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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Exchange in the social structure of the Orokaiva Schwimmer, Erik Gabriel


Most ethnographers working in Melanesia, while following the traditional descent-based method of analysing social structure, have been keenly aware of the limited scope and range of corporate groups in that area, and, in contrast, the strong emphasis placed upon the principle of reciprocity. The present work is based on my ethnographic study of the Orokaiva, a tribe resident in the Northern District of Papua. I have made the theoretical assumption that reciprocity, or exchange, may be treated in this society as a structural principle on the same level as descent. I have developed a method of describing the culture which is consistent with that theoretical assumption. I have used, as my main analytical device, the concept of the 'exchange cycle’, a somewhat more elaborate version of what Barth and Belshaw have called a 'transaction'. An exchange cycle is an event sequence in which two partners engage in a social exchange which may simultaneously serve economic, political or religious ends. An exchange cycle contains three pairs of elements: (a) the partners who, for the purpose of exchange, are viewed as standing in a relation of complementary opposition; (b) the objects of exchange, which generally take the form of social benefits or social penalties, as in the theory of Homans and Blau; (c) objects of mediation, which are the prestations that are offered for the purpose of establishing or maintaining or restoring social exchange between the partners. The ethnography is divided into three parts. In the first part, after providing a brief summary of Orokaiva culture, I have examined the 'starting mechanisms' of Orokaiva exchange cycles, i.e. the myths on which the Orokaiva base their belief in the efficacy of objects of mediation. I have studied 'starting mechanisms', both in traditional institutions (chapter 3) and in institutions developed since the British-Australian conquest (chapter 4). The second part of the study is concerned chiefly with objects of mediation: land, taro, pigs, minor foods and ornaments (chapters 5 - 9). I have examined in detail their symbolic significance in the principal types of transactions and partnerships and the implications of the regular exchange cycles for social structure. The objects of mediation are the basic elements of the exchange system; symbolised as kin, they are simultaneously used for the making of economic, political and religious statements. The social patterns displayed by their transfer mirror the social structure at its deepest level. In the third part, we move from individual exchange networks mediated by gifts to the search for rules by which the movement of objects of mediation are constrained, and which are placed upon individuals in virtue of their membership of some corporate group. I have suggested that the key to Orokaiva social structure may be found in the alternation between restricted and complex generalised marriage exchange. I have shown that this alternation is actually determined by the form of the marriage rules themselves, (chapter 10). More generally, I argued that an exchange-oriented society such as the Orokaiva is marked by dramatic and often violent changes in social relationships as between positive and negative cycles of reciprocity. This is reflected in the marriage system and also in the present ambivalent relations between Orokaiva and Europeans while the rules of social exchange may also perhaps account for phenomena such as millennial movements. In the concluding chapter (11), I have discussed my theoretical debts. The principal debt is to Levi-Strauss and is obvious in my use of the concepts structure, exchange and reciprocity, as well as in my method of analysing symbolic phenomena. My approach .to the works of Pouwer, Malinowski, Homans, Blau and Barth is set out in some detail. If in 'intrinsic' exchange gifts are 'primarily valued as symbols', as Blau plausibly maintains, then the study of the underlying symbolic systems is a fundamental task.

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