Marketing Exchange Relationships, Transactions, and Their Media

By Franklin S. Houston | Go to book overview

around the world ( Feingold 1970, 334).

The opium trade is best understood not as a single trade sphere, but as two distinct trade spheres; meshing with each other at certain key points. In the highlands, opium is used both for currency and consumption. Debts may be paid with it, rice bought with it, and it is acceptable tender in most hill villages from Laos to Burma. Furthermore, opium is widely smoked among the people who grow it. Therefore, a certain and sometimes significant percentage of the total crop is consumed at or near its source. The highland trade is usually transacted directly between buyer and consumer. Profits, while significant on a local level, are miniscule compared to the return of lowland trade.

Among the Akha of northern Thailand, eastern Burma, northwestern Laos, and southern Yunnan, opium is used as a medium of payment and exchange, but not as a standard of value. It is specifically excluded from certain spheres such as traditional fines, which must be paid with lowland money, or silver, and cattle ( Feingold 1983, 152).

Part of the structural and institutional support of opium-as-a-currency in this region is related to a unique liquidity problem that afflicted this area following the Allied defeat of Japanese forces in Burma in 1945. Japanese occupation currency had become worthless overnight, 7 silver was in short supply, and other currencies were unavailable. Thus, with their needs dear and destiny within their grasp -- so to speak -- the hill tribes of the Southeast Asian mainland turned to their tried-and-true traditional solution, namely, producing their own currency: opium. Feingold notes, in addition, the importance of "making change" in the long distance trade of the mainland Southeast Asian uplands ( 1983, 154). The increased availability of opium also alleviated this problem. 8


CONCLUSION

As Maurice Godelier has observed ( 1971, 53), in traditional societies, wealth items often change function. First, wealth items may be given and received, as objects of social exchange. Second, a wealth item may circulate as a commodity when imported, or produced and exported, or bartered. Third, a wealth item may be exchanged for a variety of different goods and/or services, in which case it has become a currency. It is these function-shifts of valuable items to which anthropology pays especial attention. There is -- as the examples cited herein illustrate -- considerable variation in what may be deemed a "wealth item," in the structures within which these items circulate, in the rules according to which they circulate, and in what they may be permissibly exchanged for. That these variations are now, and have been for some time diminishing and dying out all over the world, is not surprising. It has long been recognized that a general pattern of social and cultural evolutionary development has been one of a reduction in patterns of variation, an increase in patterns of sameness, and a diminution in patterns of diversity (cf., the discussion of "the law of cultural dominance," by Sahlins and Service, 1960, 69-92, in which the authors describe how more dominant cultural forms drive out weaker, less well-adapted forms).

Allen R. Maxwell

-235-

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