Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving

Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving

Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving

Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving

Synopsis

Inalienable Possessions tests anthropology's traditional assumptions about kinship, economics, power, and gender in an exciting challenge to accepted theories of reciprocity and marriage exchange. Focusing on Oceania societies from Polynesia to Papua New Guinea and including Australian Aborigine groups, Annette Weiner investigates the category of possessions that must not be given or, if they are circulated, must return finally to the giver. Reciprocity, she says, is only the superficial aspect of exchange, which overlays much more politically powerful strategies of "keeping-while-giving."

The idea of keeping-while-giving places women at the heart of the political process, however much that process may vary in different societies, for women possess a wealth of their own that gives them power. Power is intimately involved in cultural reproduction, and Weiner describes the location of power in each society, showing how the degree of control over the production and distribution of cloth wealth coincides with women's rank and the development of hierarchy in the community. Other inalienable possessions, whether material objects, landed property, ancestral myths, or sacred knowledge, bestow social identity and rank as well. Calling attention to their presence in Western history, Weiner points out that her formulations are not limited to Oceania. The paradox of keeping-while-giving is a concept certain to influence future developments in ethnography and the theoretical study of gender and exchange.

Excerpt

This book is an experiment in a new kind of ethnographic interpretation regarding those critical and perennial problems centered on the norm of reciprocity, the incest taboo, and women’s roles in reproduction. the universality of the norm of reciprocity and the incest taboo long have been common parlance in anthropological discourse. Yet the assumptions that underwrite these problem areas were developed a long time ago without recognition of the meaning of women’s labor in cloth production or of women’s political control over significant reproductive areas of cultural life. in those instances when women did appear in anthropology’s most widely acclaimed exchange or kinship theories, they usually were described either as seducers of men or as wives sequestered around the domestic hearth kept busy as the reproducers and nurturers of children. in either case, they were considered peripheral to the theoretical loci of power that resided in men’s affairs.

Human and cultural reproduction, however, are sources of power for women as well as men. Since power is always surrounded by contradiction and ambiguity, it must be carefully located in each particular ethnographic case to document how power gives scope but also limits political authority. For example, the rules of behavior that people appear to be following in reciprocal gift exchange or sister exchange are actually surface phenomena constructed out of a deeper social priority that can never solve but only approximate the central issue of social life: keeping-while-giving. How to keep some things out of circulation in . . .

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