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Approaches To The Study Of Trade

Various perspectives can be applied to understanding trade. Here it is discussed as reciprocity, exploitation, and adaptation, and in the context of globalization.

Trade as reciprocity.

The earliest anthropological approaches to trade focused on reciprocity and how the expectations of reciprocity shaped social relations. In the classic ethnography Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), for example, Bronislaw Malinowski described and interpreted a complex system of reciprocal trade in the Trobriand Islands known as the kula. The items traded in the kula were of two kinds: shell beads and armbands. The value of these items was determined by their age and renown—some were heirloom pieces and even had names. The goal of participants in the kula was to gain prestige by obtaining, and then giving away, large amounts of kula goods and particularly highly valued heirloom pieces. Participants could lose prestige if they gave away valued items but did not receive equivalents in return. Malinowski described individuals carefully planning kula expeditions to other islands and scheming ways to bring particular kula goods into their possession. In this way, kula was a system of reciprocal trade through which the Trobrianders created and maintained social status.

But what about less formal systems of reciprocal trade, like the giving of Christmas presents? If we give a Christmas present to our neighbors, we generally expect one in return. And, if we give a nice present, we expect a similarly nice one in return. There is no formal system like the kula in place, so how is reciprocity maintained? These more sophisticated questions about trade were asked by anthropologists after Malinowski, and many significant contributions were made. Among the most influential was the work of Marcel Mauss, whose essay The Gift (1954) posited a universal reciprocal structure for gift giving. Mauss argued that gifts symbolize the giver, and the act of giving symbolizes the relationship between the giver and the receiver. The act of giving a gift necessitates a reciprocal gift if a social relationship is to be maintained. If a reciprocal gift is not given, it signals the end of the relationship. Gift giving, then, often takes on a cyclical form (as is the case with Christmas presents) and is a fundamental way that humans maintain social relationships.

Anthropological work on trade as reciprocity was pulled together in a concise form by Marshall Sahlins. In Stone Age Economics (1972), Sahlins defined three forms of reciprocal trade: balanced reciprocity, generalized reciprocity, and negative reciprocity. Balanced reciprocity describes the forms of trade examined by Malinowski and Mauss, where there is an expected balance between what is given and what is received through trade. Generalized reciprocity is a less structured form of trade and takes place mainly within families and kin groups. For example, families often share an evening meal. Parents provide and prepare the food, and both parents and children share it. Children are expected to reciprocate by clearing the dishes, taking out the garbage, and loving and obeying their parents. Through these actions children maintain a general balance in the trade between family members, but no formal accounting is kept and no expectation of formal balance is ever made. This is the basic nature of generalized reciprocity. Negative reciprocity essentially refers to forms of cheating or stealing. Negative reciprocity occurs when one party in a trade relationship receives less than they give. Sahlins posited that negative reciprocity is most common when dealing with people from other societies for, as both Malinowski and Mauss imply, negative reciprocity within one's own society would seriously disrupt social relationships.

Trade as exploitation.

Sahlins's definition of negative reciprocity illustrates the idea that not all trade takes place on an even footing. Some forms of trade are unequal, even exploitive. In the 1970s and 1980s a number of anthropologists began examining trade as an element of larger systems of production and consumption, often employing Marxist modes of production models. Eric Wolf's Europe and the People without History (1982) is illustrative of this type of research. Wolf explored three "modes of production": kin-based, which is characterized by generalized and balanced reciprocity; tributary, where tribute or taxes are provided to a centralized political authority that manages and maintains the society; and capitalist. For Wolf (and many others), the capitalist mode of production is rooted in exploitation. Workers sell their labor for wages but they must, by the very nature of capitalism, be paid less than their labor is actually worth—if not, then no profit would be possible. Wolf explains that capitalists in Europe were able to find a way around this problem by obtaining raw materials (and even labor in the form of slaves) for next to nothing by taking them from colonial areas. In the process, they actively exploited and essentially dehumanized the people living in those regions by creating a formal structure of negative reciprocity—one in which social relations cannot be maintained.

Trade as adaptation.

The idea that trade is generally utilitarian in nature was seemingly ignored by anthropologists until the 1960s. At this time, theories of human behavior based on ecology began to be employed by anthropologists, and trade came to be seen as fundamental to the creation and maintenance of an ecosystem. Trade provided a mechanism through which matter, energy, and information moved through human-dominated ecosystems. For example, Stuart Piddocke (1965) argued that a reciprocal trade system known as the potlatch (and similar in nature to the kula) was essential to the survival of the Kwakiutl peoples of British Columbia. Piddocke demonstrated that the environment in which the Kwakiutl lived was subject to fluctuations that, in the same year, would cause some populations to lack resources while others had excess resources. The potlatch, Piddocke argued, was a formal system in which populations redistributed resources from areas with excess to areas of scarcity. For the Kwakiutl, then, trade was part of their adaptation to a highly variable and unstable environment.

Trade, globalization, and meaning.

With increasingly global markets and the introduction of Western capitalism into all corners of the world, anthropologists have become increasingly concerned with the effects of trade on the cultures they study. As Wolf pointed out, initial trade relations in many of these areas were highly exploitive, and they essentially prevented the formation of social relationships between indigenous populations and Western capitalists. In most ways, the situation did not change much in the twentieth century, and many anthropologists are working at the turn of the twenty-first with indigenous populations to help them gain equity in trade relationships.

As Western products enter non-Western cultures, anthropologists have also become increasingly interested in the meanings people attach to things. How are new products integrated into society? What is the effect of the loss of indigenous products? Arjun Appadurai (1986) suggested that objects themselves are socially created, that their circulation through a society gives them meaning and purpose, and that they are recontexualized as they move through different social contexts. In this sense, the distinction between foreign and local goods becomes blurred, as "foreignness" and "localness" are attributes that are socially assigned and that can change as the context of their use changes, just as attributes such as "desirability," "utility," and "value" change in different contexts.

Trade not only brings Western products into non-Western cultures, but also many aspects of Western culture. Many anthropologists think that the adoption of capitalist modes of trade also promotes Western ideas such as profit, modernization, and individualism, pushing aside indigenous ideas of tradition and responsibility for the care of social relations. This process of Western ideas pushing out non-Western ones is called "Westernization," and is seen by many anthropologists as a major problem facing the non-Western cultures of the world. In a larger sense, Westernization is part of "globalization," the process through which international trade is increasingly binding the nations of the world together into a single, global economy. Again, many anthropologists view globalization as a major force acting to eliminate non-Western ideas and cultures from the global economy.


In the 1950s a group of social scientists, the most prominent among them being Karl Polanyi, proposed that trade was a social construction like the rest of culture and could not be usefully examined outside of its unique social setting. This perspective came to be known as "substantivism." The substantivists argued that economic analyses of noncapitalist trade employing concepts like supply and demand, rational choice, profit, and other ideas linked to capitalist market economics was misguided, because these concepts were either meaningless or had different meanings in noncapitalist social settings. Other scholars, and archaeologists in particular, countered that markets and market-like economies were present for millennia before capitalism, and that many noncapitalist economies appear to be usefully analyzed with concepts and methods drawn from the study of capitalism. This perspective came to be known as "formalism." The "formalist/substantivist" debate consumed economic anthropology throughout much of the 1960s, with no clear winner emerging. In the early twenty-first century, most anthropologists see the benefits of both perspectives in understanding trade.

While Westernization and globalization may be forcing contemporary non-Western cultures to become more Western and global in their orientation, capitalist trade has had a much more profound effect on many historic non-Western cultures. In North America, for example, colonization by Europeans and the introduction of the fur trade in the 1600s led to competition between local groups, an increase in warfare, and dramatic population movements that transformed the social landscape of the Great Lakes and Plains regions. Trade brought with it not only Western goods (including guns, one of the items that fostered increased warfare), but also Western biota. European diseases such as smallpox and measles may have killed 80 percent of the indigenous peoples of North America. European plants and animals have dramatically changed ecosystems throughout the Americas. The point here is that trade brings with it many things in addition to the items being traded—ideas, diseases, plants and animals—and all these have an effect on the peoples involved in trade.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Toxicology - Toxicology In Practice to TwinsTrade - Approaches To The Study Of Trade, The Formalist/substantivist Debate, Trade And The Development Of Civilization