Market Exchange/ Symbolic Exchange

This week’s class was kind of all over the map as we touched on economic anthropology in the form of the unforgettable “Ongka’s Big Moka” and a short discussion of capitalism. Now’s your chance to have a say on the subject – whether its concerns the topic of symbolic exchange such as gift giving or market exchanges such as the ordinary purchases you make everyday.

Write about something you saw in the video, a question raised by the lecture that remains unresolved, or a point from the reading that you’d like to see addressed. After all we didn’t even get to touch on the important role of trade in helping establish the first civilizations around the third millenium BC.

What do you think the anthropological perspective has to offer the study of economics?


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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27 Responses to Market Exchange/ Symbolic Exchange

  1. Chris Cummings says:

    this weeks class was actually quiet interesting considering it related things more modern to todays society and yet it could trail back to the evolution of mankind. With that said there are still a few questions that come to mind of the subject. For starters: 1)why would someone with a large sum of money want to donate it all to different organizations over giving the money to their own family to continue such a legacy like we discussed with Bill Gates?
    2) What advantages other then money would we as americans and other countries gain from comparative advantages ? And why do we partake in it when we owe many other countries a lot money to begin with?
    3) To what extent is nonmaterial exchange and symbolic exchange similar and different?

  2. Michal Barnett says:

    Today in class we covered an extensive amount of material. I must say that i thought the most intriguing part about it was how monumentally different the idea of gift giving is in other countries and societies. The video really gave an inside prospective to the difference in importance and significance that a gift has in New Guiana as opposed to here in the United States. One thing that I noticed is how important it is to a person how they are perceived by others in the society around them. For example Ongka’s wife at one point was talking about how if she did not do enough work for Ongka she wouldn’t appear a fit wife or she would appear lazy. Everyone wanted to be on the top of society, each big man wanted to gain more prestige than the others. There is so much more meaning in a gift than I had originally thought. Whats so interesting about this class is how your mind is just overwhelmed with this vast amount of new information and culture and thought that before taking this class, I wouldn’t have even had the slightest idea about. For example, pigs in America are to little importance but for meat, and in New Guinea they are a way of life. I remember Ongka said something about how if a man has no pigs, that man is a nobody and has no chance of success.

  3. Zach Jones says:

    This week in class we watched a video on the “Ongka’s big Moka” which detailed symbolic trading and the power associated with it. My question is: Why is it that as groups colonized around the globe they exchanged gifts instead of money, seeing as money would allow for a greater range of power because you can purchase items instead of just having one single possession.

    • La'Teef Evans says:

      The different groups probably did not have a similar currency so one groups money would be meaningless to the others.

  4. Austin Lubore says:

    I found the movie that we watched very interesting. But later on that night after watching the movie I could see an interesting comparison between Ongka’s ways of life and Americans. Ongka works to give all his belongings away at the Moka and then he is complete because that is what he has given so much time and energy towards. As for Americans they do not give all their belongings away while they alive necessarily. But when Americans pass away and they have belongings they give them away to others. It is not always for money, but everything they have they assign to others so that they can have what they worked hard for and earned. It is not exactly the same, but it is similar in the fact that these two cultures do have some kind of similarities in the way that they work hard during their lives just to give all their stuff away in the end.

  5. Callyia Collins says:

    When we were watching “Ongka’s big Moka” one thing I was thinking about was, why didn’t his tribe help him out more. I understand that throwing the Moka would give Ongka a higher status in the tribe but he was also repaying a debt to a different tribe. It was like he was taking care of doing this for the tribe so someone else didn’t have to later. So why, after he had gotten a significant amount of pigs and gifts, didn’t his tribe help him out a little bit more? His wife, his ‘favorite’ wife rather, was struggling with all of the pigs and he was struggling with taking care of the Moka. Maybe it’s just my help out mentality but I think that if they helped out they could have taken care of it in a little less time and made the whole thing less of a headache for Ongka and everyone else involved.


    The movie was very interesting. The most amazing part was when Ongka wanted to give his gift, there was a ceremony. It was like nothing else should take place but the giving of the gift. Unlike here in America, gift giving could be a just because gift and not have a lot of meaning behind it. Personally, I don’t think I could give away everything I worked so hard for to look like the “big person” in the community.

  7. Rachel Amado says:

    It was extremely interesting to view this cultures gift giving and compare it to American gift giving. Our societies gift giving is based on the selfishness motivated by making the giver feel better about themselves. In Onka’s culture it is a large grand repayment from years before that have influence their every person in their culture daily. It makes me reflect on the American culture, questioning the intentions behind peoples everyday actions.

  8. David Meyer says:

    Is there any event that does not delay a moka? …other than small mokas.

  9. Taylor Trask says:

    The thing I liked most about the video was the emphasis on the symbolic representation of the “gifts” given. It almost seems like a tax system that alternates over the years and here is why. Like Ongka emphasized, pigs are everything. Like dollars in the American economy, the pig is like a type of tax or loan of currency that is passed around as needed and a form of interest is applied. Another similarity I realized is that the pig have an obvious representation, money does as well. Money used to represent gold or other precious metals but now represent the work a person has done for it.

    An anthropological perspective on the study of economics is extremely important. Economics helped begin the first written language, cuneiform. It’s important to understand economics and how it affects human society to understand other things.

  10. Teneisha says:

    The movie was very profound. It’s very interesting at how important gift giving is in another country. Most Americans don’t think much about a gift that they receive or choose to give. It’s given and there is not much thought following. Versus in the video, it is honored once someone receives a gift. Ongka was very sentimental towards is gift of a pig. It truly showed how much it touched his heart and gave him the more energy to keep doing his work.

  11. Christal Rabalais says:

    In ‘Ongka’s big Moka’ the pigs represent an investment. One tribe gives a gift to another tribe with almost certainty that “the gift” will be returned with interest. These exchanges take years and lots of hard work for the tribe arranging the Moka. The interest earned on the investment is the motivator that keeps this “cycle” going on.

    I found Ongka to be an honorable man. There is a part of the film that shows Ongka stopping a raid by angry tribesman seeking vengeance by simply sitting on the road and then convincing some of the men not to continue. The angry tribesman were going to pay a visit to Reima (not sure of this spelling) for using sorcery to murder and I am convinced that if Ongka had not peacefully protested that day Reima may have been killed or badly injured. Instead the narrator informs the viewer that four of Raima’s pigs are killed.

  12. In class, the lecture placed a lot of focus on hidden motives and selfish interests behind gift giving. I would like to say that not all gifts are given with underlying motives! Often, ones spirituality can effect their generosity. Many people just feel compelled to give, and do so without further contemplation. I, for example, feel that I can give away all that I have without fear, because I have faith that by karma, God, or the Universe, will provide all that I need for my life here on earth.

    • Leslie says:

      I agree. Not everything is of a certain motive. Some people just really want to make a difference – whether it’s a politician or not. I don’t think that we should be so quick to jump to the conclusion that anyone who has some kind of influence, power, or money only has a hidden desire for gain from an act – because that’s really not always the case.

  13. Rachael Leckey says:

    where does he keep his money that he collects from these trades? is he married legally to all of his wife’s?

  14. Mark Hall says:

    I believe that the video about Ongka showed how much he is willing to do for what I believe to be selfish reasons. He wants to look good. He wants to be able to say to others that he was the one who gave the best and biggest gift ever. Him trying to stop the fight by sitting in the road was fueled by his desire to get the Moka done without any more delays, setbacks, or major troubles.

  15. Leslie says:

    Watching the video in class made me realize that are some who still live that way today. Part of me thinks that it could be good. It seems like not a lot of crime goes on because there is so much culture added to the workload of everyone. Then again, it makes me think about how primitive it is. No advancements in medicine, technology, etc. . .

    The pigs were almost like gold to them. Money was of value, as it is to us in our culture and society, but the pigs were a delicate value, as gold is to us.

  16. Justin Easterday says:

    I really enjoyed the lecture in class. It makes me feel better to know others are thinking about and even studying things I too had been thinking about. Topics like motives behind gift giving was extremely relevant in my life recently and I think the lecture didn’t reveal too much new knowledge but confirmed a lot of my suspicions about how some people give gifts.

  17. James Anderson says:

    I was wondering if this video was shown strictly to illustrate similarities in international trade, such as NAFTA. Some people often vilify trade agreements, and in this case some arguments are valid, such as food prices in Mexico dropping which lowers farmers income. However, isn’t that the goal? To lower prices, consolidate work, free others to do other work? (Keep in mind there are a hell of a lot of problems in this world that need solving…. IF we weren’t slaves to “comfort” and “stability”) The problem is that Mexico is a poorer country indeed. And we, along with Canada, are seen as “taking advantage” of Mexico. NAFTA has brought about a gap in wealth, however the important question is…. are the poorer benefiting? For the most part, yes. A 10% return on 5 dollars will yield a 50 cent profit while a 10% return on 1 dollar will yield 10 cents. The gap has risen from 4 dollars to 4.50, however the point is the poor are gaining wealth. In researching, I learned a lot of good and bad associated with NAFTA but I think before we condemn it and the cheap goods it allows us, we may want to stop complaining when gas raises a dollar. It’s still half as cheap as orange juice. Just imagine the rise in price of many goods if Mexico were barred, or left the agreement. Man this country would certainly being crying then! NAFTA isn’t the problem, it’s the few unethical businessmen that ruin it, just as in every other facet of business. Furthermore, Mexico has some internal issues of its own it needs to work out before trade agreements are to blame for Mexicans crossing their northern border. Maybe they are coming for our wealth of government hand outs?!?

  18. Christin Carter says:

    I believe that market exchange is the number 1 way to develope a friendship, alliance or open the door for more business opportunities. The same goes with a symbolic exchange. However, there are time when both are used just to benefit others. People like to feel good about themselves as well as make other feel good. It seems like the more you are able to give the better you feel for being able to help someone. When taking a look at trading with other countries, I think that it is simply a business strategy. Its kind of like Ongka and his giving. He gave to impress and he gave so he can recieve. It also helped in keeping good relations with the other villiage. If there was no trading relationship between the two towns when the big man died I dont think they would have been so willing to listen to Ongka when they were looking to get revenge on the man suspected of sorcery.

  19. Brad Glavin says:

    there are a lot of different reasons one can give gifts on special occasions or with symbolic meanings and i enjoyed learning about all. it’s also a good way to stand out in a competitive business world. my mother is a notorist on her spare time and to get people to remember her everytime she would go into different offices she would always bring small little gifts according to the time of year it was for the employees that worked there…. 4th of july, easter, st. patricks day, ect. they liked the gesture and she liked the business, and everytime they would need a notorist she would always come to mind.

  20. NiYoko Bell says:

    The video in class was very intresting. It makes you really thing about the motive behind gift giving. It is also intresting to thing about how we use gift giving to our advantage. It’s sad that we don’t invest as much time in helping our own…we would rather gift give to get ahead.

  21. Sean Murray says:

    The topic of gift giving that we discussed interests me because it seems to me in some cases in American culture it can actually be considered rude to give a gift. For instance, if friends are invited to a birhtday cookout and invitations specifically say gifts are not necessary but someone decides to bring one anyway to be “nice”, it could actually be demeaning to a guests who hadn’t brought a gift. Another scenario would be paying for dinner at a restauraunt. Grandparents usually feel ashamed to let grandchildren pay for their meals because its usually not the cultural way to go about it. If i were to insist on paying for my grandparents meal i know for a fact they would get upset at me and my “courtesy” could possibly ruin the whole dinner altogether.

  22. Lindsay Lewis says:

    I think this topic is really interesting because I never even thought of gift giving in this light before..but now it makes so much sense. When someone gives a gift to someone else, it usually goes without saying that that person will return with a gift or repay the person in some way, shape, or form. For example, if someone buys you a present for your birthday, they are either just being extremely nice OR they are doing it to compel you to buy them a present for THEIR birthday. When looked at this way, gift giving seems a lot more selfish than it is generous. I even had an experience like this a couple weeks ago. One of my good friends, out of nowhere, decided to buy me a North Face jacket because I had been talking about how I wanted one. I was shocked that she bought it for me because North Face is an extremely expensive brand of clothing. Now, I feel that I owe her something in return, even if it is just my kindness or patience. If I’m in a bad mood one day, she reminds me that she was the one that bought me that jacket so I should be nice to her. But I never asked for the does that mean I should go out of my way to treat her differently because she gave me a gift?

    I’m interested in learning more about this topic and hearing stories from other people’s lives.

  23. Hilary Johnson says:

    First of all, I found the video ‘Ongka’s Big Moka’ to be very interesting. It is a much different form of market exchange and relationships we have with other groups, countries, etc. I found myself really feeling for Ongka during his long period of time stressing and preparing the Big Moka of his people, which would be the biggest one yet. The cultural practices of the tribes of Papau New Guinea seem so foreign to many but are comletely normal to these people. Their belief in sorcery and their rituals (clothing, dancing, the moka itself) are still intact, which I admire greatly. I also noticed the status of the women throughout the video (naturally, being a Women’s Studies major) – particularly how reliant Ongka was on his favorite wife who tended to both her children and the many pigs. At the same time, the women of the tribe of the dead man sang ‘oh father who shall i turn to now?’ whereas the men sang ‘oh brother who shall i live with now.’ Although this is subtle it shows the elevated status of the men calling their leader brother when the women call him father signifying dependence rather than equal relationship status.

    Mexico’s old economy also interested me in that it was a patron/client relationship which produced stability and means to get a job. I feel that Mexico’s independent economy was surely a threat to other larger countries and the result of this was NAFTA (trade policy- ‘free market’ – capitalism) which had a major impact on Mexico’s economy. It created some economic growth but changed the traditional ways that produced stability. The results weren’t the greatest for Mexico, especially for young people and others who were more likely to get jobs in the old economical practices of the country.

    I also observed that in many ways, the comparative advantage associated with trade liberalization may be economical, but the ethical side of it bothers me…almost embarasses me. The fact that American companies benefit from manufacturing or sending certain raw materials to be manufactered in other countries for minimal pay (those people have families to raise and bills to pay, too!) simply to benefit our economy while disregarding the toll it’s taking on humanity as a whole is troublesome and I believe many do not like this…but it is what it is.

  24. Sam Murphy says:

    I found it very interesting how Ongka was able to stop the violence of the partnering tribe by well placed gifts. It shows how peaceful solutions can resolve a situation if its done correctly. I was also surprised at the lengths Ongka went to give his tribe the perfect gift. It showed how much popularity ment to him, I think you can easily compare him and his motives to that of our politicians.

  25. Gail Martin says:

    It is interesting to see how different cultures view gift giving differently. How gifts can resolve differences and how in some cultures the approriate gift is required.
    I have always found the concept of bartering a useful tool when low on funds. For example I barter clerical services with my friend who is a holestic doctor. He treats me and gives me suppplements for clerical work and mailings I do for him. Barter is an ancient concept and probably the first form of currency.

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