Welcome to Unit 4. In this unit, we’ll be exploring the anthropological theme of gift exchange and reciprocity. Now, from a Western perspective, when we think about gift exchange, we often think about it simply as an act of kindness or altruism to another person; possibly a sign of deference or a sign of respect to them. But we rarely think about the social relations underpinning gift exchange, possibly the power relations underpinning the giving of gifts.

In this unit, that’s what we’ll be exploring. Social anthropologists are very much interested in the social relations behind gift exchange. A key figure in the anthropological study of gift exchange is the French sociologist, Marcel Mauss. He explored gift exchange in terms of a tri-part structure. First, the obligation to give a gift; second, the obligation to receive a gift; and thirdly, the obligation to return something in exchange for that gift.

Now, Marcel Mauss considered gift exchange to be inalienable from the person who is giving the gift. That is to say that gift exchange is about the social relations between people as much as it is about the exchange of material things.

Particularly, he was interested in the power relations that gift exchange might conceal, so possibly the ways in which giving people gifts is actually a way of maintaining power in society, or of maintaining the hierarchical structure of society.

In this unit, we’ll be exploring gift exchange in the example of the Kula ring of the Trobriand Islands, which are situated just off the coast of Papua New Guinea. This is a classic anthropological example from someone who is known as the godfather of the ethnographic method, Bronislaw Malinowski. We’ll be exploring gift exchange in terms of the exchange of armbands and necklaces between Kula partners in the Trobriand Islands, and we’ll also be considering the theoretical theme of functionalism and structural functionalism once again.