Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Karl Polanyi, Marshall Sahlins, and the Study of Ancient Social Relations

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Karl Polanyi, Marshall Sahlins, and the Study of Ancient Social Relations

Article excerpt

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Questions arise whenever social-scientific models are used in analysis of ancient texts, particularly regarding the feasibility of their application to social and cultural milieux different from those from which they were derived. An essay I authored that assessed the command in Luke 6 to "love your enemies" from the perspective of ancient reciprocity ethics, and that invoked Marshall Sahlins's taxonomy of reciprocity relations (general, balanced, and negative reciprocity), was queried by Zeba Crook on precisely this point, namely, whether it applied Sahlins's taxonomy to Greco-Roman reciprocity relations without adequate attention to the distinctions between kinship organized tribal societies (the focus of Sahlins's analysis) and the socially stratified agrarian societies characteristic of the ancient Mediterranean world.1 Crook's piece was more than just a critique on that point; it raised questions about the extent to which Sahlins's model has applicability to the Roman world. This essay will focus on this key point and, it is hoped, will also contribute to the discussion on the use of social-scientific research in biblical studies.


Sahlins argued that reciprocity is manifested in three genres. To summarize, general reciprocity is characteristic of the intimate relationships of kinship and friendship. Its emblematic feature is generous sharing, which generates gratitude and an open-ended, diffuse obligation to make a return. Balanced reciprocity features overt concern for equivalence and timeliness of exchange. While it frames such transactions as labor exchanges among kin and friends, it is also characteristic of more distant relationships in which selfinterest and material concerns take priority over the human bond itself, as in market exchange. Negative reciprocity is the maximization of one's own benefit at the expense of another, in its pronounced forms amounting to exploitation.2

The question arises about the portability of this typology. According to Crook, "Sahlins cannot have imagined that his model of reciprocity would be abstract enough to apply to all cultural and social situations, least of all to archaic, pre-modern, or modern contexts, that is, those with a state and central form of government such as existed in the Greco-Roman period"; moreover, "the cultural and social presuppositions and context employed by Sahlins work directly against any attempt to apply the model unaltered across cultures."3 This is because Sahlins correlated this spectrum of reciprocity dynamics with the variable of social distance from the kinship group, the organizing principle of tribal societies. Because Sahlins's model is so closely tied to exchange relations among kin, Crook argues, it cannot translate without major modifications to the stratified Greco-Roman world, where an additional factor, status distance, particularly as expressed in clientelism, is the mechanism for much exchange. Because in the Greco-Roman context fictive kinship was invoked to express the patron-client relation, naïve application of Sahlins's kinship-based reciprocity model would conflate what are in fact distinct modes of exchange. Accordingly, Crook advocates recourse to the reciprocity model outlined by Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann. The Stegemanns' model, Crook claims, takes cognizance of the factor of status-different exchange because it significantly modifies Sahlins's reciprocity rubrics, namely, by adding a new category, familial reciprocity, to encompass kinship exchange, and then by repositioning Sahlins's general reciprocity category to subsume the clientelistic exchanges characteristic of the Roman world.4 In effect, Crook desires a model flexibly capable of adding categories as needed to classify all sorts of transactions, the sheer variety of which will increase along with the complexity of a society.5

When we turn to Sahlins's own discussion of his model, it turns out to be a bit more complex than one might have gathered from Crook's description. …

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