaction in the Kula is public and ceremonial, and it is carried out according to its definite rules. One of the major characteristics of the Kula exchange is that the two items are travelling in different directions: the necklaces (soulava) travel in the direction of clock hand; while the armshells (mwali) in opposite direction. According to Malinowski (1920), "both articles never stop for any length of time in the hands of any owner; they constantly move, constantly meeting and being exchanged."[8]

Kula is essential for the Melanesian because of its sociological function. Sociologically, Kula creates partnership for a lifelong relationship. It is based on a fixed and permanent partnership and relationship which binds people from different tribes into couple some thousands of individuals. As Malinowski observed, the partnership implies various mutual duties and privileges, and constitutes a type of inter-tribal relationship on an enormous scale.[9] Malinowski stated that "two Kula partners have to Kula with one another and exchange other incidentally; they behave as friends, and have a number of mutual duties and obligations, which vary with the distance between their villages and with their reciprocal status."[10] He also mentioned that "the Kula partnership is one of the special bonds which unite two men into one o the standing relations of mutual exchange of gifts and services so characteristics of these natives."[11] There is a network of relationships in the Kula ring which men know and exchange with each other. In some situation, they will meet in the inter-tribal meetings. Thus, Malinowski pointed out that men are bound together by one common passion for Kula exchange and also, many minor ties and interests.

What keeps the relationship long-lasting is the reciprocity of gifts to the giver in the Kula ring. It is expected that the receiver will give back a fair and full value of gift to the giver. Similarly, a fine article must be replaced by the one with equivalent value, not by several minor ones.

"Gift economy" in Kabre

In Exchange (1999), Piot explore the understandings about persons, hierarchy and agency that operate in the exchange context in the Kabre society. Same as the Trobrianders, people in Kabre are expected receiver will have to return the gift to the giver. In society, especially in Piot's situation - he could not understand French when he first came to Kabre - gift-giving is a kind of surrogate language. From his experience, Piot suggested that "the gifts were attempts to communicate, to bridge the gap between us, to express relationship."[12] He realized that the gift-giving is a type of moral inquiry, which is an interrogation of the other.[13]

Despite, there are various forms for exchange in the Kabre society, all forms of exchange are motivated by the practical need of one of the parties.[14] There is a desure to establish social relations behind the Kabre exchange. They are likely to begin ?kp?nt?r? with another person through exchange. Thus, all the exchange in Kabre society is to do with relationships as with utilities. Moreover, through further exchange of items with greater value or quantity, the relationship grows. It is a great sign of friendship. Sometimes, when the relationship of two families grows bigger, there will be an arrangement of marriage so that the relationship will not be broken. If this works, then there will be another marriage in the next generation and so on. As a result, the relationship between the two families will last forever.

Economically, Piot argued that the Kabre gift exchange system generates the increased involvement in the wage and commodity sector. He pointed out that by allowing labours to participate more fully in the gift-giving by making money, social relations will then be expanded.[15] Piot take the point that "persons use things to gain access to persons rather than that they use persons to gain access to thing."[16] Piot also claims that "any gift given establishes a relationship between two persons, hence giving is always tied up with control, power and the appropriation of an other."[17] In the Kabre, exchange does not only form friendships. In the meantime, it forms another basis of social life - the formation of marriage, kinship groups and affinity.

Gifts Exchange in Christmas

Now, let us look at how modern anthropologists argued the statement through their observation of people's behaviour in the West, capitalist societies. The exchange of gifts is very popular in many parts of the world. In the following, I take in the account that exchange takes place with a generalized medium of exchange, i.e. money. Thus, in order to facilitate trade, barter give way away to selling (C-M), and then the money is then used to buy other commodities (M-C').[18] Carrier examined people's mindset on exchanging Christmas gifts and he found that it does related to their social relations. The heightening sociality of Christmas highlights the importance of exchanging of gifts, and it reflected people's Christmas shopping behaviour to the basis of social life. According to Caplow, parents and young children exchange gifts in an unequal value and quantity. In most of the time, the gifts from the parents to their young children have more in quantity and also in value. There is no expectation of equivalent return in this relationship. Whereas, for gift exchange between the spouses, there will be an active concern on the gifts are approximate equal in value.[19] Carrier (1993:58) suggested that it is more likely for people to show their affection to their family within a close kin by exchanging Christmas present. As the relationship become more distant, people are less likely to show their affectionate. Rather, it would be a more alienated giving and marks the relations which will be fairly impersonal utilitarian.[20]

As mentioned above, apart from exchanging Christmas gifts in Christmas Eve's feast, shopping for Christmas gifts is also a highlight for the exchange and it also maintain the basis of social life. Carrier (1993:63) takes the point that the range of social relations will be greater than normal when purchasing for the items. He suggested that this would be an annual ritual to convert commodities into gifts. This ritual allows us to celebrate and recreate personal relations with the anonymous objects available to us.[21] Moreover, Boxing Day allows merchants to celebrate the hierarchical relations outside their households. Seemingly, Christmas is just exchanging Christmas gifts between family and friends. In reality, through exchanging Christmas gifts, it celebrates relations with family, and also those who are distinct from relation in the outside world. Carrier (1993:69) take the point that Christmas is also "a reunion of families sanctified and chastened by tender memories and associations; and let the social intercourse of friends, with pleasant reminiscence, renew the ties if affection and strengthen the bonds of kindly feeling."[22]

Garage sales is American society

Some anthropologists look at people's daily life activities in the West to argue that exchange is the basis of social life. Similar to Christmas gifts exchange, most of the commodity exchange in the West belongs to the category 'sell-in-order-to-buy in peasant markets' which money act as the generalize medium of exchange, i.e. C-M-C'. Herrmann looked at the US garage sale exchange culture in order to investigate the social relationship built between the buyer and seller. Herrmann (1997:915) suggested that garage sale exchange allows the neighbours in the neighbourhood come to know each other, as "the neighbors are attracted by informal open invitation to the public to stop by and look over the garage sale goods."[23] Moreover, Herrmann (1997:915) also take the point that some neighbourhood garage sale takes place in order to attract the neighbor out of their houses for social interaction. Furthermore, exchange in garage gift generates gift relations. According to Stone Age Economics by Shalins (1974: 193-194; Gregory (1992:926)), exchange between family members or close kins usually belongs to generalized reciprocity. Thus, in garage sale exchange, the items are given to generalize others. By giving inexpensive garage as a gift, personal networks will then be solidified. In this case, social relations value more than profits.

Aside from bringing social interaction and relationships, garage sale ethos also includes friendliness and social egalitarian. Garage sale provides the participants the sense of justice. Low price is the hallmark of garage sales exchange. Thus, a 'just price' for an object is constructed through exchange.[24] Besides, Herrmann (1997:915) bring up the point that social inequalities are reproduced in the garage sales exchange, but it this social inequalities will be muted by the face-to-face egalitarian. This is because social markers such as gender, status, races could act as the factor affecting the transaction of garage sale exchange.[25] Thus, we can see that exchange shows the social basis of the society.


  • Carrier, James (1993): "The Rituals of Christmas Giving", in Unwrapping Christmas by Miller, D. (ed), Oxford, United kingdom: Clarendon Press, pp.55-74
  • Carrier, James (1996): "Exchange", in Encyclopaedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology by Barnard, Alan and Spencer, Jonathan (1996), USA and Canada: Routledge, pp. 218-221
  • Drucker, Philip: "The Potlatch", in Tribal and Peasant Economies by Dalton, George (1967), Austin, USA: University of Texas Press, pp.481-493
  • Gregory, C.A.: "Exchange and Reciprocity", in Comparison Encyclopaedia to Anthropology by Ingold, Tim (1994), London, United Kingdom: Routledge, pp. 911-939
  • Herrman, Gretchen M. (1997): "Gift or Commodity: What Changes Hands in the U.S. Garage Sale?", American Ethnologist Vol. 24. No. 4 (Nov., 1997), Blackwell Publishing, pp.910-930
  • Hornby, A S (2000): "Exchange", in Oxford Advance Learner's Dictionary of Current English, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, pp. 433
  • Malinowski, Brownislaw (1920): "Kula: The Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagos of Eastern New Guinea", in Tribal and Peasant Economics by Dalton George (1967), Austin, USA: University of Texas Press, pp. 171-184
  • Malinowski, Brownislaw (1920): "Tribal Economics in the Trobriands", in Tribal and Peasant Economies by Dalton George (1967), Austin, USA: University of Texas Press, pp.185-223
  • Malinowski, Brownislaw (1922): "The essentials of the Kula", in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, London, United Kingfom: Routledge, pp. 81-104
  • Mauss, Marcel (1970) [1954]: The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, London, United Kingdom: Cohen & West
  • Parry, Jonathan (1986): "The Gift. The Indian Gift and the 'Indian Gift'", in Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 21. No. 3 (Sept., 1986), pp. 453-473
  • Piot, Charles (1999): "Exchange", in Remotely global: village modernity in West Africa, Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, pp. 52-75
  • Shalins, Marshall (1974): "The Spirit of the Gift", in Stone Age Economics, Chicago, USA: Aldine-Atherton, pp.149-183
  • Shalins, Marshall (1974): "On the Sociology of Primitive Exchange", in Stone Age Economics, Chicago, USA: Aldine-Atherton, pp. 185-275
  • Weiner, Annette B. (1988): "Introduction", in The Trobrainders of Papua New Guinea, New York, USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publication, pp. 1-15
  • Weiner, Annette B. (1988): "The Trobrainders: Past and Present", in The Trobrainders of Papua New Guinea, New York, USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publication, pp. 17-31
  • Weiner, Annette B. (1988): "Marriage and the Politics of Yams", in The Trobrainders of Papua New Guinea, New York, USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publication, pp. 81-96
  • Weiner, Annette B. (1988): "Men Working for Women", in The Trobrainders of Papua New Guinea, New York, USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publication, pp. 111-123
  • Weiner, Annette B. (1988): "Kula and the Search for Fame", in The Trobrainders of Papua New Guinea, New York, USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publication, pp. 139-157
  1. Hornby (2000:433)
  2. Carrier (1996:218)
  3. Carrier (1996:218)
  4. Gregory (1994:911)
  5. Parry (1986:454)
  6. Parry (1986:456)
  7. Parry (1986:467)
  8. Malinowski (1920)
  9. Malinowski (1922:85)
  10. Malinowski (1922:91)
  11. Malinowski (1922:91)
  12. Piot (1999:54)
  13. Piot (1999:54)
  14. Piot (1999:56)
  15. Piot (1999:73)
  16. Piot (1999:62)
  17. Piot (1999:70)
  18. Gregory (1992:912)
  19. It is one of the categories of production-of-exchange, i.e. commodity exchange Karl Marx developed. This type of commodity of exchange is identified as 'selling-in-order-to-buy in the peasant markets.'

  20. Carrier (1993:55)
  21. Carrier(1993:58)
  22. Carrier (1993:63)
  23. Carrier (1993:96)
  24. Herrmann (1997:915)
  25. Herrmann (1997:916)
  26. Herrmann (1997:915)