This Is Cool

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After kinship, one of the most central ideas in anthropology is exchange. In societies without centralised states and systems of social control, exchange was often a key method for maintaining some sort of balance and political neutrality between communities. It was also a key method of ensuring the movement of desired commodities from one place to another and ensuring survival through the generations. In this lecture I look at two central anthropological thinkers in relation to aspects of exchange and we think about how these ideas might have relevance for contemporary urban situations. The first is Marcel Mauss, the nephew of a founding father of sociology and anthropology, Emile Durkheim. Mauss wrote his book The Gift (in French ) in 1925 and it has become a classic. He wrote it before fieldwork had become the central method in anthropology, at a time when scholars compared societies all around the world, ‘he soaked his mind with ethnographic material’ (EP viii) and attempted to make sense of universal patterns and themes. (We have already seen this in the work of Van Gennep on Rites of Passage.) Mauss was not a philosopher and carefully studied facts. ‘Mauss sought only to know a limited range of facts and then to understand them.’ He was able to look at societies more holistically because he read material in the original languages and approached facts with a sociological understanding (Evans-Pritchard, Introduction Mauss, 1969,vii). Mauss’ early work looked at the structure and function of sacrifice in primitive societies, and he attempted to construct a general theory on magic. It is his work The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic life, however, which we remember him for. Mauss’ book is divided into four parts, the first section looks at Gifts and the Obligation to Return Gifts using Polynesian Pacific Island ethnographic examples. The second part is on Distribution of the System: Generosity, Honour and Money, which draws on customs from the...
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