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  Exchange (from Latin cambiare, ‘to barter’) is a fundamental concept in anthropology and sociology. It has been defined as a form of social interaction concerned with ‘returning the equivalence’, and the Exchange Theory claims that in their interactions with each other, individuals always attempt to seek to maximize their rewards. Exchange systems may include words and communication, goods and services, even spouses in marriage arrangements. They are fundamental for establishing and maintaining relationships. Two main strands can be identified: individualistic and collectivist exchange systems and theories.

The individualistic school is epitomized by the work of the sociologists G.C. Homans and P. Blau. The basic model is a two-person one. Social life is compared to economic life, and it is assumed that in social interaction, as in market transactions, there is an expectation that there will be an equivalent return on an investment. All partners in the exchange are expected to try and maximize their own rewards. (For example, Blau suggested that people only marry partners able to provide equal social assets.) Critics argue that this theory over-emphasizes the self-seeking elements of the personality, and point out that it is unable to go beyond the two-person model and explain such social features as domination or more generalized social values, and as such is only a partial theory of social life. Exchange theorists are also accused of focusing on trivia.

The collectivist model of exchange is associated with French anthropology and in particular with the ideas of Mauss and Lévi-Strauss. In his 1925 work on the gift, Mauss looked at exchange systems through the idea of ‘reciprocity’. This considered the way gift giving in different societies created, altered and maintained relationships between individuals and groups. Lévi-Strauss, developing this idea in terms of his structuralist theory, applied the principle of exchange to the circulation of women in marriage systems. He described two types of exchange prevalent in marriage arrangements: complex (as found in Western societies); and elementary (as found in non-Western societies). His aims were to show that exchange systems underlying social behaviour and thought in all societies were essentially the same for all things exchanged, whether words, goods or women. This was critical to his structuralist agenda which sought to demonstrate that all human beings experience phenomena in a fundamentally similar way.

Many have criticized Lévi-Strauss\'s chauvinistic bias in viewing women as objects of exchange rather than as persons. The universalism of structuralist models in attempting to explain all human behaviour has also been undermined. Structuralism is particularly inadequate in accounting for the use of exchange items for strategic or political gains. Transactionalism, which takes account of people maximizing and calculating in some of their social relationships provides a more useful methodology for these instances. Both structuralist and transactionalist angles have been integrated in a theory called ‘adaptive strategies’. This approach considers plans of actions made by a group of people to deal with internal or external constraints in society, but acknowledges that it need not always be consciously realized by all the persons.

Other, more economically-orientated, anthropological analyses have focused on the relationships and comparisons between market exchange and non-monetary exchange systems. Related to this is the topic of ‘spheres of exchange’: a concept that refers to the way certain exchange items are freely exchangeable within social and moral constraints. Spheres of exchange are more often a characteristic of non-monetary societies. For example, before the introduction of European goods and money in the 1950s, the Tiv society of southern Nigeria contained three spheres of exchange. One was to do with locally produced commodities, such as foodstuffs. The second was to do with prestige items like slaves, cattle, horses and brass rods. The third was the most prestigious and concerned rights in women and children: as evident in marriage arrangements.

There is also evidence for ‘spheres of exchange’ operating in modern societies that use money, commonly thought of as an all-purpose exchange item. For instance, services within a family or religious objects cannot be measured in monetary terms without upsetting moral values. The articulation of changes within ‘spheres of exchange’ is therefore an essential component in the consideration of exchange and moral systems in societies. DA RK

See also community; culture; economic anthropology; individualism; marriage; norms; rational choice theory; reciprocity; transactionalism; social integration; society; structure-agency debate; values.Further reading P. Blau, Exchange and Power in Social Life; , P. Ekeh, Social Exchange Theory: the Two Traditions; , G.C. Homans, Social Behaviour: its Elementary Forms; , M. Mauss, The Gift.



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