Money (Anthropology)

To the anthropologist money is the means for effecting one particular ritual, payment.

Payment is the transfer, from one person (the ‘payer’) to another person (the ‘payee’) of an interest which is always expressed as a multiple of a recognized unit with its own name, or ‘denomination’. Money is the means which represents this interest and enables payments to be made. The ostensible result of a payment, so far as the money used to make it is concerned, is to put the payee in what, before the payment, was the position of the payer.

This definition makes it clear that money, to fulfil its function, must circulate indefinitely, which requires an extremely durable ‘money stuff. In principle, though not so often in practice, the actual quantity circulating at any one time is fixed, and given the demand for money by those wishing to perform the ritual – whatever its purposes may be – it should be in short supply. It is therefore a pre-eminent instance of Levi-Strauss’s (1969 [1949]: 32) ‘system of the scarce product’ which is described as ‘a model of extreme generality’. Suitable scarce products hardly occur in nature: cowrie shells, used as money in many different parts of the world, are about the only important case. Otherwise money, in the form of coins, tends to be made out of metal.

The ritual of payment is pervasive in almost any monetized society, but its meaning depends on the circumstances of every single performance. Western economics is founded on the assumption that the main monetary ritual is a particular form of exchange, known as ‘sale’, in which a sum of money, known as the ‘price’ is paid for some commodity. This particular use of money (as any other) gives rise to its own distinctive institutions, such as markets and longdistance trade, which have provided the material for many detailed studies such as Beals (1975). This topic describes a local autonomous market system of very long standing, which, while using ordinary Mexican money, is still largely independent of the national economy.

Long-standing market systems are but one example of a quite general phenomenon, to be found with almost every form of monetary exchange, which is the relationship between a cycle of short-term exchange, which is the legitimate domain of individual – often acquisitive – activity, and a cycle of long-term exchanges concerned with the reproduction of the social and cosmic order.

Furthermore, the two cycles are organically essential to each other. This is because their relationship forms the basis for a symbolic resolution of the problem posed by the fact that transcendental social and symbolic structures must both depend on, and negate, the transient individual.

Many illustrations of the interaction between short and long-term exchange are provided by ceremonial exchange, ‘a technical term for a type of reciprocity … in which every payment may be seen as a gift importing the obligation to make a return gift – often in the same coin – at some future time’ (Crump 1981: 42).

Among the ‘Are ‘Are of Malaita in the Solomon Islands, the nodal points of the primary system of distribution of money are to be found in the rites which consummate the funeral cycle of any individual and which establish, in numerical terms, rank among the ancestors. Individuals, while still alive, do their best to ensure the future ‘success’ of their funerals by participating, on the basis of an increasing scale of money gifts, in other funerals. The money so given is returned to the realm of short-term exchange by using it to pay for ‘the products of horticulture and husbandry which the grave-diggers bring to the feast’ (Coppet 1970: 780), but the unceasing long-term exchange, focused on the funerals, is seen by the ‘Are ‘Are as much more important. The fact that between funerals the money is returned to individual holders is quite secondary, for the dead are represented exclusively in terms of money, and this is its main purpose.

The ‘Are ‘Are funeral cycle and the Oaxaca market system illustrate the point that no general rule defines the sphere of payment. Although there is little systemic overlap between the ‘Are ‘Are and Oaxaca, the Kapauku of West New Guinea appear to have monetized almost every conceivable exchange transaction, not only in the field of economic but also in that of social relations (Pospisil 1963: 402), creating a sphere of payment of far wider range than that of a modern industrialized economy.

In the modern world banking provides the link between short- and long-term exchange. Specie, in the form of coin, is the traditional medium of short-term exchange: when deposited with a bank it is then converted into a negotiable credit, known as ‘scriptural’ money. Traditional societies are also able to transfer and give credit where circumstances require it: this is one way in which the considerable expenses of local religious offices are funded among the Indian tribes of the Chiapas highlands in Southern Mexico (Cancian 1965: 101).

In whatever form, for whatever purposes and in whatever circumstances it is used, the use of money gives rise to a particular worldview, which in turn defines the ways in which money itself is represented. But ‘what money means is not only situationally defined but also constantly renegotiated’ (Parry and Bloch 1989: 22). At the same time, the essential simplicity of the phenomenon of money means that ‘it will always tend to symbolize much the same sort of things’ (Parry and Bloch 1989: 19) regardless of any local cultural attributes.

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