Marshall Sahlins, exchange and sociability: thoughts on Yolngu sociality

From the Pantheon of Anthropological Awesome


‘The “economic basis” of tribal politics is chiefly generosity, at one stroke an act of positive morality and a laying of indebtedness upon the underlying population. Or, to take a more complete view, the political order is under-written by a centralised circulation of goods, flowing toward the top of the social pyramid and down again, with each presentation not only implying a relations of rank but, as a generalised gift not directly requited, compelling a loyalty. 


One discerns two different ways of thus putting reciprocity at the service of hierarchy. In certain tribes the system of rank already exists, the chiefs installed in office and the people in submission, a place for everybody and everybody in their place. Here reciprocity between chiefs and people follows from established rights and privileges, and once set going the exchange has redundant effects on the rank system. But in a great many tribal societies, dominance is a personal capacity rather than a constituted position, and generalised reciprocity is enlisted in its achievement. In the first case, the existing rank order evokes certain economic relations; in the second, certain economic relations are used to evoke an order of rank. The first is the way of true chieftainship, operating on the principle, “to be noble is to be generous.” The second is the way of the big-man, working from the corollary proposition that “to be generous is to be noble.”


If it is true that a particular social relation suggests a consistent mode of exchange, it is also true (“by the same token”) that a kind of exchange generates a consistent social relation. If friends make gifts, gifts make friends. Or more appropriate to the present context, “gifts make slaves,” as the Eskimo say, “just as whips make dogs”‘


~ Marshall Sahlins 1968, Tribesmen: Foundations of Modern Anthropology series, Prentice-Hall Inc., pp. 87-88.


The language may be dated but Sahlins is always great to think with.

One consistent aspect of Sahlins writing that I really appreciate is his treatment of economics as sociality (or ‘sociability’ as he refers to it in Stone Age Economics). I was revisiting this little book of Sahlins’ over a cup of tea this morning, thinking about how best to describe a few key aspects of the Yolŋu approach to sociality and exchange. An older note-form version of these thoughts reads thus:


‘My theoretical approach has been very much determined by the need to account for (or at the least not ‘describe over’) certain important aspects of Yolŋu sociality. These are salient features that came to my attention while living with my adoptive kin on the Homelands -those that appear and reappear in my field-notes, which came to the fore once again in my consideration and analysis of the data. There two related features, as follows:


1. Yolŋu do not draw a sharp distinction between ‘sociality’ and ‘exchange’ or ‘social relations’ and ‘exchange relations’. The Yolŋu approach to sociality foregrounds the fact that ‘exchange’ and ‘exchange relations’ are first and foremost (and what else if not?), instances, forms and patterns of sociality.
2. Yolŋu do not draw a sharp distinction between morality and value nor do they make associated distinctions between, for example, ‘evaluation’ and ‘valuation’, ‘values’ and value, nor do they consider the distinction between ‘morality and ‘law’ to be  – by any means – natural and inevitable.


To offer an example or manifestation of these ideas: the social, moral and political ideal of ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state of feeling’) not only marks a state of equilibrium in interpersonal relations but a state of ‘balance’ in material exchange; the social, moral and political ideal of ‘ŋayaŋu waŋgany’ is the primary value in interpersonal exchanges involving money and material goods also. Distinctions between ‘sociality and exchange’, ‘morality and value’, ‘evaluation and valuation’, morality and law’ are not culturally significant in the Yolŋu case. People are more than aware that the distinction between sociality and exchange exists for Balanda (‘non-Indigenous “white” Australians’), and is of utmost importance to the way in which Balanda consider issues of morality and value. It is also true that most Homeland Yolŋu partake in forms of ‘impersonal’ exchange when they travel into the township. It is simply the case, however, that many if not most Yolŋu do not embrace the distinction, nor do they consider it to be ‘natural’, ‘inevitable’ or ‘desirable’. Indeed, there is rich vocabulary (in Yolŋu matha) to describe the Balanda approach to sociality as marked by this distinction.


While it is acknowledged in much of the anthropological literature that exchange relations are first and foremost social relations I have found that it is far too easy to lapse back into interpretations derived from (or based on) a categorical distinction between the two. This can be seen, for example, in the vague but pervasive distinction between gift economies, which produce social relations or social-persons and commodity economies, which produce ‘things’. What nonsense – social relations and social persons, albeit of different kinds, are produced and reproduced in any and all economic systems.


In order to avoid lapsing back into such interpretative assumptions I have found it useful (for myself as much as the reader), to recast the adage ‘exchange relations are social relations’ in reverse. Throughout the thesis I will refer to and consider sociality in terms of instances, forms and patterns of interpersonal and social exchange. I use exchange, here, in the broadest sense of the term to refer to social exchange in all its modes and mediations including both interaction and interlocution, whether such exchanges involve the transfer of material goods or not. Generally speaking I will use ‘interpersonal exchange’ to refer to more immediate forms of interaction between people in the same place and time; I use ‘social exchange’ in a broader sense to refer to exchanges between any number of persons – including those between collectivities or groups. Social exchange may also take place between persons removed in place and time. In short, these terms point to differences of scale and social distance.’


I don’t think the ‘nonsense’ remark is completely necessary, but hey.


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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Indigenous Australia, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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