This post is part of a series on tribal gift economics.
Last week I wrote about a tribal economic system that makes everyone equal. This week I'm going to explore another tribal economic system known as reciprocal gift economics. In contrast to the egalitarian system, this one does have powerful individuals, however the nature of how they gain power means that the economic system remains a variety of gift economics.
We will start with the Koaka speaking tribes of the Solomon islands. (Marvin Harris Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, p98) . When a man in this kind of culture decides that he wants to be important, wants to become a big man, he sets about trying to convince the people of his own and neighbouring tribes that he is up to the job. He does this by persuading his wife to grow more food and his family and friends to catch more fish. If they think he has a chance of becoming a big man, then they will agree and help him in his quest; if he is successful then his new status will rub off on them as well. Once the aspiring big man has collected enough food to hold an impressive feast, he will invite everyone around for a party which is known as a potlatch. This is not just a few friends around for a sit down dinner, we are talking a serious hair down shindig; if it is not possible to make repeated trips into the jungle and throw up to make room the next course then the host will most definitely be considered a failure. However, if successful, the newly approved big man will become a source of authority.
The details change in different tribes, but this essential process of the person seeking status giving away their wealth is found all over the globe.
The Koaka speaking tribes do not demonstrate a fully reciprocal gift economy, but one that lies somewhere between the egalitarian economy described in the last post and a reciprocal gift economy. The reason for this is that the Koaka big men do not create an obligation in their giving.
In a reciprocal gift economy every gift creates a requirement for the receiver to give something in return - although not necessarily at the same time. The nature of the debt is usually undefined in the literal sense, yet due to a shared culture both parties are able to recognise when an obligation is paid. The nature of the gift may also suggest a social contract, such as an alliance or a marriage. Accepting a gift is not seen as just a pragmatic task but one that involves taking on something of the spirit of the giver, for example the Māori have the word taonga for treasured things and when a gift is made of a taonga item, it contains hau – the spirit of the giver and in order to meet the obligation of this gift an item that contains the hau of the receiver of the gift is required.
A further important aspect of this exchange is that it usually does not happen between all members of a tribe, but only between its big men or chiefs. This is a very important difference between an egalitarian economy and a reciprocal one. Exploring this and the reasons for the development from egalitarian exchange, to big men, to reciprocal gift economy will be the focus of the next post. The post after that will explore the relevance of these different economic structures to an internet economy.