Exchange And Display

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Exchange And Display


Exchange refers to the transaction of labor, resources, products, and services within a society. Exchange is not limited to the market economies of industrial societies. Market economies appeared late in world history and until recently were few in number. Even today most of the world’s societies do not have fully developed market economies; the range extends from those with no market institutions whatsoever, through those with peripheral markets, to those with important but by no means fully developed market institutions. For such economies as these, it is necessary to consider modes of exchange other than market exchange.

Karl Polanyi (1944; Polanyi et al. 1957) identified and defined three modes of exchange: reciprocal, redistributive, and market. The three modes of exchange are found singly or in combination in the economic organizations of the diverse societies of the world. They seem to be capable of clear and evident definition whatever the complexities required in the analysis of their operation in an economic system. In brief, reciprocity is obligatory gift exchange; redistribution is obligatory payment to an allocative center; and market exchange is purchase and sale with reference to a price system. The three modes subsume all the types of exchange recognized in any society. Transfers or transactions that cannot be included in these categories are considered by a society to be illegitimate or wrong for that very reason.

Most important of all, however, the three modes are the functioning aspects of the integrative structures of various types of economies. A society can be structurally integrated by its social, political, or economic organization, or by some combination of these organizations. When one of these structures predominates or, more rarely, is the sole structure present in the society, a clear model type is discernible. There are three such clear model types. For example, a social economy is one in which the social organization integrates economic life; here reciprocity is the prevailing mode of exchange. In a political economy, the political organization integrates economic life; redistributive exchange prevails. In a market-integrated economy, market exchange prevails. It follows that there will be mixed types of economy ranging through those in which two of the three possible structures of the society seem to be of about equivalent importance, but predominate over the third, to one in which all three have a roughly equivalent importance.

In the comparative study of exchange, the subject of gift giving has a historical and continuing place. It was Marcel Mauss who first investigated the socioeconomic nature of gift giving, and his ideas form part of the present discussion of reciprocal exchange.

The subject of display, which has excited analytical interest since Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), will be discussed in relation to the three modes of exchange. It will be shown that there are three types of display, each of which is specific to one of the three modes of exchange and its type of economy and social context.

Reciprocity and social economy

Marcel Mauss pointed out the completely obligatory character of gift exchange. He described it as one of the many forms of obligatory reciprocity that expressed and maintained the articulated individual and group relationships of primitive social systems (1925). There existed no “natural,” or “pure,” market economy in primitive societies. Goods had social or moral value but not some separate economic value. They were exchanged in the same social way as were courtesies and respects or as “entertainments, ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances, and feasts; and fairs in which the market is but one element and the circulation of wealth but one part of a wide and enduring contract.” Gift exchange, therefore, was part of a system of “total prestations,” as Mauss termed it, in which individuals in a society had both to give and receive in all social exchanges under the “sanction of private or open warfare.” If gift giving (or any other sort of social exchange) is often thought of as free and voluntary, it is because the members of a social group far more willingly receive and give than they act in any way that would threaten their membership in the group. The ideas of Mauss continue to be useful but require reworking.

Reciprocity, the receiving and giving of goods and services, is built into the human life cycle and the social order. Without it the nonproducing young could not live and mature to provide the next generation with its livelihood and the social order its continuity. There would be no cushioning of misfortune or infirmity, and the world would be without festivity, hospitality, and benefice. Reciprocity as a mode of exchange is a different matter. It is not universally an important mode of exchange except in those societies that are called primitive by the anthropologist. In nonprimitive folk, peasant, or state-organized societies, reciprocities involve one or both of the other two modes of exchange. For example, for reciprocal gift giving to take place in industrial society, it is necessary for the donors to go into the market for the gifts they will exchange; even the crudest Kindergarten Handarbeit will have required for its manufacture some tool or material obtained in the market.

The distinctive character of primitive societies is that they are organized by their social structures. Primitive societies are without independent economic or political structuring. The economic order is “embedded” in the social order as is the political order (Polanyi 1944, p. 57). The rigorous study of such societies is the study of kinship and its extensions and affiliations and of the interrelations of the roles and social groupings formed on a kinship base. Economic aspects can be analyzed out of this social matrix, but such analysis will prove only that in so socialized a situation economic facts are social facts as well, and their ordering follows or is the social organization of the group concerned. It is proposed here that the economic systems of all such groups be called social economies. The use of this term sets out the distinguishing features of such systems and prevents the confusions that arise when the economy of such a group is spoken of as if it were a version, albeit a primitive version, of the separable and independent economic systems referred to by the economist.

Reciprocity is the prevailing and characteristic mode of exchange in the world’s social economies, which is to say a majority of the world’s societies up to the industrial revolution. Nothing other than a social economy existed until the development in the Neolithic of some state organizations or political economies. It is only in the past two centuries that the intrusions of Western market economies or Western political power exerted along economic lines have brought about the extinction of almost all pure social economies save, perhaps, those in Amazonas and the interior of New Guinea. Today, therefore, there are few going social economies in which reciprocity is the sole mode of exchange; but the number in which it is still the dominant mode of exchange is not insignificant, containing as it does a large number of African tribal societies and some Oceanic and American Indian societies.

A full illustration of how reciprocal exchanges follow the lines and groupings of the social structure in a social economy cannot be presented here. The reader is referred to such classic studies as Malinowski’s study of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Firth’s study of the Tikopia (1939). Certain famous institutions of primitive cultures, such as bridewealth, kula, and the potlatch have excited interest precisely because each demonstrates the essentially social nature of reciprocal exchange involving valued goods. Anthropologists and other social scientists have examined and re-examined these three institutions as somehow exemplary statements of some key part of the problem of the relation between the economic and the noneconomic in human society.

Bridewealth comprises goods, and sometimes labor services, transferred from the groom’s social group to that of the wife. The institution of bride-wealth is widespread in Africa, where it is almost always a vitally important institution and quite often highly elaborated. The goods used as bride-wealth range from cattle to such items as hoes and pots. Elaborations occur in the amount of the bridewealth; in the number of installments in which it is transferred; in the presence, amount, and number of reciprocal goods (dowry) the wife may bring to the marriage; or in “cattle linking,” in which a given marriage and transfer of bridewealth in cattle is determined by past marriages and predetermines future ones. The earlier term used for the institution was “brideprice,” but the substitution of the term “bridewealth,” suggested by Evans-Pritchard (1931, pp. 36–39), is now widely accepted. “Price” is a term that cannot be lifted out of the context of market economy free of the connotations of purchase and sale. The problem is therefore set: if there is an exchange in which goods of value and a woman are transferred, why is this not a matter of purchase and sale? The anthropologists’ answer, although some are not in agreement on this point (Gray 1960), is that this transfer occurs in the context of a rearrangement of the social structure. The marriage creates new reciprocal roles, with new obligations and expectations; the giving of bridewealth is more important symbolically than it is economically. It is thus part of a vast series of social reciprocities and reciprocal exchanges of, as Mauss would say, courtesies, respects, women, dances, and so on, as well as of goods of value. The difference lies precisely in the fact that reciprocal exchange is part of continuing social process and behavior, while market exchange is an isolated, one-time economic act.

Kula is an institution of reciprocal exchange in which permanent partners give and receive recognized treasure items. There are two types of such treasure, which circulate in opposite directions around a kula ring made up of a number of island societies of the western Pacific. The institution is best known from the description of the Trobriand Islands by Malinowski (1922). The treasure items are shell armlets and spondylus shell necklaces, which are surrounded by lore and myth and which cannot be exchanged for anything besides one another in the kula ring. Kula partners engage in reciprocal exchanges of second-grade items (Bo-hannan 1963, p. 236) as an earnest of the generosity with which they will reciprocate gifts of the treasure items of the greatest possible value in the lore and myth that attaches to them. The whole affair is fraught with the real and magical hazards of long sea voyages by canoe, with elaborate ritual and ceremonial attesting to its importance and assuring its proper conduct and success, and with thrill and wonder about the treasures that have been or might be received. There is no question about the noneconomic nature of the kula. It is a reciprocal exchange devoid of economic motive, basis, or gain. This noneconomic interpretation of kula itself has been generally accepted, even by those who have claimed that kula was a pretext for carrying on a higgling pedestrian trade in very ordinary goods on the side–never with kula partners–during kula voyages. The problem kula sets is the same whatever emphasis is given to the non-kula trading on the side. Why is the institution so elaborated, and why are its opportunities so enthusiastically pursued? The only possible answer is that the reciprocal exchange of goods without economic value, no less than economic goods, acknowledges social worth by giving content to the playing of a social role. In kula, as is sometimes the case in bridewealth, there is feedback between the recognition of an individual’s social prestige within his own society and outside it with his kula partners of other societies.

The potlatch of the Indian societies of the northwest coast of North America is an institution of reciprocal exchange in which the frequency, size, and system of exchanges became so great in some cases as to seem not only unique but also bizarre and incredible. It was among the Kwakiutl, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, that the pot-latch reached its most extreme development (Codere 1950; 1961). At a potlatch, goods were ceremoniously displayed and then distributed by the potlatcher to a number of individuals of higher and lower social rank. The recipients returned the gift with an increment when they potlatched at some later date. Although the individuals concerned received their potlatch positions through inheritance, it was only by potlatching that the social rank and worth of these positions was maintained or enhanced. Enormous inventories of goods were involved in the over-all system of potlatching and even on the occasion of a single potlatch. The Kwakiutl earned Canadian dollars, particularly in the commercial fishing industry. These earnings were converted into vast quantities of mass-produced Western industrial goods, such as cheap blankets, clothing, housewares, and so on, all of which circulated in the potlatch system in amounts far above consumption needs and possibilities, along with such traditional non-European goods as wooden canoes. The great season for potlatching was the wintertime, which was largely a time of vacation from economic effort. However, the only vacation from potlatching was just after giving one. The cycle of accumulating property by hard work and by making loans at interest began again as did the accumulation of new indebtedness through receiving goods as new or as returned gifts from other potlatchers. As in the case of kula, an immense lore captured the interest of the people. Twenty-five years after the effective end of potlatching, former participants were still recounting the details of past potlatches and the titles, rhetoric, and historical and mythical background associated with them.

The problem set by the potlatch is by now a familiar one with a familiar answer. In a social economy, the ends of all efforts are social; and they are organized along the lines of the social system itself, according to the reciprocal form of all social exchanges.

Redistribution and political economy

Redistribution is the form of exchange that occurs when taxes or other exactions are collected and reallocated by an administrative center. The term is not of the same descriptive accuracy as Polanyi’s other two terms, since it does not make clear the nature of the exchange that takes place. Perhaps a better term would be “politically enforced exchange.” It is political power that is behind the exaction of goods and services in exchange for membership in good standing in the polity along with whatever reallocations might be received in return. Such reallocations may be in the form of benefit from internal and territorial policing, judicial institutions, and public works or distributions.

Some redistributive exchange exists in many social economies. A rudimentary form of it would be the collection of foodstuffs by a headman for the giving of a feast in which all share. Redistribution also occurs in the relatively few predominantly market economies of the mid-nineteenth-century industrial nations, since some taxation was present in all of them. However, redistribution is the dominant mode of exchange in the political economies that include all those centralized state organizations, archaic and recent, from ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, and pre-Columbian Peru, to precolonial African and Asiatic states. In the political economy, the market is either relatively undeveloped or secondary and subservient to the polity, which, in large part, controls distribution of goods.

The precontact kingdom of Rwanda in east central Africa corresponds to the model of a political economy in which redistribution is the dominant mode of exchange. In Rwanda social life as well as economic life was politicized, although it is the latter that is of concern here (Codere 1962). The masses of the people were peasants who were forced to contribute goods and services to the support of a vast and complex political administration headed by the king, or mwami as he was called. Although they are said to have gloried in their poverty and subjugation, which is a matter in doubt, they received little beyond the minimum reallocations in return for almost the entirety of their production over and above what was needed for their own bare subsistence. From their feudal overlords, who were members of the governing caste and often simultaneously their local civil or military administrators, they received the custody and usufruct of a cow. This was probably more important as a symbol of being in good standing with the ruling caste than it was as an economic asset. From their administrators they received military protection, courts, and whatever benefits were inherent in the idea that the entire fertility and welfare of the land and the people depended upon the going order of things with the mwami at the head of the centralized state and its administration. The chief redistribution in Rwanda’s economy was, in fact, the contribution made by the masses to the support of the few. The ruling caste comprised 15 per cent of the total population and was supported at a level of living that was always higher, and often astronomically higher, than that of the masses. The use or threat of force perpetuated the system.

The use of Rwanda as an example is not to suggest that all political economies have been similarly despotic or similarly one-sided in exacting much and reallocating very little in exchange. Rwanda, however, presents a type case of a political economy in which redistribution is the predominant mode of exchange. Market exchange was virtually nonexistent; and reciprocal exchange was cut back to a minimum, since the masses had neither the kinship organization development nor the economic wherewithal for it. In order to achieve such political ends as improving and maintaining their own power positions within the political hierarchy, the ruling caste engaged in a small number of reciprocal exchanges and in some exchanges of a redistributive character.

Market exchange and market economies

In the comparison of modes of exchange in diverse societies and economies, the salient features of market exchange are purchase and sale at a money price determined by the impersonal forces of supply and demand. It is important to emphasize the abstract and impersonal nature of market exchange as compared to the other two modes. Features that are the essence of reciprocal and redistributive exchange can be, and usually are, eliminated as irrelevancies in market exchange. These include, for example, the social and political roles of the exchangers, the obligatory sociability or ceremoniousness connected with the act of exchange, and social and political restrictions and specifications concerning which goods are exchangeable. To be sure, mutual courtesies and recognition of social worth or political position may accompany any instance of purchase and sale; but they are not necessary. Where they are present, it is either as an irrepressible human element or as part of the amount on the price tag, adjusted to cover such costs as time-consuming courtesy and the elegance of the place of sale.

Although economists have treated most industrial national economies as though they were analogs of the pure market economy model, it is those of the nineteenth century that fit the model best, since they entailed less regulation for any social or political end. Of them, Polanyi wrote (1944, p. 57): “Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system”; and he also stated that “a market economy is an economic system controlled, regulated and directed by markets alone” (p. 68). In a pure market economy, social and political relations are economized. It is not that social and political relations cease to exist; the former are necessary for the continuation of society and the latter for the policing of the market and enforcement of the principle of contract, by means of which it works. Where market exchange prevails, social and political organization give way to economic organization. It was in the dehumanizing and desocializing consequences of market autonomy that such critics of the system as Marx, Engels, Veblen, and Polanyi found their target, just as critics of totalitarian regimes have centered on the human costs of the politicizing of society.

Mixed modes of exchange

Perhaps in no empirical economy in the contemporary world is reciprocity, redistribution, or market exchange the sole mode of exchange, although typically one of the modes may predominate. In primitive societies, the usual situation today is a mixture of the three modes. This has sometimes come about through internal development but more often through the political and economic intrusions of the expanding industrial nations of the West. In primitive societies where developments, especially of marketlike exchange, have been indigenous and contact influences slight, the three modes of exchange have frequently coexisted as separate spheres that have remained relatively compartmentalized. These have been termed “multicentric” economies by Bohannan and Dalton (1962, p. 3). An example would be Trobriand society (Malinowski 1922; Bohannan 1963, pp. 233–240), in which reciprocity is found in Kula and kinship relations, redistribution in the exchanges of chiefs and others, and marketlike exchange, or an imperfect and moneyless market exchange, is represented by the ordinary trade accompanying the kula and in internal island trade. Another example is provided by Kwakiutl society (Codere 1950; 1961), as it existed from the turn of the century to the depression of the 1930s. Reciprocity characterized many exchanges of subsistence goods between kin and villagers, as well as exchange between individuals in the potlatch system. Market exchange in the Canadian market economy was the source of most of the goods used in potlatching, and some redistribution occurred in the special type of potlatching involved in the purchase of “coppers.”

When the three modes of exchange are linked and cross-linked in contemporary economies, they rarely appear as distinct spheres but are relatively integrated by market exchange and the use of money. Thus, many economies today, industrial or nonindustrial, seem to be genuinely mixed economies. Africa furnishes many examples of social or social-political economies that have been permeated by market exchange. Western industrial nations exemplify the process in reverse as their nineteenth-century pure market exchange economies have been transformed into mixed ones. In Africa the European imposition of a money head tax on tribesmen forced the African into market exchange. By the time a man worked for the European to earn money to pay his own tax and that of his kinsmen, and returned with gifts purchased in the market and with money with which to buy a cow or cows for bridewealth, the three modes of exchange were linked and cross-linked. In the Western industrial nations, it was perhaps inevitable that where political power became more widely distributed among the people they would use it to regulate and use the market economy for social ends. For example, the social reciprocity of supporting aged kinfolk is in part taken care of by the payment of taxes and the redistribution to them of money they use in market exchange for purchases to meet their own needs, for gifts to give reciprocally, and for redistributive payments such as property or sumptuary taxes.


Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) is the point of departure for all inquiries into the meaning and uses of display in human society. His terms “conspicuous consumption,” “conspicuous waste,” and “conspicuous leisure” are still telling, and useful in discussions patterned after his on the universal association of display with social position and prestige. Contemporary social scientists, however, find universals of interest only if they can be fruitfully used in explanations of social behavior. They are not content to conclude, as Veblen did, that display is irrational from an economic point of view, or to leave the discussion of display, irrationality, prestige, and society on a generalized level.

By centering attention on display as it is associated with exchange, it seems possible to discern its essential role in society. This enables us to explain why it takes the forms it does and why it is associated with social prestige, political power, or economic importance.

The most frequent, most important, and most elaborate laying out of goods before the eyes of others will be connected with exchange and specific to the particular mode of exchange. To return to the model systems, in social economies, where reciprocal exchange predominates, the great displays are associated with those exchanges. Similar generalizations can be made for the political and market economies. The great displays are also great events that give visible proof of the productive effort and exchange relations that can be mobilized. They reaffirm and celebrate the system, even while they are part of it.

Displays connected with reciprocal exchange in social economies are frequently modest ones. There is not the production capacity in many cases to achieve anything much more impressive than sufficient food and drink for feasting and sufficient time to prepare for the festivities and participate in them. For example, the Papago Indians of southwestern North America had a saguaro, or cactus-fruit, wine feast, for which everyone produced and set out as many pots of wine as possible and then got publicly, communally, and “beautifully” drunk. In their desert environment and with their specific technology, this was probably the greatest abundance they could have produced; it was witnessed and enjoyed, and it was a great yearly event.

At the other extreme, in the rich natural environment of the northwest coast of North America the displays connected with potlatching were probably the greatest of any ever associated with reciprocal exchange in any primitive society. Wooden statues were often set up a hundred feet or so apart, marking the boundaries of the beachfront display of the goods that had been given away in a potlatch. Of course, these statues then measured the impressiveness of subsequent potlatch displays. The eye of the witness was delighted as well as impressed by various devices of presentation. Gold and silver bracelets, suspended from small stakes planted on the beach, stirred in the breeze and caught the sunlight. Display was part of the actual distribution of goods; every item was publicly and often glowingly mentioned as it was given away, and every lot, of blankets, for example, was publicly counted out. Feasting and entertainment, special carved wooden feast dishes, and special costumes were all part of the show.

Whether modest or pretentious, such displays showed the social worth of the individuals or groups who were responsible for them. Their ability and desire to support social relationships for social as well as private ends were on view.

Display connected with redistributive exchange consists of processions, panoply, public works, and state festivals and entertainments; it is inspiring or intimidating depending upon the nature of the political power concerned and the onlooker’s or participant’s relation to it.

In the African kingdom of Rwanda, the greatest displays were redistributive. The king’s retinue, court, and capital; the review of the royal cattle; the performances of the royal dancers; the magnificence of the royal progress whenever the mwami traveled about; and the conspicuous bounty of goods, foodstuffs, milk pots, beer pots, and everything that poured into his household were all part of the pattern. It was repeated on a smaller scale for every lesser political figure in the system.

Other examples of redistributive displays include the Panathenaic festival and the Parthenon; the Roman triumph; and the Coliseum and its circuses. In these societies, which were political economies, however different their polities, the displays connected with redistributive exchange were the most important of any displays that were made in the society. These displays were part of the redistributive exchange itself. The thousands of citizens or subjects whose accumulated tax or tribute payments made such displays possible may have received little in addition to spectacle. The function of such display was the demonstration of political power and its ability to organize all aspects of a society, including the economic aspect.

Display connected with market exchange is so familiar it requires little discussion. Its means are the market place, the fair, the store, the showcase, and so on, not forgetting the ubiquitous extensions of the market place via printing and electronics. While the general purpose of such display is to entice and facilitate purchase, each instance of display has the particular purpose of enabling the particular goods concerned to compete, on as favorable terms as possible, with all the other goods of the market. It is for this reason that its arts and artifices are so highly developed, for they must make up the difference needed for successful sales competition. Display in market economies can be institutional in nature and aim, like some of the great trade fairs. It can also proclaim the ramifications of the system and the general wealth of goods it has made available. However, this is a small part of the total amount of display connected with market exchange; the typical appeal is not “Buy!”, but “Buy such-and-such!” It can therefore be said of the display connected with market exchange that its functions and purposes in society are practically the same, that is, to maximize and to integrate the market.

Research on exchange along comparative and behavioral lines will be increasingly developed by anthropologists, if not by economists, since it promises a more profound understanding of the economic aspects of society. There is a need for more detailed and quantified field study of exchange in its full social and cultural context. When such a field as that of kinship and social organization has been developed to the point of rigorous and quasi-mathematical treatment, there seems no good reason why the field of exchange, with its clear factual basis (something being exchanged for something with someone), cannot be reduced to similar clarity, detail, and order.


[See alsoECONOMIC ANTHROPOLOGY; TRADE AND MARKETS. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofMALINOWSKI; MAUSS; POLANYI; VEBLEN.]


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Exchange And Display