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The Agent in the Gift: Hidden Exchange in Inner New Guinea

Essay Excerpt

In this article, I use the specific case of the Atbalmin people to explore ethnographic and theoretical problems of a general kind. My aim is to challenge the assumption that exchange is an open matter and to inspire anthropologists to pay closer attention to hidden exchange.[2] In doing so, I hope to contribute to recent lines of inquiry and debate on exchange from a fresh perspective.

By attending to the difference between open and hidden exchange, one can better appreciate why it is misleading to view society as an ultimately harmonious order. But at the same time, it becomes more evident why exchange has been seen to serve such an end, not only by analysts but also by participants engaged in exchange. More importantly, attention to hidden exchange offers a new perspective on the relation between agency and society. In the following pages, I will explain why, for the Atbalmin, reciprocity is at once a compelling obligation and a profound dilemma. People find that reciprocating a gift to one friend means failing to reciprocate other friends. This situation poses problems for all members of the society, regardless of whether they are privileged or not. I will argue that, under such conditions, people's actions cannot be understood in terms of what is the "right" choice in terms of an encompassing social logic or calculation of individual interests. This provides me with grounds for making a theoretical critique of the tendency to subordinate agency to a larger social whole, a tendency that I will argue is not confined to Mauss but that extends to much of current social theory. I will also argue that attention to hidden exchange suggests ways of reformulating social theory in a manner that allows a more significant place for human agency. In the process, I also argue for a new perspective on contingency and misunderstanding in social process (499-500). 

Bercovitch, Eytan. "The Agent in the Gift: Hidden Exchange in Inner New Guinea." Cultural Anthropology 9.4(1994): 498–536.

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