Thesis thoughts: On the distinction between ‘sociality’ and ‘exchange’ in anthropology


‘Give and Take’ by Lorenzo Quinn . . . though hereon temporarily renamed “Hey Look It’s Mauss’ Archaic Contract!”


A working excerpt from the introductory chapter of my djorra’ (‘paper, book, newspaper, text’):


[ . . . ]  These distinctions between ‘sociality and exchange,’ ‘morality and value,’ ‘evaluation and valuation,’ and ‘morality and law,’ are not culturally significant in the Yolŋu case. Yolŋu are more than aware that the distinction between sociality and exchange exists, and that this distinction is of utmost importance to Balanda (‘white people, Europeans’) and the way they consider issues of morality and value. It is also true that most Homeland Yolŋu partake in ‘impersonal’ forms of exchange whenever they travel to the nearby township to do shopping etc. It is simply the case, however, that most Yolŋu do not embrace this distinction, nor do they consider it ‘natural,’ inevitable, and/or desirable. Indeed, there is rich vocabulary (in Yolŋu matha) to describe (and deploy in commentary about) the ‘typical’ Balanda approach to sociality as marked by this distinction.


Drawing on Yolŋu interpretations of (and critical commentary about) Balanda sociality, I suspect that these distinctions are cultural elaborations on a more basic Balanda conceptual theme – that which divides the world into two categories or ‘kinds’ persons and social relations – those that are ‘personal’ and those that are considered to be ‘impersonal.’ The Yolŋu case reminds us that this bifurcation of the socio-moral world is a cultural phenomenon that is neither ‘natural’ nor universal.


[ . . . ]  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 all too easy to lapse back into interpretations derived from (or based on) a categorical distinction between the two. In order to avoid 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 instances and forms of sociality as instances and forms of social exchange.


I use exchange in the broadest sense of the term to refer to social exchange in all its modes and mediations – including both interaction and interlocution and exchanges that do and do not involve the transfer of material goods. Generally speaking I 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 and 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.





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Filed under Anthropology, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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