Why spheres of exchange?

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Author: Paul Sillitoe
Date: Winter 2006
From: Ethnology(Vol. 45, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh, Department of Anthropology
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,934 words
Lexile Measure: 1630L

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Spheres of exchange, a classic anthropological topic, is briefly reviewed. The concept prompts looking at implied spheres of production. All production is not the same; different arrangements characterize different spheres, as with subsistence goods compared to wealth items. The implications are significant for acephalous political orders that eschew any section of society exercising control over resources or capital needed by others for livelihood, so exerting hegemony over them. Spheres of exchange intimate the disconnection of subsistence from wealth production, effectively inhibiting relations of domination, promoting egalitarian distribution of livelihood resources. The introduction of (all-purpose) money, in the process of historically interrelated colonial, globalizing, and economic development interventions ruptures the insulation of spheres, marking the arrival of capitalist market arrangements and associated antithetical hierarchical rich and poor relations. (Economic anthropology, spheres of exchange, production, acephalous politics)


The topic of spheres of exchange is standard fare in anthropology courses. It is presented as descriptive ethnography, commonly in the spirit of "this is something that you need to know as part of your anthropological education," and invariably leaves students puzzled as to the import of such arrangements. The information is filed away with an appropriate ethnographic example for subsequent recall in an examination (e.g., see Plattner 1989:175-78; Narotzky 1997:71-75; Gudeman 2001:133-37). Like several other pieces of anthropological exotica, such knowledge seems incomplete.

My experience as an instructor delivering lectures on economic anthropology has confirmed this impression, as curious students regularly ask why some people have spheres of exchange. One increasingly feels obliged to give more explanatory attention to the "why spheres of exchange" question and not expect students to find the answer themselves in the ethnography. Perhaps a formulation offered here might satisfy students' curiosity.

What are spheres of exchange? They are an arrangement where material objects are assigned to different spheres for transactional purposes. People freely exchange items within the same sphere and readily calculate their comparative values. But things in different spheres are not immediately exchangeable against one another, such that between spheres there is no ready conversion (Bohannan and Dalton 1962:3-7). The question students regularly ask is why do some populations place such restrictions on the exchange of things? That in West Africa one cannot give yams in return for cloth, or in the Solomon Islands taro for turmeric cylinders, is a puzzle. There is no obvious reason why some cultures should institute such barriers to the transaction of things that might otherwise change hands. This is the key problem addressed here.

The argument focuses on the independent circulation of subsistence items and wealth valuables, as necessary to the constitution of the egalitarian sociopolitical orders in which ethnographers have identified spheres of exchange. The thesis, briefly, is that while all households can produce necessary subsistence consumables, which are not scarce, they cannot produce wealth items at will, which by definition are scarce and which originate either externally or come into being through the process of exchange itself. Consequently, politically ambitious persons cannot seek to control wealth production, either indirectly by...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A155472058