Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Inalienable Ethnography: Keeping-While-Giving and the Trobriand Case

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Inalienable Ethnography: Keeping-While-Giving and the Trobriand Case

Article excerpt

In Inalienable possessions, Annette Weiner (1992) focuses on the paradox of 'keeping-while-giving' rather than the 'norm of reciprocity' as the central issue of social life, drawing heavily on Trobriand examples. In this article, key elements of Weiner's theory are contrasted with prevailing views of Melanesian personhood and agency and with canonical Western notions of exchange, and her use of the Trobriand materials is juxtaposed with previously published ethnographic accounts of the same practices. It is argued that Weiner's ethnographic illustrations do not lend support to her theory of inalienable possessions; that her conceptual framework is at considerable variance with well-founded understandings of Melanesian sociality; and that the paradox of keeping-while-giving is more appropriately seen as deriving from Western presuppositions of individual boundedness, subjectivity, possession, ownership, and hierarchy, and the need to establish permanence in an entropic world.

Since its original formulation by Mauss (1967 [1925]) and Malinowski (1922), reciprocity has been widely regarded as a universal feature of socio-cultural systems and a fundamental component of anthropological theory. While not immune from criticism, most effective authoritative commentaries have tended to reinforce rather than undermine reciprocity's canonical status. [1]

In Inalienable possessions (1992), Annette Weiner has proposed that it is not the 'norm of reciprocity' but the paradox of 'keeping-while-giving' which is the universally central issue of social life. She makes her case by tracing the anthropological theory of reciprocity to long-standing Western political and economic theory and philosophy and by reexamining familiar categories of Oceanic (Trobriands, Maori, Samoa) pre-capitalist exchange. Already two influential theorists in economic anthropology (Godelier 1998; 1999; Gudeman forthcoming) and a leading exponent of the New Melanesian Anthropology (Foster 1995) have incorporated key elements from Weiner's thesis in their own critiques and analyses of reciprocity, exchange, and reproduction. Thus, if sustained, Weiner's theory of inalienable possessions stands to replace one of social anthropology's most basic tenets.

Not coincidentally, Weiner relies heavily on Trobriand ethnographic materials for validation. Of course, Malinowski's (1922; 1926) and Mauss's (1967) initial formulations of reciprocity theory were inspired by Trobriand categories of exchange. Also, many of Weiner's earlier works (e.g. 1976; 1978a; 1978b; 1988) were sustained as much by the critique of other Trobriand ethnographers (particularly Malinowski) as by her own attempts to elaborate the Trobriand corpus.

Yet, in Inalienable possessions it seems to be Weiner's own prior ethnographic accounts which are tacitly at issue. Weiner portrays her chapters as anthropological 'experiments because they represent an alternative mode of ethnographic description and explanation' (1992: 17). She notes, 'although I draw on my previously published materials, this work has been substantially revised according to my present thinking' (1992: xii). Unfortunately, she goes little further in identifying or reconciling any resulting discrepancies. In assessing Weiner's theory of keeping-while-giving, it thus becomes critical to know which elements of Trobriand ethnography have been retained and which have been relinquished. To what extent do the earlier as well as the later accounts support the new theory?

The purposes of this article are thus straightforward. The first is to juxtapose relevant elements of Weiner's earlier descriptions of Trobriand exchange -- mapula, kula, lisaladabu, and the incest taboo -- with the more recent renditions marshalled in support of the theory of keeping-while-giving. The second is to assess the implications which any noted discrepancies might have for anthropological theories of exchange, particularly for the Trobriands and neighbouring parts of Oceania. …

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