Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Inalienable Possessions

Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While Giving

Annette B. Weiner
Copyright Date: 1992
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Inalienable Possessions
    Book Description:

    Inalienable Possessionstests anthropology's traditional assumptions about kinship, economics, power, and gender in an exciting challenge to accepted theories of reciprocity and marriage exchange. Focusing on Oceania societies from Polynesia to Papua New Guinea and including Australian Aborigine groups, Annette Weiner investigates the category of possessions that mustnotbe given or, if they are circulated, must return finally to the giver. Reciprocity, she says, is only the superficial aspect of exchange, which overlays much more politically powerful strategies of "keeping-while-giving." The idea of keeping-while-giving places women at the heart of the political process, however much that process may vary in different societies, for women possess a wealth of their own that gives them power. Power is intimately involved in cultural reproduction, and Weiner describes the location of power in each society, showing how the degree of control over the production and distribution of cloth wealth coincides with women's rank and the development of hierarchy in the community. Other inalienable possessions, whether material objects, landed property, ancestral myths, or sacred knowledge, bestow social identity and rank as well. Calling attention to their presence in Western history, Weiner points out that her formulations are not limited to Oceania. The paradox of keeping-while-giving is a concept certain to influence future developments in ethnography and the theoretical study of gender and exchange.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91180-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    This book has its origins in my first ethnographic fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands located off the coast of Papua New Guinea that, early in this century, took on unprecedented anthropological importance through Bronislaw Malinowski’s research and personal renown. Malinowski reduced the extensive exchange events he witnessed to a simplified but pioneering classification of “gift” and “counter-gift,” theorizing that reciprocity was the basis for social relations in “primitive” societies. My research, beginning sixty years later, revealed dynamic social actions far more socially dense than Malinowski’s classic conclusions. While comparing what I found in the Trobriands with analogous situations in more...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Inalienable Possessions: The Forgotten Dimension
    (pp. 23-43)

    When anthropologists embark on extensive fieldwork, it is not just they, as Malinowski once said, who will “make” the cultures they study but they, too, are fashioned intellectually through what they learn. Like parents who nurture and socialize their children with their own beliefs and world views, “informants” turn their ethnographers in particular directions. The similarity stops there, however, because ethnographers do not record informants’ words as though on a tabula rasa, but as modified by their own theories and perceptions honed on the issues and arguments of previous anthropological discourses. How to get beneath what historically we, as anthropologists,...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Reconfiguring Exchange Theory: The Maori Hau
    (pp. 44-65)

    InArgonauts of the Western PacificMalinowski is painstakingly forthright about his dilemma over how to interpret Trobrianders’ kula behavior. In every chapter, he searches for behavioral analogies that a Western audience will understand then immediately undoes the point by reemphasizing the exoticness of kula exchanges. Looking back on his work more than half a century later, these particular conundrums stand out because his analogies with Western economics were remarkably sensitive even when his reversals were wide of the mark.¹ Early on inArgonauts, Malinowski briefly muses over the similarity between kula shells and the historical significance attributed to the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Sibling Incest Taboo: Polynesian Cloth and Reproduction
    (pp. 66-97)

    In traditional theories of kinship, the accepted priority of the norm of reciprocity focuses kinship studies on marital exchange and human reproduction. The consequence is that reciprocity becomes the pivot around which other important kin relationships—between men—are established. Reciprocity, as traditionally defined, is not the mechanism that produces homogeneity between participants in exchange. It is the many paradoxical solutions to keeping-while-giving that result in the establishment of difference between participants and which make the processes of cultural reproduction central to the development of hierarchy.

    A child is both like and unlike its parents but, in genetic terms, it...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The Defeat of Hierarchy: Cosmological Authentication in Australia and New Guinea Bones and Stones
    (pp. 98-130)

    In 1963, Marshall Sahlin’s essay, “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia,” marked out major cultural differences within Oceania by looking at the social and economic implications of reciprocal exchange in Melanesian as opposed to Polynesian chiefly redistributive systems.¹ The underlying assumptions about exchange that Sahlins first outlined in his seminal article persist today. The high islands of Polynesia summon forth images associated with great male chiefs overseeing the redistributions of their food and wealth accumulations; New Guinea’s wide mountain valleys reveal big men’s reciprocal cycles of pig and pearl-shell exchange; the vast Australian...

  10. Figures
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER 5 Kula: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving
    (pp. 131-148)

    Malinowski’s description of the reciprocal exchange cycle of ornately decorated whiteconusarmshells and finely chiseled redcharmanecklaces made Trobrianders’ kula exchange immediately famous.¹ But beyond its importance as a classic statement regarding the form and process of exchange in “savage” societies, it provides us today with a classic example of the cultural significance of keeping-while-giving and the inherent problems in sustaining this goal. The societies I discussed in the last chapter clarify how essential it is to the development of hierarchy that certain possessions authenticate a kin group’s descendants and origins. Kula is the most dramatic case of...

  12. Afterword: The Challenge of Inalienable Possessions
    (pp. 149-156)

    Throughout the history of anthropology, one theory, the norm of reciprocity, stands inviolate. The anthropological belief that it is the expectation of a return gift that motivates exchange in “primitive” society is, unfortunately, as strong as when Malinowski first postulated it. Whereas earlier Marx revealed how belief in the “magic” hand of reciprocity fetishized the actual social relations between people as commodity producers and mystified the historical developments that led to the commodity form itself, the norm of reciprocity in primitive society remained unexamined, the gift perceived merely in relation to the return it would elicit. As this book reveals,...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 157-196)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-218)
  15. Index
    (pp. 219-232)