Anthropology: Exchange & Economy

Anthropology looks at an economy by studying the ways an economy is an integrated part of a social and cultural totality. The concepts in a particular economy can only be understood if we look into the interrelationships with other aspects of culture and society.

People in all cultures want to maximize value but what is considered valuable to them varies cross culturally and between individuals.

Bronsilaw Kasper Malinowski was a known anthropologist in the early 1900s whose writings were greatly influential. He returned from the islands after the first world war after his research. He showed, contrary to widespread expectations, that ‘savages’ were by no means driven by lowly material needs in everything they did, that they had a sophisticated religion and that a complex kinship system and a multitude of regulated practices upheld society and contributed to the fulfillment of far more needs than the purely biological ones.

In Argonauts, Malinowski writes about the people of Trobriand Islands that:

“works prompted by motives of a highly complex, social and traditional nature, and towards aims which are certainly not directed towards the satisfaction of present wants, or to the direct achievement of utilitarian purpose … [A]ll, or almost all of the fruits of his work, and certainly any surplus which he can achieve by extra effort, goes not to the man himself, but to his relatives-in-law.” (Malinowski 1984, p. 61)


Trobriand economy had three spheres of exchange:

(a) Subsistence,

(b) Prestige

(c)  Kula

(a) Subsistence:

The main item in the subsistence sphere was the ordinary yam. The yams served two money functions.

Within the subsistence sphere, but not in the rest of the economy, they were a medium of exchange.

More generally, they were a major mode of non-commercial payment for fulfilling kinship and political obligations, such as tax. Yams also had to be presented at certain points in funerals and marriage arrangements.

Heaps of yams displayed in front of many of the huts. will not be the household’s own produce, but rather gifts received from kin and (possibly) political clients. The size of these heaps of yams thereby gives an indication of who is particularly powerful in the community.


(b) Prestige:

The Trobriand prestige sphere can be divided into women’s and men’s sub-spheres. The former had only two items, bundles and skirts made from banana leaves.

All adult women made both items, and both had money functions. Bundles were a medium of exchange in that they could be converted downward into the stuffs of the subsistence sphere, but not into the men’s prestige sub-sphere or upward into the kula sphere.

Mainly, though, the bundles and skirts were a mode of non-commercial payment. A woman was obligated to give skirts to her brother’s wife, and both bundles and skirts were important mortuary payments. Women of the deceased’s matrilineage competed with one another in giving huge quantities of these items to their affinal kin (especially to the deceased’s spouse, father and father’s sisters), who bore the main burden of public mourning.

(c) Kula

The kula sphere comprised two kinds of men’s heirloom shell valuables, armshells and necklaces, which were exchanged by hereditary kula partners on a chain of islands about 700 miles in circumference.

Kula contains symbolic value depicting the powerful status of the person carrying it. The people who travel with the shells are agents or partners of powerful men, usually aristocrats, in the various islands. Kula valuables are always  named after their former owners. The main motivation for its circulation at distant islands is quest for fame.

kula shells were occasionally converted downward into subsistence sphere or to meet men’s obligations (for example, bride wealth, blood compensation) in the domestic prestige sphere.

Also read: What is Anthropology?