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Reciprocity and Kinship Distance


The span of social distance between those who exchange conditions the mode of exchange. Kinship distance, as has already been suggest­ed, is especially relevant to the form of reciprocity. Reciprocity is inclined toward the generalized pole by close kinship, toward the negative extreme in proportion to kinship distance.

The reasoning is nearly syllogistic. The several reciprocities from freely bestowed gift to chicanery amount to a spectrum of sociability, from sacrifice in favor of another to self-interested gain at the expense of another. Take as the minor premise Tylor's dictum that kindred goes with kindness, "two words whose common derivation expresses in the happiest way one of the main principles of social life." It follows that close kin tend to share, to enter into generalized exchanges, and distant and nonkin to deal in equivalents or in guile. Equivalence becomes compulsory in proportion to kinship distance lest relations break off entirely, for with distance there can be little tolerance of gain and loss even as there is little inclination to extend oneself. To non-kin—"other people", perhaps not even "people"—no quarter must needs be given: the manifest inclination may well be "devil take the hindmost."

All this seems perfectly applicable to our own society, but it is more significant in primitive society. Because kinship is more significant in primitive society. It is, for one thing, the organizing principle or idiom of most groups and most social relations. Even the category "nonkin" is ordinarily defined by it, that is, as the negative aspect of it, the logical extreme of the class—nonbeing as a state of being. There is something real to this view; it is not logical sophistry. Among our­selves, "nonkin" denotes specialized status relations of positive quality: doctor-patient, policeman-citizen, employer-employee, classmates, neighbors, professional colleagues. But for them,"nonkin" connotes the negation of community (or tribalism); often it is the synonym for "enemy" or "stranger." Likewise the economic relation tends to be a simple negation of kinship reciprocities: other institutional norms need not come into play.

Kinship distance, however, has different aspects. It may be organ­ized in several ways, and what is "close" in one of these ways need not be so in another. Exchange may be contingent on genealogical distance (as locally imputed), that is, on interpersonal kinship status. Or it may hinge on segmentary distance, on descent group status. (One suspects that where these two do not correspond the closer relation governs the reciprocity appropriate in dealings between indi­vidual parties, but this ought to be worked out empirically.) For the purpose of creating a general model, attention should also be given to the power of community in stipulating distance. It is not only that kinship organizes communities, but communities kinship, so that a spatial, coresidential term affects the measure of kinship distance and thus the mode of exchange.

Brothers living together, or a paternal uncle and his nephews living in the same house were, as far as my observation goes, on much closer terms with each other than relatives of similar degrees living apart. This was evident whenever there was a question of borrowing things, of getting help, of accepting an obligation, or of assuming responsibilities for each other (Malinowski, 1915, p. 532; the reference is to the Mailu).

Mankind [to Siuai] consists of relatives and strangers. Relatives are usually interlinked by both blood and marital ties; most of them live nearby, and persons who live nearby are all relatives .. .Transactions among them should be carried out in a spirit devoid of commerciality preferably consisting of sharing [i.e., "pooling" in terms of the present discussion], nonreciprocable giving, and bequeathing, among closest relatives, or of lending among more distantly related ones. .. . Except for a few very distantly related sib-mates, persons who live far away are not relatives and can only be enemies. Most of their customs are unsuitable for the Siuai, but a few of their goods and techniques are desirable. One interacts with them only to buy and sell—utilizing hard bargaining and deceit to make as much profit from such transactions as possible (Oliver, 1955, pp. 454-455).

Here is one possible model for analyzing reciprocity: the tribal plan can be viewed as a series of more and more inclusive kinship-resi­dential sectors, and reciprocity seen then to vary in character by sectoral position. The close kinsmen who render assistance are partic­ularly near kinsmen in a spatial sense: it is in regard to people of the household, the camp, hamlet, or village that compassion is required, inasmuch as interaction is intense and peaceable solidarity essential. But the quality of mercy is strained in peripheral sectors, strained by kinship distance, so is less likely in exchanges with fellow tribesmen of another village than among covillagers, still less likely in the inter­tribal sector.

Kinship-residential groupings from this perspective comprise ever-widening comembership spheres: the household, the local lineage, perhaps the village, the subtribe, tribe, other tribes—the particular plan of course varies. The structure is a hierarchy of levels of integra­tion, but from the inside and on the ground it is a series of concentric circles. Social relations of each circle have a specific quality—house­hold relations, lineage relations, and so on—and except as the sectoral divisions be cut through by other organizations of kinship solidarity— say, nonlocalized clans or personal kindreds—relations within each sphere are more solidary than relations of the next, more inclusive sector. Reciprocity accordingly inclines toward balance and chicane in proportion to sectoral distance. In each sector, certain modes of reciprocity are characteristic or dominant: generalized modes are dominant in the narrowest spheres and play out in wider spheres, balanced reciprocity is characteristic of intermediate sectors, chicane of the most peripheral spheres. In brief, a general model of the play of reciprocity may be developed by superimposing the society's secto­ral plan upon the reciprocity continuum. Such a model is shown in Figure 5.1.


Figure 5.1. Reciprocity and Kinship Residential Sectors


The plan does not rest alone upon the two terms of sectoral division and reciprocity variation. Something is to be said for the embedded third term, morality. "Far more than we ordinarily suppose," Firth has written, "economic relations rest on moral foundations" (1951, p. 144). Certainly that must be the way the people see it—"Although the Siuai have separate terms for 'generosity,' 'cooperativeness,' 'morali­ty' (that is, rule abiding), and 'geniality,' I believe that they consider all these to be closely interrelated aspects of the same attribute of goodness . . ." (Oliver, 1955, p. 78). Another contrast with ourselves is suggested, a tendency for morality, like reciprocity, to be sectorally organized in primitive societies. The norms are characteristically rela­tive and situational rather than absolute and universal. A given act, that is to say, is not so much in itself good or bad, it depends on who the "Alter" is. The appropriation of another man's goods or his woman, which is a sin ("theft," "adultery") in the bosom of one's community, may be not merely condoned but positively rewarded with the admiration of one's fellows—if it is perpetrated on an outsid­er. The contrast with the absolute standards of the Judeo-Christian tradition is probably overdrawn: no moral system is exclusively abso­lute (especially in wartime) and none perhaps is entirely relative and contextual. But situational standards, defined often in sectoral terms, do seem to prevail in primitive communities and this contrasts sufficiently with our own to have drawn repeated comment from ethnolo­gists. For instance:

Navaho morality is . . . contextual rather than absolute. . . . Lying is not always and everywhere wrong. The rules vary with the situation. To de­ceive when trading with foreign tribes is a morally accepted practice. Acts are not in themselves bad or good. Incest [by its nature, a contextual sin] is perhaps the only conduct that is condemned without qualification. It is quite correct to use witchcraft techniques in trading with members of foreign tribes. . . . There is an almost complete absence of abstract ideals. Under the circumstances of aboriginal life Navahos did not need to orient themselves in terms of abstract morality. ... In a large, complex society like modern America, where people come and go and business and other dealings must be carried on by people who never see each other, it is functionally necessary to have abstract standards that transcend an imme­diate concrete situation in which two or more persons are interacting (Kluckhohn, 1959, p. 434).

The scheme with which we deal is at least tripartite: social, moral, and economic. Reciprocity and morality are sectorally structured— the structure is that of kinship-tribal groupings.

But the scheme is entirely a hypothetical state of affairs. One can conceive circumstances that would alter the social-moral-reciprocal relations postulated by it. Propositions about the external sectors are particularly vulnerable. (For "external sector" one can generally read "intertribal sector," the ethnic peripherae of primitive communities; in practice it can be set where positive morality fades out or where intergroup hostility is the normal in-group expectation.) Transactions in this sphere may be consummated by force and guile, it is true, by wabuwabu, to use the near-onomatopoeic Dobuan term for sharp practice. Yet it seems that violent appropriation is a resort born of urgent requirements that can only, or most easily, be supplied by militant tactics. Peaceful symbiosis is at least a common alternative.

In these nonviolent confrontations the propensity to wabuwabu no doubt persists; it is built in to the sectoral plan. So if it can be socially tolerated—if, that is, countervailing peace-enforcing conditions are sufficiently strong—hard bargaining is the institutionalized external relation. We find then gimwali, the mentality of the market place, the impersonal (no-partnership) exchange of Trobriand commoners of different villages or of Trobrianders and other peoples. But still gim-wali does suppose special conditions, some sort of social insulation that prevents the economic friction from kindling a dangerous confla­gration. In the ordinary case, haggling is actually repressed, partic­ularly, it appears, if the exchange of the border is critical to both sides, as where different strategic specialties move against each other. De­spite the sectoral distance, the exchange is equitable, utu, balanced: the free play of wabuwabu and gimwali is checked in the interest of the symbiosis.

The check is delivered by special and delicate institutional means of border exchange. The means sometimes look so preposterous as to be considered by ethnologists some sort of "game" the natives play, but their design manifestly immunizes an important economic inter­dependence against a fundamental social cleavage. (Compare the dis­cussion of the kula in White,1959, and Fortune, 1932.) Silent trade is a famous case in point—good relations are maintained by preventing any relations. Most common are "trade-partnerships" and "trade-friendships." The important thing in all varieties is a social suppres­sion of negative reciprocity. Peace is built in, haggling outlawed, and, conducted as a transfer of equivalent utilities, the exchange in turn underwrites the peace. (Trade-partnerships, often developed along lines of classificatory or affinal kinship, particularly incapsulate exter­nal economic transactions in solidary social relations. Status relations essentially internal are projected across community and tribal bound­aries. The reciprocity then may lean over backward, in the direction not of wabuwabu but something to the generalized side. Phrased as gift-giving, the presentation admits of delay in reciprocation: a direct return may indeed be unseemly. Hospitality, on another occasion returned in kind, accompanies the formal exchange of trade goods. For a host to give stuff over and above the worth of things brought by his partner is not unusual: it both befits the relation so to treatone's partner while he is traveling and stores up credits. On a wider view, this measure of unbalance sustains the trade partnership, compelling as it does another meeting.)

Intertribal symbiosis, in short, alters the terms of the hypothetical model. The peripheral sector is breached by more sociable relations than are normal in this zone. The context of exchange is now a narrower co-membership sphere, the exchange is peaceful and equita­ble. Reciprocity falls near the balance point.

Now the assertions of this essay, as I have said, developed out of a dialogue with ethnographic materials. It seems worthwhile to ap­pend some of these data to appropriate sections of the argument. Accordingly, Appendix A sets out materials relevant to the present section, "Reciprocity and Kinship Distance." This is not by way of proof, of course—there are indeed certain exceptions, or seeming exceptions, in the materials—but by way of exposition or illustration. Moreover, since the ideas only gradually came over me and the mono­graphs and articles had been in many instances consulted for other purposes, it is certain that data pertinent to reciprocity in the works cited have escaped me. (I hope this is sufficiently apologetic and that the ethnographic notes of Appendix A are of interest to someone besides myself.)

Whatever the value of these notes as exposition of the asserted relation between reciprocity and kinship distance, they must also suggest to the reader certain limitations of the present perspective. Simply to demonstrate that the character of reciprocity is contingent upon social distance—even if it could be demonstrated in an incon­testable way—is not to traffic in ultimate explanation, nor yet to specify when exchanges will in fact take place. A systematic relation between reciprocity and sociability in itself does not say when, or even to what extent, the relation will come into play. The supposition here is that the forces of constraint lie outside the relation itself. The terms of final analysis are the larger cultural structure and its adaptive response to its milieu. From this wider view one may be able to stipulate the significant sectoral lines and kinship categories of the given case, and to stipulate too the incidence of reciprocity in different sectors. Supposing it true that close kinsmen would share food, for example, it need not follow that the transactions occur. The total (cultural-adaptive) context may render intensive sharing dysfunction­al and predicate in subtle ways the demise of a society that allows itself the luxury. Permit me to quote in extenso a passage from Fredrik Barth's brilliant ecological study of South Persian nomads. It shows so well the larger considerations that must be brought to the bar of explanation; in detail it exemplifies a situation that discounts intensive sharing:

The stability of a pastoral population depends on the maintenance of a balance between pastures, animal population, and human population. The pastures available by their techniques of herding set a maximal limit to the total animal population that an area will support; while the patterns of nomadic production and consumption define a minimal limit to the size of the herd that will support a human household. In this double set of balances is summarized the special difficulty in establishing a population balance in a pastoral economy: the human population must be sensitive to imbalances between flocks and pastures. Among agricultural, or hunting and collecting people, a crude Malthusian type of population control is sufficient. With a growing population, starvation and death-rate rise, until a balance is reached around which the population stabilizes. Where pasto­ral nomadism is the predominant or exclusive pattern, the nomad popula­tion, if subjected to such a form of population control, would nor establish a population balance, but would find its whole basis for subsistence re­moved. Quite simply, this is because the productive capital on which their subsistence is based is not simply land, it is animals—in other words food. A pastoral economy can only be maintained so long as there are no pres­sures on its practitioners to invade this large store of food. A pastoral population can therefore only reach a stable level if other effective popula­tion controls intervene before those of starvation and death-rate. A first requirement in such an adaptation is the presence of the patterns of private ownership of herds, and individual economic responsibility for each house­hold. By these patterns, the population becomes fragmented with respect to economic activities, and economic factors can strike differentially, elimi­nating some members of the population [i.e., through sedentarization] without affecting other members of the same population. This would be impossible if the corporate organization with respect to political life, and pasture rights, were also made relevant to economic responsibility and survival (Barth,1961, p. 124).

Now, about the incidence of reciprocity in the specific case, here is something else to consider—the people may be stingy. Nothing has been said about sanctions of exchange relations nor, more important­ly, about forces that countervail. There are contradictions in primitive economies: inclinations of self-interest are unleashed that are incom­patible with the high levels of sociability customarily demanded. Mal-inowski long ago noticed this and Firth (1926) in an early paper on Maori proverbs skillfully brought to light the clash, the subtle inter­play, between the moral dictates of sharing and narrow economic interests. The widespread mode of family production for use, it might be remarked, acts to brake outputs at comparatively low levels even as it orients economic concern inward, within the household. The mode of production thus does not readily lend itself to general eco­nomic solidarity. Suppose sharing is morally called for, say by the destitution of a near kinsman, all the things that make sharing good and proper may not evoke in an affluent man the inclination to do it. And even as there may be little to gain by assisting others, there are no iron-clad guarantees of such social compacts as kinship. The re­ceived social-moral obligations prescribe an economic course, and the publicity of primitive life, increasing the risk of evoking jealousy, hostility, and future economic penalty, tends to keep people on course. But, as is well known, to observe that a society has a system of morality and constraints is not to say that everyone acquiesces in it. There may be bisa-basa times, "particularly in the late winter, when the household would hide its food, even from relatives" (Price, 1962,

That bisa-basa is the pervasive condition of some peoples is not embarassing to the present thesis. The Siriono, everyone knows, par­ley hostility and crypto-stinginess into a way of life. Interestingly enough, the Siriono articulate ordinary norms of primitive economic intercourse. By the norm, for instance, the hunter should not eat the animal he has killed. But the de facto sector of sharing is not merely very narrow, "sharing rarely occurs without a certain amount of mutual mistrust and misunderstanding; a person always feels that it is he who is being taken advantage of," so that "The bigger the catch the more sullen the hunter" (Holmberg,1950, pp. 60, 62; cf. pp. 36, 38-39). The Siriono are not thereby different in kind from the run of primitive communities. They simply realize to an extreme the poten­tiality elsewhere less often consummated, the possibility that structur­al compulsions of generosity are unequal to a test of hardship. But then, the Siriono are a band of displaced and deculturated persons. The whole cultural shell, from rules of sharing through institutions of chieftainship and Crow kinship terminology, is a mockery of their present miserable state.


Date: 2014-12-21; view: 644

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