Perspectives in the Anthropology of Money – nonce vcva – Medium

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In much of the anthropological record of money, scholars have rehearsed a distinction between modern money and primitive money. Setting modern money aside as a seamless abstraction, anthropologists have generated important insights about the curious worlds of primitive money and its varied uses and meanings. Later on, anthropologist would use the accounts of primitive money to approach modern money, unsettling the distinction between modern and primitive money-forms and revealing how modern money itself takes on variegated expressions. In this post, I’ll look at a few of these accounts, starting with primitive money.

Karl Polanyi

The pivotal work of Karl Polanyi (1968) makes a clear and teleologically-oriented distinction between modern money and primitive money. Modern money is like a language with its own uniform grammar. It is a system that is applied consistently across all situations of exchange. It is all-purpose money. In contrast, primitive money is fragmented: it comes in an array of forms that each apply in specific situations, none of which are commensurable with the other. That is, different money-uses are institutionalized separately from one another.

Primitive money is not only about exchange. It is special-purpose money, defined by its specific uses. Aside from use for exchange, which was very rare in archaic societies, money is used for two other purposes: payment and hoarding. In archaic societies, debt is determined by non-economic factors, such as status, kinship, legal obligation. Money is used here to pay for one’s debts. Hoarding also relates to payment: accumulation is intended for use if one must pay. This includes staples or treasure. For Polanyi, the notion that money has always served as a means of exchange or as a standard of value is to elide the complex history — the “great transformation” — out of which money arose as we find it in the contemporary world.

Paul Bohannan

In guise of the same distinction with a focus on primitive money, Paul Bohannan (1955) examines three dimensions of Tiv ideas of exchange and investment: ideas of exchange expressed in language; traditional modes of exchange and investment; and the impact of Western economic elements brought into the local economic relations of the Tiv. First, Bohannan notes a distinction the Tiv make between “market” and “gift.” Gifts should not be calculated or haggled over because they have no explicit or precise exchange value. In contrast, markets are impersonal and demonstrate a dimension of exchange value.

Second, Bohannan notes three categories of exchangeable items. The first category consists of foodstuff including chickens, goats and cookware, which relates to subsistence. The second category includes slaves, cattle and metal bars, relating to prestige. The final category consists of rights in human beings, in particular rights over women (other elements like service and labor can be classified as generosity or obligation while land is not exchangeable). Bohannan demonstrates that these three categories constitute a moral hierarchy wherein subsistence ranks lowest and rights rank highest. Trade across the same category consists of conveyances, while trade between different categories comprises conversion. The object is to convert from lower to higher, and this endeavor sets the conditions for Tiv motivation. They seek to climb from subsistence to prestige and finally to marriage.

In the last part of his article, Bohannan examines how Western economic integration has disturbed the Tiv’s traditional mode of exchange and investment. There are basically two central problems Bohannan outlines that revolve around the introduction of Western money, as a mechanism that sets itself as the common denominator for all forms of exchange. First, some Tiv merchants aim to accumulate money (M-C-M) by purchasing a commodity and exporting it to another market to sell at a higher price. This makes it such that means of subsistence are being shipped away in order to accrue profit. Second, exchange marriage has been outlawed by Western colonial powers and has been replaced with the purchase of brides. The only motivational factor left therefore is the accumulation of money, which leaves even less foodstuffs for the locality. The Tiv basically sell their foodstuffs to get rich quick and get married, but as competition rises for wives, the availability of foodstuffs vanishes. Bohannan’s is an example of the outside forces of capital penetrating a local system and disturbing it, but he also demonstrates, in his illustrations of Tiv modes of exchange, the extent to which examining the stuff of exchange can elucidate important insights about the actions and motivations of a group of people.

George Dalton

George Dalton (1965) aims to create further distance between modern and primitive money by illustrating the ways in which the imposition of Western economic models when examining primitive money forms elides the latter’s complexities and distinctions and ultimately assumes that money, in all forms, has only one transhistorical expression: market exchange. He divides his articles into three parts: Western money and economy; primitive money and economy; and a case study of Rossel Island money.

First, the basic characteristic of Western economic models is that money serves a general purpose under which all forms of transaction are derived from market exchange in a fully integrated society. Money is the direct or indirect medium of all forms of exchange. Non-commercial exchanges, such as tax payments or gift-giving, are all fundamentally derived from the private market norm. We think that market integration is the only form of ‘money-ness.’ All other forms are not money and therefore irrelevant to economic analysis. Western money is anonymous, where exchange takes place between two faceless, status-less actors.

Second, in contrast to modern money, primitive money-stuff is not bundled into a unified economic framework. There can be multiple and coexisting economic systems distinct from one another. Dalton outlines three basic economies. First, marketless economies are marked by reciprocity and redistribution where land and labor are not for sale. These are subsistence economies. Second, peripheral market economies have markets, but the bulk of income does not come from market sales. Third, market-dominated (peasant) economies are similar to Western economies but they don’t have large-scale machine technology and retain traditional social organization.

Third, having outlined the distinction between modern and primitive economic systems, Dalton illustrates how approaching primitive economies with modern economic models in mind is problematic. To demonstrate his case, Dalton critiques Armstrong’s analysis of Rossel Island money. Armstrong is an economist who ethnocentrically superimposes a Western economic model onto the local economy. He claims that ndap shells can be counted like money and that they are part of a unified economic system. In fact, as Dalton shows, these shells are part of two separate systems, subsistence and prestige, that are both incommensurable with one another. Armstrong’s analysis is an example of how not to do anthropology: he has elided local distinctions and made it appear as though the Western money form was the only form to have ever existed. Dalton closes by pointing out that money has no essence but is rather defined by the ways in which it is used in relation to its specific economic system. The insights Dalton provides are interesting because, while he reifies a difference between primitive and modern money, he also establishes a wide array of uses of money and that similar objects may have incommensurably different uses. Both Bohannan and Dalton demonstrate variation in the use of money, even if observed in economies explicitly categorized as primitive.

Complicating the separation between primitive and modern money

Viviana Zelizer

Viviana Zelizer (1989) throws into question the basic assumption that capitalist money is a completely abstracted, singular form of exchange. She basically brings the anthropology of primitive money into the Western context to demonstrate that modern money is not only about market exchange but can be defined in multiple ways, with different uses and with different words. She calls her approach an alternative model of “special monies.” She divides her discussion into three section: modern money; special monies; and a case study of domestic money.

First, Zelizer examines Max Weber and Georg Simmel’s approaches, who she claims addressed money as a force that neutralizes the world and turns its qualitative traits into quantitative elements that can be traded in the market. Zelizer outlines five assumptions about modern money: 1) money is defined strictly in economic terms; 2) all monies are the same in modern society; 3) money is neutral; 4) money commodifies and corrupts; and 5) money has a unilateral relation in transforming the world. Presumably, money changes and shapes the world, but the world does not shape it. Zelizer intends to complicate this.

Zelizer aims to take Polanyi’s notion of “special purpose money” into the Western context. Anthropologists of money have examined primitive money but have not used those same analytical tools in the Western context, thereby establishing a distinction between modern money and primitive money. For Zelizer, modern money is only different in degrees and not in kind from primitive money. Zelizer challenges the utilitarian model of money with the following five counter-assumptions: 1) money does not only exist in the sphere of the market; 2) there is a plurality of qualitatively distinct monies, market money being only one among many; 3) a more inclusive model is needed to take these differences into account; 4) money can be a personal and unique object; and 5) money shapes society and is shaped by society.

Zelizer then discusses a case study to demonstrate the extent to which gender and class shape the meanings, uses, and names of money as these change over time. She demonstrates that family money was set apart from the market, that it was nonfungible. Her exploration of domestic money elucidates the limitations of the rationalized model of market economy. Zelizer’s overall aim is to challenge neoclassical economic theory by provincializing market money as one among many forms and expressions of money. Modern money is no longer the abstract all-powerful form it once was; it is indeed powerful, but it is also subject to the same varied uses as primitive money once was imagined to be. The primitive/modern distinction therefore no longer holds.

Bill Maurer

In his important review article on money, Bill Maurer (2006) aims to settle the notion that there are no distinctions between forms of money, Western or nonwestern. For Maurer, we can never really attain the representation of money, its true and fundamental essence, especially not a modern abstracted form. Whatever we claim to say is true about money is always a particular representation that cannot conform congruently to reality. So, approaching money as a “great equalizer” will always elide other ways in which money is used. Rather than aiming to claim the true nature of money, Maurer recommends we focus on its uses and pragmatics, which are always already bound to symbolic and social systems, to elucidate all the different ways in which money shapes and is shaped by the world.

The opening of Maurer’s article gives an overview of the anthropology of money. This subdiscipline has examined the particular uses of money in nonwestern contexts but not in Western contexts. It has also examined ways in which modern money is integrated into nonwestern contexts. The basic assumption is always the same: modern money is money that has undergone a “great transformation.” It is always approached as disembedded from the world and becomes a world shaping force. This approach reproduces an “us/them” distinction tied with a moral dimension against the ravages of modern money. According to the ethnographic record, modern money is integrated in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it fits well with a new context, sometimes it has little impact, if any. The point is modern money is not a “great equalizer;” it operates in all the same and distinct ways primitive money does. We can set aside Marx and the moral dimensions of modern money to look deeper into the manifold specificities of its pragmatics and uses.

The same could be said about calculation and numbers. With modern money, calculation does not become something disembedded from the world. It is not something that comes to exist in the idealic realm of “mind.” Cognitive operations are always part of context that involve all sorts of concerns and other ongoing activities. There is no such thing as pure calculation of the world.

The quantitative models of finance are also not disembedded from the world. They certainly do perform and enact reality in specific ways and have real consequences in the world, but they also have other effects not immediately related to markets. Models can also be felt affectively, they can be related to people’s personal biographies, for example. In this sense, there never was a “great transformation” to the fullest degree. Money always exceeds its representations through the surprising ways in which it is deployed. Maurer contends that we should thus “reorient the anthropology of money from meanings to repertoires, pragmatics, and indexicality” to consider “the gaps between representation and reality and sign and substance, and their “unresolved antagonisms’” (30).

Marcel Mauss

Finally, my discussion on the theme of money ends with Marcel Mauss’ (1967) The Gift. Mauss’ essay is brief but contains a rich account of geographically and historically distinct societies. I will not summarize the book in detail but rather point to several relevant themes it covers. Mauss begins by introducing the gift as a “total social phenomenon,” that is, the practice of prestation (lending or reciprocal exchange) is weaved into and makes up multiple elements of a society’s fabric (religious, legal, moral, economic). In this way, Mauss contends that the market is a human product such that morality and economy cannot be separated, a basic principle that is present in every society, across time and space. The findings in the book are therefore common and generalizable, distinct only in degrees but not in kind. To demonstrate this, Mauss conducts a comparative analysis of different societies — based on the literary review of an array of ethnographic sources. The central question in the book is: what is the principle of reciprocity? What force in the thing compels the recipient to make a return?

The answer Mauss offers is that gifts must be received and returned because they are things charged with magic, mana, hau, a spirit, a part of the giver, and in this sense, the gift is alive. They are the vehicles of mana and demand that they be returned to their original owner in some other form. In this sense, they hold sway over the recipient, who is bound to return the gift to the initial giver. One is also required to receive because circulation is the nature of things. Things are meant to be in motion, and in this way, they must also always be given.

This, for many I think, would come across as a dubious set of claims. For Claude Levi-Strauss (1987) for example, Mauss appeared to have been taken by the object of his own analysis, which would have clouded his ability to perceive the essential processes below that govern appearances. Mauss took the gift as a personification that had its own independent agency in the world, but the notion that it was a fetish, a reified thing only makes sense in a dualist framework of thought (hence Levi-Strauss’ structuralism). For Mauss, the gift is its own singularity while also being part of a totality. There is nothing that separates the gift from the whole, while there is nothing that separates reality from abstraction. Along parallel lines, Mauss contended that gifts presuppose the fundamental institutions of exchange in a given society while simultaneously realizing them. He also countered Malinowski’s distinction between primitive and modern currencies by advancing that both served similar functions and therefore could be classed under the same “genus” (94). But what I have found most compelling about Mauss’ essay is that he approached the gift as an entry point to gain insights into the lifeworlds of different societies. The gift is therefore an effective analytical method that can lead to novel horizons of thought.

Gifts, finance, money, basically anything that circulates between people, can be an entry point for insights into the lifeworlds of different groups and scales. The object of research is not a thing to be defined, but rather a practice to be observed. And if we allow ourselves to be taken by the object of our study as Mauss was accused of doing, we can then extend these insights into our own versions of reality.


Bohannan, Paul. 1955. “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment Among the Tiv.” American Anthropologist 57: 60–70.

Dalton, George. 1965. “Primitive Money.” American Anthropologist 67 (1): 44–65.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1987. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. Translated by Felicity Baker. London, UK: Routledge and Paul Kegan.

Maurer, Bill. 2006. “The Anthropology of Money.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 15–36.

Mauss, Marcel. 1967. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by Ian Cunnison. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Polanyi, Karl. 1968. “The Semantics of Money-Uses.” In Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi, edited by George Dalton, 175–203. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Zelizer, Viviana. 1989. “The Social Meaning of Money: ‘Special Monies.’” American Journal of Sociology 95 (2): 342–77.

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