Examples of transactional relationships in pre-industrial cultures
November 29, 2013 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Anthropologists, please help-- I'm looking for unique examples of interpersonal relationships or family/friendship customs that are blatantly transactional, specifically in so-called "primitive" tribes or far-flung cultures that exist/have existed within the past century. The more surprising, extreme, or out-there the anecdote, the better.

For example, a scenario wherein a particular tribe requires their own children to "pay" their parents for food and shelter. And I don't mean "pay" aka "contribute to household chores." That's not particularly unusual. Likewise "selling" one's children into marriage or sexual slavery in exchange for food, dowries, etc is fairly common, and not just in tribal scenarios. Therefore it is not unique enough for what I'm looking for.

I'm more interested in value systems amid small groups or tribes wherein something comes at a specific cost (either by barter or currency) which modern day western society commonly sentimentalizes (friendship for example) and therefore might be surprised to learn is assigned a specific value by people elsewhere.

Of course many of our own sentimental customs are more transactional than we are comfortable acknowledging, but I'm primarily interested in situations where the artifice is stripped away and the underlying tit-for-tat is overt and undisguised.

(Please note: this is purely for a story purpose, NOT a "let's be judgmental of societal differences" purpose.) Many thanks for your help.
posted by np312 to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure if this is exactly what you're looking for, but when I was in college we read about kula exchange which involves only the trading of items with no utilitarian value which could be considered a type of exchange for friendship (or at the very least for prestige).
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:08 PM on November 29, 2013

In addition to kula exchange, the Trobriand Islanders also famously practice yam displays and banana leaf mortuary distributions that may be relevant. The Wikipedia page has the basics, including how these exchanges demonstrate women's wealth, although it doesn't mention that banana leaf bundles are also part of the mortuary exchange.

Collective giving via a focal donor on Ponam Island may also be of interest. See the latter half of the article. It involves making little piles of stuff that are effectively a graph of how related you are to the person who's required to give the gift, and IIRC, the gifts are smaller the farther you are from the donor.

Rai stones on Yap are huge stone markers famously used as a sort of wealth exchanged as part of big deals in marriage, politics, etc., but I don't really know how it worked. I'd guess that, like kula exchange, something about the history of the object and who used to own it mattered in assessing it's worth, but it could be size, placement, etc.

Raffia cloth distributions among the Lele are another famous example. IIRC, they are or were essential to paying a bride price.

Honestly, it's hard not to find an interesting system of exchange buried somewhere in a decent old ethnography. A lot of this stuff gets called gift-giving just because there's no money involved, and there's a history of analyzing it as gifting. In many cases, though, the quid pro quo is clear, and even in that early analysis of the gift, a substantial point was that the gift typically generates a social obligation to give back.

Incidentally, I understand you might not have the vocabulary to say what you mean about this stuff, but there's nothing primitive about it. It's not hard to find strange gifts people are required to give in contemporary American contexts.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:54 PM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think you may want to read up on the gift economy. From the article:
[I]n non-market societies, where there was no clear institutionalized economic exchange system, gift/prestation exchange served economic, kinship, religious and political functions that could not be clearly distinguished from each other, and which mutually influenced the nature of the practice.
In other words, in pre-industrial societies, and specifically in pre-urban societies, economic transactions can and do look very, very different from what we in industrial and post-industrial societies experience.

In our culture, if I give you money, one of two things is almost certainly going on. Either (1) I expect a specific item/service from you, which we've either negotiated for or you've held out for sale, or (2) it's a gift and I expect practically nothing in return.

In gift economies, if I give you something* that's more than likely just part of an entire web of obligations and relationships, potentially containing personal, familial, political, religious, and even sexual implications. Which are likely not spelled out ahead of time but mutually understood without being explicitly referred to.** And those non-financial implications can contain as much or even more "value" in the transaction than the thing itself. It's expected that you will reciprocate somehow, but exactly how isn't necessarily negotiated and may or may not be in kind or even with material goods. And unlike market economies, where if I give you something I expect to receive what I've purchased right away (or within a stated amount of time), in gift economies the timing of reciprocity is quite fluid and not necessarily spelled out either. Indeed, if I give you something it might be that I'm doing so out of some sense of obligation for something you did a while back which may or may not have involved giving me anything.

So I think you can probably find examples of the kind of thing you're looking for, but I'm not sure that the examples will mean what you seem to want them to mean. Tribal cultures generally don't operate with a market economy, so the idea of "paying" someone for "services rendered" divorced from one's relationship both with that person and with the tribe as a whole, doesn't seem terribly plausible. Indeed, the concept of "buying" something like we do today at the grocery store is far from typical, historically speaking. It doesn't really characterize any tribal societies of which I'm aware.

*Probably not money, as most gift economies tend not to use currency as such, or if they do the thing they use as currency tends to have some kind of obvious practical value independent of its use as medium of exchange. Pigs, for example.

**Or misunderstood, which can lead to conflict. Tribal societies tend to be marked by a certain level of conflict, and one wonders if maybe this doesn't have something to do with it. . .
posted by valkyryn at 6:02 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Debt: The First 5000 Years" is by an anthropologist and full of such examples.
posted by pmb at 7:16 PM on November 29, 2013

A classic transactional example, if perhaps somewhat NSFW, that gets mentioned frequently is the Etoro in Papua New Guinea:
The Etoro believe that young boys must ingest the semen of their elders daily from the age of 12 until they turn 17 to achieve adult male status and to properly mature and grow strong.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:27 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Debt: The First 5000 Years" is by an anthropologist and full of such examples.
posted by pmb at 7:16 PM on November 29 [+] [!]

You should certainly give Debt a read through - seems to suit what you're looking for quite well - but do it with a pinch of salt. While Graeber is an academic anthropologist, Debt is really a political work which uses interpretations of cases from other cultures (historical or otherwise) to support its ideological arguments. It's been important and effective as a political work but as an academic work of anthropology, it's problematic for its inaccuracies and sweeping interpretations to suit its political agenda
posted by Bwithh at 7:52 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The potlatch comes to mind.

I mean, we all sort of vaguely acknowledge, in Western culture, that every so often, people throw big shindigs that sort of show off their level of success and somewhat redistribute stuff to others. Whether that's Christmas presents, weddings, or what.

But a potlatch is very specifically a big event for the purpose of gifting and sharing the wealth, in a more openly transactional sense.

A lot of Chinua Achebe's descriptions of social traditions among the Igbo in Nigeria remind me of the sort of thing you're talking about. I think Things Fall Apart has a long passage explaining exactly how a visit to an elder to ask for something is supposed to go down. Who is supposed to bring the wine, how it is to be shared out, exactly how long the small talk must go on before getting down to business, etc. In any event, if you're looking for inspiration for your own writing, Things Fall Apart definitely wouldn't be a bad thing to read.
posted by Sara C. at 8:13 PM on November 29, 2013

Tribal cultures generally don't operate with a market economy, so the idea of "paying" someone for "services rendered" divorced from one's relationship both with that person and with the tribe as a whole, doesn't seem terribly plausible. Indeed, the concept of "buying" something like we do today at the grocery store is far from typical, historically speaking. It doesn't really characterize any tribal societies of which I'm aware.

The anthropological record is of course famous for coming up with fascinating exceptions to general rules. And it provokes us to ask questions about how and why we have certain framings of typicality and other norms of analysis (e.g. historically speaking, most of human experience has revolved around a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, so how and why do we use/not use that framing?). And of course what we think of tribal cultures evolve over time, and not always due to external interference and influence

One can think of distinct dimensions of exchange relations within a tribal community or kinship system, in between communities/systems known to each other, and also with strangers or unknown groups. "Paying" or "buying" is sometimes a preferable solution to problems of traditional societies in all these dimensions than solution emphasizing non-"transactional" exchanges. A good example is blood money (when the alternative is a vengeful violent feud between kinship systems or communities), which has been important for instance, in the recent unhappy history of military operations in Afghanistan by the US and other countries.
posted by Bwithh at 8:14 PM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I also came in here to suggest "Debt". Yes it is political, but his examples are fascinating.
posted by bradbane at 9:32 AM on November 30, 2013

Don't know if this helps but Google Margaret of Scotland and Bridal Tax.
posted by Wilder at 10:13 AM on December 2, 2013

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