As fellow anthropologist Jamie Coates remarked today, you need to be writer – not just an ethnographer – to write good ethnography. And gracious me, does Sahlins write beautifully sometimes.
‘There is a link,’ [Mauss] wrote, ‘a continuity, between hostile relations and the provision of reciprocal prestations. Exchanges are peacefully resolved wards and wards are the result of unsuccessful transactions’ (1969, p. 67; cf. 1943, p. 136).
But this implication of The Gift is, I think, even broader than external relations and transactions. In posing the internal fragility of the segmentary societies, their constituted decomposition, The Gift transposes the classic alternative of war and trade from the periphery to the very center of social life, and from the occasional episode to the continuous presence.
This is the supreme importance of Mauss’s return to nature, from which it follows that primitive society is at war with Warre, and that all their dealings are treaties of peace. All the exchanges, that is to say, must bear in their material design some political burden of reconciliation.
[ . . . ]
And from this comes, in turn, all the basic principles of an economics properly anthropological, including the one in particular at the heart of succeeding chapters: that every exchange, as it embodies some coefficient of sociability, cannot be understood in its material terms apart from its social terms.’
– Sahlins (quoting Mauss in part) 1972: 182-183.