The exchange of ‘use-less values’ in the kula expresses the basic principle that this exchange relies on – to own means to give. Therefore, objects are never in one place for too long, they go around from owner to owner, acquiring a history and with it their value. Along similar lines, Mauss places a focus on studying the network of relations and interdependencies that keep a collective together, moving exchange away from the utilitarian debate on self-interest (Parry 1986). Gift-exchange, according to Mauss has a ‘voluntary character, so to speak, apparently free and without cost, and yet constrained and interested…
They are endowed nearly always with the form of a present, of a gift generously offered even when in the gesture which accompanies the transaction there is only a fiction, formalism and social deception, and when there is, at bottom, obligation and economic interest’ (Mauss 1973 cited Parry 1986: 456-7). In such a way, Mauss emphasizes that the gift includes both freedom and restraint in action that is carried out by individuals as ‘incumbents of social status’ (Parry, 1986: 456)
Similarly, although in a different direction, Malinowski’s study of the Kula – the counter-clockwise circulation of the white shell-ring mwali bracelets and the clock-wise circulation of the red spondylus shell soulava necklaces – also transcends the dichotomy between self-interest and disinterest in the study of systems of exchange and what motivates them. This circulation takes place between islands and tribes, strengthening ties between them, enabling large-distance trade as well as, in the long run, cultural exchange (Mauss 1954, p.
21). Reading Malinowski from the utilitarian perspective can cause one to think that Malinowski was contradictory in his ideas because he did not strictly differentiate between what is considered to be two classes of incentives to human behavior – the innate tendencies on one hand that compel humans to act in a specific way in a specific context, and self-interest on the other hand, that represents the desire to advance one’s advantage at the expense of others.
By considering the two to be synonymous, Malinowski demonstrated that institutions, customs and culture in general are an expression of innate tendencies and that tradition gives shape to that which is inherent to all human beings. Thus, the Trobriands, according to Malinowski, engage in the dangerous kula as a result of the unavoidable strength of their innate tendencies – aspiring for social status and fame – and not because they are encouraged to do so by social values (Malinovski 1979).
Exchange, as fieldwork in Polynesia, Melanesia and North-West America has shown, is always closely tied to symbolic communication and the system of values. Thus, both Mauss and Malinowski are clear that the gift cannot be reduced to a self-interested economic exchange – that it is not barter, but rather, that barter is what follows as a by-product (Mauss 1954, p. 69; Malinovski 1979, p. 85-88).
However, both the kula and potlatch are concerned with the exchange of goods and wealth, and as such it could be said that they represent an economic institution, a model of trade that could be placed in a group with various other forms of barter. In order to do so we would need to define trade in very broad terms, and to suppose that the kula and potlatch and other gift-exchange systems represent ‘primitive economies’ consisting of the exchange of useful goods exclusively during times of deficit and shortage, without specific accompanying formalities and rules and in irregular intervals.
However, it seems that neither archaic nor other exchange systems can be defined in such a way – for example, the kula is a public, ceremonial and secure mode of exchange held periodically at a designated time, an institution that is rooted in myth, based on traditional laws and religious rituals and regulated by a strict set of rules (Malinovski 1979, p. 76).
Although the kula occurs between tribes of different language and culture, it is founded on partnerships that are created through participation in it, bonds that are lifelong and which tie together thousands of individuals assuming numerous mutual obligations and rights, thus giving a specific shape to inter-tribal relations. Although gift-exchange provides us with the possibility to place under scrutiny the economic exchange and trade that exists alongside it as a derivative of the great institution of giving and receiving, it also sheds light on a wider set of socio-cultural phenomena.
The gift carries with it a complex system of social and legal values, or in other words it represents a ‘fait social total’ – a total prestation (Mauss 1954, p. 3) that puts into motion the whole of society and it’s institutions taking place between groups that exchange goods, services, rituals, women, names… Opposing the economistic discourse that reduces exchange in primitive societies to pure barter, this mode of analysis inspired an extensive field of research in anthropology by placing the social into it’s rightful place in economic exchange.
Bibliography DURKHEIM, E. AND MAUSS, M. , 1963. Primitive Classification, London: Cohen & West MALINOVSKI, B. , 1979. Argonauti zapadnog Pacifika, Beograd: BIGZ MAUSS, M. , 1954. The Gift, London: Cohen & West WALENS, S. , 1982. The Weight of my Name is a Mountain of Blankets: Potlatch Ceremonies. In: V. TURNER, ed. Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 178-189 PARRY, J. , 1986. The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift’, Man, 453-473.