Trade with people, not with things

In the lecture on economics and exchange, as well as chapter 8 of The Dobe Ju/’hoansi by Richard Lee, we were introduced to the Ju/’hoan system of gift exchange – Hxaro. The Hxaro exchange is an example of exchange in cultural context whereby it is not just a system which facilitates the circulation of goods but also lubricates social relations and maintains ecological balance. As noted by Lee, the Hxaro exchange is a delayed form of non-equivalent gift exchange. These characteristics of the Hxaro exchange ensure that one party will always be indebted to the other at one point of time or another due to the delayed reciprocity of gift. And it is this ongoing sense of indebtedness which allows the exchange to be perpetuated and social ties are established, continued and maintained. In this exchange system, the value is not in the items which are exchanged but in the social relationships which are forged.


By forming such social relations, it helps distribute risk. This is illustrated by the exchange exercise which was conducted in lecture. As the ‘tsunami’ hit some members of our group, those affected could seek out those who had either gained something from their prior exchange or made an equal exchange for help. In this sense, the social ties forged and maintained through this exchange system become a resource in times of crisis. Those affected can seek help from others whom they have a relationship with and thus in essence, risk is reduced for the individual as is distributed among the group.


As so aptly phrased by !Xoma, a leader of one of the Bate camps, “we do not trade with things, we trade with people.” Here lies the difference between such an exchange system and market exchange. In market exchange, we exchange things which are of equal value and the exchange is instantaneous. For instance, we can look at buying a cup of Milo at The Deck. We are exchanging money for goods and services, whereby we would pay the value that has been ascribed to the drink by the stall owner in exchange for it. In such a situation, any form of interaction we do have ends immediately following the transaction. There is no sense of indebtedness created and no social relations are established.


When asked what kind of exchange do we engage in, the first answer that comes to mind is market exchange. Undoubtedly, this can be explained by the frequency in which market exchange occurs in our daily life. On a daily basis, we engaged in market exchange through the act of buying of meals and shopping for groceries. However, this is not to say that we do not have similar exchange practices that are similar to that of the Ju/’hoansi. For instance, there is the gift exchange during birthdays and Christmas and also the giving of red packets during Chinese New Year. All these examples share the characteristics of Hxaro exchange whereby it is delayed and not of equal value. In the case of birthday gift exchange, it is delayed as more often than not, our birthdays do not coincide with our friends. Symbolically, the gift also should not have a value placed on it. As discussed in tutorial, the simple act of removing the price tag has the notion of stripping the monetary value off the gift. The value of the gift here is seen secondary to the act of giving a gift. The act of giving the gift is what is important as it symbolises an attempt at continuing and maintaining one’s relationship with his or her friend. This exemplifies the notion of the value not being in the things exchanged but in the social relationships that are cultivated through this act.


Although market exchange is seemingly more prevalent in our society, the act of trading with people is not exclusive to the Ju/’hoansi. There are instances where we do trade with people as well. And in such instances, the things which are exchanged are indeed of secondary importance to the social relations that are being maintained. The fact that we do carry out such exchanges shows that social relations are not just important for the Ju/’hoansi, but are important to us as well. Our friends can provide us with valuable advises and support us when we need them. Hence, in spite of the varying frequencies which such exchange and market exchange are practiced, we do trade with things as well as people.

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