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Marshall Sahlins views on Economic Anthropology

Marshall Sahlins have shown that both western type of economic activity and primitive exchange occur in so called primitive societies. He offers a spectrum of reciprocities which ranges from the gratuitous gift on the one hand to exploitative relations on the other. He defines this spectrum by discussing these extremes and the mid-point between them. Reciprocity should be described as concealed, reciprocity that is explicit or balanced and negative reciprocity.

Concealed reciprocity is perfectly exemplified by our own idea of the gift and by the daily sharing of food in the household by hospitality as well as by a variety of other actions in which the obligation to return is diffuse and unspecified both as to the time within which the return is made and as to the amount that is returned.

Sahlins states that the material side of the transaction is repressed by the social; reckoning of debts outstanding cannot be overt and is typically left out of account. This is not to say that the handing over of things in such form even to loved ones generates no counter obligation. But the counter is not stipulated by time, quantity or quality. The expectation of reciprocity is indefinite. It usually works out that the time and worth of reciprocation are not alone conditioned on what was given by the donor but also upon what he will need and when and like wise what the recipient can afford and when. Receiving goods lays on a diffuse obligation to reciprocate when necessary to the donor and or possible for the recipient.

Sahlins defines his negative reciprocity as the most impersonal sort of exchange. In guises such as barter it is from our point of view the most economic. The participants confront each other as opposed interests each looking to maximize utility at the other's expense. Approaching the transaction with an eye singular to the main chance the aim of the opening party or both parties is the unearned increment. One of the most sociable forms leaning towards balance is haggling conducted in the spirit of what the traffic will bear. From this negative reciprocity ranges through various degrees of cunning, guile steath and violence to the finesse of a well conducted horse raid.

Sahlins tests the value of his typology by exploring the possibility that different kinds of social circumstance encourage one or other kind of reciprocity. He offers that the span of social distance between those who exchange conditions the mode of the exchange. Social distance is quite different from physical distance and is measured by social values and interests and by the degree and complexity of social interactions.

Sahlins examines his spectrum if reciprocity in relation to a particular kind of social distance -kinship distance and he sets out to demonstrate that concealed or diffuse reciprocity is associated with kinship proximity and that negative reciprocity becomes increasingly likely as kinship distance increases to a point where there is an encounter with non-kin.