The Myth of Bartering and the Realities of Sharing and Gift Economies

In their ethnographic research, anthropologists do not find barter economies among people who have never used money.  Much more prevalent are gift economies: a complex and time-extended form of reciprocal altruism.  Often there is a great deal of social pressure to participate and share, giving away any accumulation to others, wherein no insult is crueler than to say that someone is “stingy.”  For good examples, see

1990. Counts, David. Too Many Bananas, Not Enough Pineapples, and No Watermelon at all: Three 0bject Lessons in Living with Reciprocity. In The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacific, Philip DeVita, ed., pp. 18-24. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

2006. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.  The Old Way: A Story of the First People. Farrar, Straus, Giroux.(see here and here for some specific examples)

There was also an intriguing article outlining the myth of bartering and the realities of sharing and gift economies in the Atlantic a few months ago, that included the following insights:

“No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”

[The] barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.

But the harm may go deeper than a mistaken view of human psychology. According to Graeber, once one assigns specific values to objects, as one does in a money-based economy, it becomes all too easy to assign value to people, perhaps not creating but at least enabling institutions such as slavery (in which people can be bought) and imperialism (which is made possible by a system that can feed and pay soldiers fighting far from their homes).

Are gift economies possible in a civilization built around assigning specific values to objects (and maybe people)?  Are gift economies only workable in small communities of people who all know one another?  How do they differ from charity efforts?  Do efforts to ascribe value to ecosystem services help our efforts to save ecosystems more than they distort our real relationships to them?

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