Symbolic Exchange

MICHAEL T. RYAN

Dodge City Community College, USA

DOI: 10.1002/9781118989463.wbeccs224

Symbolic exchange is the organizing principle, the cellular structure, of the earliest forms of society, the forms that Anthony Giddens designates as “tribal cultures.” The exchanges that take place within and between clans, within and between tribes, and between chiefs and other members of the tribe are more than economic exchanges as we know them in modern societies, and their circulation integrates the members of these societies. Marcel Mauss conceptualizes these exchanges as a form of gift giving, and the gift is a “total social phenomenon” (1967, 1). They are multidimensional: economic, moral, religious, mythological, juridical, political, aesthetic, and historical.

Mauss, Émile Durkheim's nephew, created his concept from the work of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century anthropologists in Melanesia, Polynesia, and Northwest America. Like Durkheim, he also wanted to demonstrate the social basis for exchanges as a refutation of the utilitarian notion that individual interests were the foundation for the creation of market relations. There was no “natural” economy that had preceded political economy.

Further, while the tribes of the Americas, Africa, and Asia seemed so different, so “other,” to Europeans, Mauss wanted to demonstrate through comparative analysis the underlying similarities as well. The complex structure of the gift made it more difficult for Europeans to ...

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