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A Cross-Cultural Overview of Balanced and Unbalanced Modes of Exchange

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Once people have produced goods those goods need to be distributed for consumption. This guided through several principles: redistribution, reciprocity, and market. These principles are not mutually exclusive and all may be found within the same society. The market principle is based on the practice of goods bought and sold using money

Profit is a key motivating principle. Value is theoretically based on demand and supply, but supply can be artificially manipulated to value and, therefore, increase profit margin. Market economies are the hallmark of large-scale, industrial groups.

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When goods and services are given away, purchased, sold, or traded, there are potentially two components of the exchange--pure economic gain and social gain. Both of these motives usually occur at the same time in non-market economies. However, in market economies, the social component is often missing except when the exchange is between relatives or friends. With strangers, the social gain is usually sacrificed for efficiency and speed. Important exchange items in non-market economies include many more things than just food and manufactured objects. The most valued gifts are likely to be courtesies, entertainment (e.g., songs, dances, and speeches), curing, military assistance, women (to be wives), and children. In the Western World today, the idea that women and children could be given away as gifts is shocking. However, that was not always the case in Europe. Well into the 19th century, the heads of royal and wealthy families gave their daughters and sometimes sisters in marriage in order to establish or solidify economic and political alliances. Men giving female relatives to potential male allies has been a powerful bonding tool throughout most of the world. Gift exchanges are usually reciprocal click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced. That is to say, if you receive a gift, you are obliged to repay it with another gift. Reciprocity click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced typically results in a continuing sequence of giving, receiving, and repaying gifts. Breaking this obligation to continue the reciprocity is commonly seen as a slight or even a rejection of the other person involved in the exchange. Reciprocity is a binding mechanism in that its continuance helps to hold friends and families together. Reciprocal exchanges generally do not redistribute a society's wealth in a way that causes some people to become richer than others

Rather, they usually result in a circulation of goods and services. There is not a net economic loss for individuals because they ultimately receive gifts in return. Reciprocity requires adequacy of response but not necessarily mathematical equality. In North America, for instance, when adults give a Christmas gift that cost $50 to a five year old child, they do not expect that the child will reciprocate with a gift that also cost $50. If the child reciprocates with a small painting he or she made in school, it is usually considered to be a more than adequate response.

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Economic anthropology is always in dialogue (whether implicitly or explicitly) with the discipline of economics.[Richard Wilk and Lisa Cliggett, 2007] However, there are several important differences between the two disciplines. Perhaps most importantly, economic anthropology encompasses the production, exchange, consumption, meaning, and uses of both material objects and immaterial services, whereas contemporary economics focuses primarily on market exchanges. In addition, economic anthropologists dispute the idea that all individual thoughts, choices, and behaviors can be understood through a narrow lens of rational, self-interested decision-making. When asking why people choose to buy a new shirt rather than shoes, anthropologists, and increasingly economists, look beyond the motives of Homo economicus to determine how social, cultural, political, and institutional forces shape humans’ everyday decisions.[Carol Tarvis, 2015] As a discipline, economics studies the decisions made by people and businesses and how these decisions interact in the marketplace. Economists’ models generally rest on several assumptions: that people know what they want, that their economic choices express these wants, and that their wants are defined by their culture. Economics is a normative theory because it specifies how people should act if they want to make efficient economic decisions

In contrast, anthropology is a largely descriptive social science; we analyze what people actually do and why they do it. Economic anthropologists do not necessarily assume that people know what they want (or why they want it) or that they are free to act on their own individual desires.

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As can be seen, even in the most industrialized contexts, deperson-alized consumption has not completely replacedpersonalized consumption. The popularity of farmers’markets in urban centres is an example of personalizedconsumption in which the consumer buys apples fromthe person who grew them and with whom the con-sumer may have a friendly conversation, perhaps whilesampling one of the apples. A reaction against deper-sonalized consumption supports regional markets insouthern France where, even though many of theproducts come from far away, the marketers create apretense of personalized production in order to satisfytheir customers’ preferences.

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James Carrier, “Introduction,” in A Handbook of Economic Anthropology, ed. James Carrier (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012), 4.

Richard Wilk and Lisa Cliggett, Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007), 37.

Carol Tarvis,“How Homo Economicus Went Extinct,” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2015

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