What can the exchange of gifts tell us about a society?
Exhange is the chief means by which things move from one person to another and it is an important way in which people create and maintain social hierarchy. It is a richly symbolic activity as all exchanges have got a social meaning which can be analysed and therefore gift exchange can give us insights into the social structures of societies. Exchange is also universal: it is unknown for people to produce and then consume everything directly, without any intervening exchanges at all and this means that gift exchange systems are an important aspect of life which can be studied in every society and different kinds of exchange systems can be compared. An example of a society in which the exchange of gifts can tells something about their social structure are the Trobrianders.
Malinowski described the extensive and highly complex trading system which takes place on the Trobriand islands, Woodlark, the d’Entrecasteaux islands, the Louisiades as well as some parts of mainland New Guinea. This trading system is called the kula. In order to understand the kula the focus will be on the Trobrianders who are a society that takes part in the exchange activities and who themselves have more than eighty different kinds of exchange of which the kula forms a part. The Trobriand islands consist of a flat coral island about 30 miles long and several smaller surrounding islands. Trobriand villages are scattered along the west coast and in the interior. No single village ahs access to all the material goods its people need; and nowhere in the Trobriands can one obtain some crucial materials such as greenstone needed for blades of adzes and axes, rattan for lashing, bamboo and clay for pottery. Furthermore, there are broad regions of specialisation on the main island of the Trobriands. Along the western coast, circling the lagoon, are villages that specialise in fishing. The northern section of the island is a rich agricultural area, with villages scattered through the interior. Some villages specialise in a special craft, such as woodcarving and decorating lime pots, all for export. The major crop the Trobrianders plant is the yam, though taro is an important secondary subsistence food. A lot of their produce is actually used in many of the different kinds of exchange and only a small percentage is actually consumed. Exchange systems are a very important aspect of Trobriand life. An example would be the organisation of agricultural work. The gardening team that will work the large area chosen for gardens usually consists of all residents of a village. The whole garden is divided into smaller squares which are cultivated by a household group. For some tasks, larger work groups form. In some cases, members of several households, or sometimes the entire gardening team, may pool their labour to do tasks collectively. This communal labour is based on reciprocity. Usually the household whose work of many days is being done in a single day provides rations for the workers, but no spoecial payments take place. Another form of communal labour entails an individual summoning kin, inlaws and neighbours to work for him. He then has to distribute food to them. An ordinary man may do so, in what is called kabutu labour, to build a house or a yamhouse. But kabutu is also used by leaders of high rank – who hold wealth in surplus food – to mobilise followers. Through kabutu an important leader commands a communal labour force, which erects yam houses, build canoes, and undertakes other large-scale projects through which he, and they, derive prestige. These two form of exchange clearly show that food is very important for the Trobrianders and that it can be used as an exchange product. This implies that those Trobrianders who have got excess vegetables can profit from exchanges and so the vegetables are a form of wealth.
The production of yams is characterised by two factors. First, each household works extremely hard to produce great quantities of food, far above what they need to feed themselves. Second, more than half of the yams produced by a household go to the households of the husband’s sister and other close female kin. The yams the household gives away, to other households and to the leader of the subclan, are the best and largest it produces. The more and better the yams one presents, the greater is one’s prestige. From the moment a garden plot is laid out, it is considered to be either a food garden – one from which a household will derive everyday subsistence needs – or an exchange garden – one with which household meets its obligations. Moreover, the planting materials are provided by the eventual recipient of the yams (from the previous year’s crops), so that what the man who plants and tends an exchange garden and his wife are presenting is labour embodied in yams. The annual presentation of the best yams a household produces to another household are called harvest presentations. The yams are then stored in a building specially designed for display purposes, where they will be kept for up to six months and sometimes allowed to rot. As long as a yam is uncooked it is an item of wealth that can be invested. Once it is cooked it can only be eaten. The organisational side of these harvest presentations can only be understood by looking at the structures of descent, kinship and marriage in the Trobriands.
The Trobrianders view the connection among subclan members and most vividly among brother, sister and the sister’s child, in term of blood. A brother and a sister are seen to have emerged together from the underworld and founded the subclan. A child’s “blood” comes from the mother and her siblings (the Trobrianders are a matrilineal society). Nevertheless blood and sexual relations are sharply separate as can be seen in the avoidance relationship between brother and sister. Bonds outside the clan are important and are created by marriage and most of them terminate when the marriage ends. The father is seen as a relative by marriage as he is not connected by substance. When a Trobriander is mourned and buried by his or her spouse’s relatives, not fellow members of his or her own subclan, it is because the evil “mist” emanating from the dead could spread to those of common blood; but it cannot pass across the bonds of affinity, where no common substance provides a connection. The transfers of yams in harvest transactions can be viewed in part as a contractual obligation whereby a corporate subclan rewards its affines for the services they have provided. When a Trobriand gardener piles for display the yams harvested from an exchange garden, most of them are allocated to the particular sister and brother-in-law for whom it is his responsibility to provide; some smaller amounts are set aside to be presented to other sisters (or equivalent close female relatives) and their husbands. A basket of such yams, and perhaps a pig and some areca nuts for betel chewing, is presented to the sister; and the latter’s husband reciprocates by presenting the donor with a polished greenstone ax blade or a clay pot. The next year, the original donor presents a larger pile of yams “as reciprocation for the valuable” (the valuables actually are of no practical use). The recipient of an unusually large harvest presentation may similarly present a valuable in recognistion for the extra hard work that has been put in. Another element in the erciprocation of the harvest yams emerges if one looks at women’s mortuary feasts. When a woman is making a mortuary distribution, the women to whom her husband has presented harvest yams parade up to her and present her with leaf bundles and skirts. These systems clearly indicate that production and distribution in tribal societies are organised in terms of kinship.
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