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  • Gift exchange and the construction of identity

    John Liep

    Chapter from the book: Siikala, J. 2021. Culture and History in the Pacific.


    One of the most outstanding features of Pacific cultures is their elaborate systems of gift exchange. Through the giving of gifts and countergifts Pacific Islanders affirm friendship, contract alliances and assert or challenge social eminence. The exchange of culturally encoded objects constitutes an entire social and political discourse. This essay explores these aspects of gift exchange in some Pacific exchange systems. I am especially concerned with the circulation of graded valuables in what I call systems of ranked exchange. I argue that in such systems one valuable thing often stands for another as its image. As the association between persons and things as images is intimate this has consequences for our understanding of inalienability. In the critical part of the essay I place inalienability in the broader context of reciprocity. My query is especially with the implicit assumption of equivalence often embedded in this concept. I argue that the idea of equivalence in reciprocity results from a transposition of a commodity model into our understanding. Here the notion of equivalent exchange presupposes a contract between equal, independent individuals. The practices of Pacific exchange systems question this simple model of reciprocity and equivalence. They demonstrate that what takes place is rather the negotiation of the personal status and identity of the participants than the assessment of the equivalence of things.

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    How to cite this chapter
    Liep, J. 2021. Gift exchange and the construction of identity. In: Siikala, J (ed.), Culture and History in the Pacific. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.33134/HUP-12-11

    This chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution + Noncommercial 4.0 license. Copyright is retained by the author(s)

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    Published on Sept. 29, 2021


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