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Economic anthropology is a field that attempts to explain human economic behavior in its widest historic, geographic and cultural scope. It is an amalgamation of economics and anthropology. It is practiced by anthropologists and has a complex relationship with the discipline of economics, of which it is highly critical.[1] Its origins as a sub-field of anthropology began with work by the Polish founder of anthropology Bronislaw Malinowski and the French Marcel Mauss on the nature of reciprocity as an alternative to market exchange. For the most part, studies in economic anthropology focus on exchange. In contrast, the Marxian school known as "political economy" focuses on production.

Post-World War II, economic anthropology was highly influenced by the work of economic historian Karl Polanyi. Polanyi drew on anthropological studies to argue that true market exchange was limited to a restricted number of western, industrial societies. Applying formal economic theory (Formalism) to non-industrial societies was mistaken, he argued. In non-industrial societies, exchange was "embedded" in such non-market institutions as kinship, religion, and politics (an idea he borrowed from Mauss). He labelled this approach Substantivism. The formalist–substantivist debate was highly influential and defined an era.[2]

As globalization became a reality, and the division between market and non-market economies – between "the West and the Rest"[3] – became untenable, anthropologists began to look at the relationship between a variety of types of exchange within market societies. Neo-substantivists examine the ways in which so-called pure market exchange in market societies fails to fit market ideology. Economic anthropologists have abandoned the primitivist niche they were relegated to by economists. They now study the operations of corporations, banks, and the global financial system from an anthropological perspective.

Reciprocity and the gift

Bronislaw Malinowski, anthropologist at the London School of Economics
A Kula bracelet from the Trobriand Islands.

Malinowski and Mauss: Debate over the Kula exchange

Bronislaw Malinowski's groundbreaking work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), posits the question, "why would men risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets?" Carefully traced the network of exchanges of bracelets and necklaces across the Trobriand Islands, Malinowski established that they were part of a system of exchange, the Kula ring. He stated that this exchange system was clearly linked to political authority.[4]

In the 1920s and later, Malinowski's research became the subject of debate with the French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, author of The Gift (Essai sur le don, 1925).[5] Contrasting Mauss, Malinowski emphasised the exchange of goods between individuals, and their non-altruistic motives for giving: they expected a return of equal or greater value. In other words, reciprocity is an implicit part of gifting; no "free gift" is given without expectation of reciprocity.

Mauss, however, posited that the gifts were not merely between individuals, but between representatives of larger collectivities. These gifts were, he argued, a "total prestation." They were not simple, alienable commodities to be bought and sold, but, like the Crown jewels, embodied the reputation, history, and identity of a "corporate kin group". Given the stakes, Mauss asked, "Why anyone would give them away?" His answer was an enigmatic concept, hau, "the spirit of the gift." Largely, the confusion (and resulting debate) was due to a bad translation. Mauss appeared to be arguing that a return gift is given to keep the very relationship between givers alive; a failure to return a gift ends the relationship and the promise of any future gifts. Based on an improved translation, Jonathan Parry has demonstrated that Mauss was arguing that the concept of a "pure gift" given altruistically only emerges in societies with a well-developed market ideology.[4]

Trobriand.png

Mauss' concept of "total prestations" has been developed in the later 20th century by Annette Weiner, who revisited Malinowski's fieldsite in the Trobriand Islands. Publishing in 1992, her critique was twofold: Weiner first noted that Trobriand Island society has a matrilineal kinship system. As a consequence, women hold a great deal of economic and political power, as inheritance is passed from mother to daughter through the female lines. Malinowski missed this insight in his 1922 work, ignoring women's exchanges in his research. Secondly, Weiner further developed Mauss' argument about reciprocity and the "spirit of the gift" in terms of inalienable possessions: "the paradox of keeping while giving."[6] Weiner contrasted "moveable goods," which can be exchanged, with "immoveable goods," which serve to draw the gifts back. In the context of the Trobriand study, male Kula gifts were moveable gifts compared to those of women's landed property. She argued that the specific goods given, such as Crown Jewels, are so identified with particular groups that, even when given they are not truly alienated. Not all societies, however, have these kinds of goods, which depend upon the existence of particular kinds of kinship groups. French anthropologist Maurice Godelier[7] pushed the analysis further in The Enigma of the Gift (1999).[8]

Albert Schrauwers has argued that the kinds of societies used as examples by Weiner and Godelier, such as the Kula ring in the Trobriands, the Potlatch of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, or the Toraja of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, are all characterized by ranked aristocratic kin groups that fit with Claude Lévi-Strauss' model of "House Societies" where "House" refers to both noble lineage and their landed estate. Total prestations are given, he argues, to preserve landed estates identified with particular kin groups and maintain their place in a ranked society.[8]

Three tongkonan noble houses in a Torajan village.

Gifts and commodities

The misunderstanding about what Mauss meant by "the spirit of the gift" led some anthropologists to contrast "gift economies" with "market economies," presenting them as polar opposites and implying that non-market exchange was always altruistic. Marshall Sahlins, a well-known American cultural anthropologist, identified three main types of reciprocity in his book Stone Age Economics (1972).[9] Gift or generalized reciprocity is the exchange of goods and services without keeping track of their exact value, but often with the expectation that their value will balance out over time. Balanced or Symmetrical reciprocity occurs when someone gives to someone else, expecting a fair and tangible return - at a specified amount, time, and place. Market or Negative reciprocity is the exchange of goods and services whereby each party intends to profit from the exchange, often at the expense of the other. Gift economies, or generalized reciprocity, occur within closely knit kin groups, and the more distant the exchange partner, the more imbalanced or negative the exchange becomes.

This opposition was classically expressed by Chris Gregory in his book "Gifts and Commodities" (1982). Gregory argued that

Commodity exchange is an exchange of alienable objects between people who are in a state of reciprocal independence that establishes a quantitative relationship between the objects exchanged… Gift exchange is an exchange of inalienable objects between people who are in a state of reciprocal dependence that establishes a qualitative relationship between the transactors" (emphasis added.)[10]

Other anthropologi

This opposition was classically expressed by Chris Gregory in his book "Gifts and Commodities" (1982). Gregory argued that

Commodity exchange is an exchange of alienable objects between people who are in a state of reciprocal independence that establishes a quantitative relationship between the objects exchanged… Gift exchange is an exchange of inalienable objects between people who are in a state of reciprocal dependence that establishes a qualitative relationship between the transactors" (emphasis added.)[10]

Other anthropologists, however, refused to see these different "exchange spheres" as polar opposites. Marilyn Strathern, writing on a similar area in Papua New Guinea, dismissed the utility of the opposition in The Gender of the Gift (1988).[11]

Spheres of exchange