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Is the Kula ring Stone Age feudalism? A note on Malinowski, Mauss and Polanyi

The Kula ring is one of the most celebrated and most discussed cases in anthropology. Bronislav Malinowski, one of anthropology’s founding fathers, wrote a path-breaking study on the Kula ring, the seminal Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). Marcel Mauss argued in The Gift (1925) that the Kula ring is an outstanding example of reciprocity within a ceremonial gift economy. Karl Polanyi repeated the claim in The Great Transformation:  

“We describe (the Kula ring) as trade though no profit is involved, either in money or in kind: no goods are … hoarded … (goods) received are enjoyed by giving them away, no truck, barter, or exchange enters … the proceedings are entirely regulated by etiquette and magic … (and are) exclusively run on the lines of reciprocity” (Polanyi, 1944: 50).

Polanyi could not have been more wrong. The Kula ring is much more and, especially, much else than ceremonial exchange and reciprocity. This is what this article seeks to explain. Those interested in the many intricate characteristics of the Kula ring can consult Godelier, 1999 or Weiner, 1992.

The Kula ring

The Kula ring comprises eighteen islands of the Massim Archipelago of Papua New Guinea. Two imaginary circles connect the islands and make up the Kula. The ring served basic economic functions, as fish was traded for fruit and yam for taro. It also provided mutual help in times of crisis. Archaeological findings show that exchange and trade between the Melanesian islanders go back as far as 5.000 BC.

The right to participate in the Kula exchange was not automatic. One had to ‘buy’ one’s way into it through taking part in various lower spheres of exchange. Participation in the ring is initiated by giving an opening gift. Participants do not give opening gifts (bracelets or necklaces) in order to receive closing gifts. Instead, opening gifts are given in order to give more opening gifts. Partakers strive to obtain particularly valuable and renowned Kula objects. Possessing them increases status and authority. The competition unfolds through a process in which gifts are donated to authority figures with the intention to create a reciprocal gift-exchange relationship. As Malinowski already wrote, in these exchanges of gifts and counter-gifts, the underlying reciprocity becomes negative: parties give in order to gain.

The Kula was governed by many rules and customs. For the initial gift of a bracelet, a necklace had to be given in turn. If a bracelet, as an opening gift, travelled clock-wise throughout the archipelago, a necklace, as a closing gift, had to travel counter clock-wise throughout the islands. The exchange was triadic for highly valued objects (from A to B to C) and dyadic for others (from A to B to C to D). Ornaments ultimately had to be returned to the original giver, exemplifying Annette Weiner’s paradox of keeping while giving (see also Godelier, 1999).

Malinowski analysed the ring as establishing strong, life-long relationships between parties, although he and other anthropologists (for example Fortune) mention that relations often broke down because of lying and deceit (1). Trading partnerships involved strong mutual obligations, such as hospitality and assistance. The valuables that circulated in the main (ceremonial) circuit of the Kula never remained in the hands of one individual for long. They had to be passed on to others within a certain period of time.

According to Malinowski, the ring established friendly relations between the inhabitants of different islands and preserved patterns of peaceful contact and communication with trading partners who might, or might not, speak the same language. It provided a means for inter-island exchange or trade of goods. He was in no doubt that the exchanges reproduced social stratification and that the Kula was connected to political power.

Trobiand society was very far from being egalitarian (Fortune wrote the same about nearby Dobu). The nobility or hereditary chiefs owned the most valuable shell objects. Amongst the Muyuw, the inhabitants of Woodlark Island, three men accounted for over 50 percent of Kula valuables. The ten most influential men controlled about 90 percent of all valuables and almost 100 percent of the most precious ones. It was the prerogative of the clan leaders to set up the famous voyages which led Malinowski to ask “why men (would) risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets” (Malinowski, 1922: vii). Why, indeed?

Ultimate returns

It is the American anthropologist Frederick Damon who cracked the Kula enigma. Damon did fieldwork on Woodlark Island. He documented that, apart from the hereditary chiefs, most Trobiand men acquired valuables as the ultimate return for their work. Noble women, on the other hand, owned much of the land. Compensation for labour consisted of a certain part of the fruits of the labour – some of the harvest, some of the catch. It seems, however, that the Trobiand workers considered their compensation as insufficient, or, rather, as incomplete. The introduction of colonialism and a market society on the island around the turn of the 20th Century brought their dissatisfaction to the surface. Damon explains: 

“In a not so curious way the concept of ‘kitoum’ (ceremonial high-level valuables) enjoins the contradictions between Muyuw and the colonial system. When Neate’s employees quit his lumber-mill they often feel cheated because they did not receive something tantamount to a kitoum. Here they are not discounting their wages, only indicating that their wages are only designed, in their view, to sustain them, not pay them for what they have given the Neates” (Damon, 1983: 342) (2).

To Polanyi, the Kula ring is an exemplary example of the distinction between gift and commodity exchange. Melanesians carefully distinguish gift exchange (kula) from market exchange in the form of barter (gimwali). Both reflect different underlying value systems and cultural customs. The kula involves a solemn exchange ceremony, a “display of greatness” (Mauss) wherein the concepts of honour and nobility are central. Exchange, on the other hand, involves hard bargaining for economic purposes.

Damon radically disagrees. It may be realised, he writes, that what is circulating in the Kula ring is, rather explicitly, congealed labour, which is to say, wealth of a socially determined and socially produced form. The ‘gifts’ indeed resemble nothing so much as capital in the sense that their function is to make, gain or commodify something else. Both the production and the circulation of valuables are based on fundamentally asymmetrical relationships. He concludes:   

“Although certain aspects of the Kula may be comprehended in terms of generalised … exchange … exchange does not account for the Kula’s dynamics. ‘Ownership’ derived from the sphere of production, not ‘reciprocity’, accounts for the Kula’s dynamics” (Damon, 1980: 269).

One further reason why the Kula ring so difficult to analyse lies in the existence of geographical differences. In the more hierarchical parts of the archipelago, only chiefs were allowed to engage in Kula exchange. Interestingly, in these areas individuals could earn ornaments, while in the less hierarchical regions, they were subject to claims of matrilineal kin. In the hierarchical areas, bracelets and necklaces were used for external exchange only. In less hierarchical areas, exchange partners could lose their valuables to internal claims. As a result, over time chiefs became even more succesful in Kula exchange. The chiefs saved their Kula valuables for external trade. External traders traded with them before they lost their valuables to internal claims.


To summarise, participation in the Kula ring led to status, political power and the right, or opportunity, to marry noble women. Land, to a large degree, was based on matrilineal kin. The goods that were being exchanged in the Kula were indeed “worthless trinkets” but their possession exemplified real wealth and clan leadership. It is rather incomprehensible what has any of this got to do with a gift economy.  

It is true that the Kula was not a closed system: participation in the lower spheres of exchange led to acceptance of individuals into the main ceremonial ring, although the Kula mechanism seemed to steadily increase the concentration of kitoum in the hands of a select few. It is uncertain whether the system was engineered in this way or whether it was the outcome of a process. Stringing it together, one wonders why no ‘We are the 99%’ – movement originated on the islands (although see below).  

Malinowski emphasised the exchange of goods between individuals and their non-altruistic motives for giving: they expected a return of equal or greater value. Mauss disagreed, arguing that gifts were not exchanged between individuals, but between representatives of collectivities. The gifts were, he argued, a “total prestation” and not a gift in our sense of the word. They were, in reality, inalienable commodities that could not be bought or sold, as they embodied the reputation, history and sense of identity of a kin group, such as a line of kings. Why then would anyone give them away? Mauss answered that the failure to return a gift would end the relationship and the promise of any future gifts.

In Annette Weiner’s words, the gifts were inalienable possessions. Weiner contrasts ’moveable goods,’ which can be exchanged, with ’immoveable goods,’ that serve to draw the gifts back (in the Trobriand case, male Kula gifts with women’s landed property). The goods given were so intimately identified with particular groups, that even when given, they were not truly alienated. But according to Damon, the inalienable possessions were part and parcel of a process of plain and crude accumulation. They functioned as capital: they increased the wealth of the nobility and reinforced their political power.

According to Wikipedia, Albert Schrauwers (no further information can be found on him) argued that systems such as the Kula ring, the potlatch of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and the Toraja of South Sulawesi are all characterised by ranked aristocratic kin groups that fit with Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ model of House Societies – they are all based on noble lineage and their landed estate. Malinowski already linked the exchange of ornaments across the Trobiand Islands to political power. According to Schrauwers, ”total prestations” were given in order to preserve landed estates identified with particular kin groups and maintain their place in a ranked society. This is further proof that, in reality, the Kula was Stone Age feudalism.

This answers the question of “why men (would) risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets”. And what about the voyages? They were contact and trade, they developed ties and they were mutual help in times of crisis. And they were also imperialist ventures, aiming for domination.

More powerful than gods

Alfred Gell famously wrote that ”the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology” (Gell, 1998: 6). Different forms of technical artistical virtuosity create vivid responses – love, hate, desire, fear. The physical existence of artworks prompts viewers to perform an abduction (‘something is likely this or that’) that imbues the artwork with intentionality in the eye of the collective beholder.

A statue of a goddess, for example, in some senses actually becomes the goddess in the collective understanding. It represents not only the form of the deity but also her intentions, which are adduced from the feeling of her very presence. In this way, Gell argued, art possesses the kind of agency that grows into cultural myths and inspires shared understandings within societies.

This, Gell wrote, held for the Trobiand’s boats. The large, but lightweight and therefore highly manoeuvrable canoes and catamarans were decorated with intricate carvings and shells and painted in many colours. Why all these efforts to decorate a boat? Gell believed that the boats were designed to create fear and stupefaction when they showed up at the shores of the islands. The vessels were much more than just symbols of status, displaying power and abundance. They were – there is no other word for it – a weapon all in their own right. But how could a boat become a weapon, just because it has been intricately decorated?

To answer this, Gell went on to produce a fascinating argument: the boats were construed so that they resembled, as much as humanly possible, the mythological ships of the original Melanesian gods. According to Trobiand cosmology, the re-appearance of these deities at the shores of the islands would constitute a potentially cataclysmic event. Gell, however, speculated that, in reality, something potentially even more frightening was occurring. No islander had ever seen any of the imaginary ships. The makers of the real vessels, however, acquired magical powers in the mental world of the islanders because of their outstanding technical ability of producing artful and cunningly realistic artefacts. The real boats became more frightening than the imaginary ones, precisely because they were so cunningly alike. The vessels were cosmology in action. This is what turned them into an instrument of domination. Gell wrote: 

“If we consider that the magical attitude is a by-product of uncertainty, we are thereby committed also to the proposition that the magical attitude is a by-product of the rational pursuit of technical objectives using technical means” (Gell, 1998: 57).

One is, of course, free to think about this whatever one wants, but those who disagree with Gell’s analysis or doubt its relevance now have the obligation to provide a better explanation of why the islanders spent inordinate amounts of time of decorating their boats and weaponry (3). If it was not done in order to induce fear and establish domination, what was it done for?  

More conclusions

Neither trade nor exchange or gifts can be divorced from the struggle for status and symbolic power which accompanies political power and the exploitation and submission of labour. It is inconceivable that the mechanisms that distribute authority, status and legitimacy have no bearing on the system that produces and distributes wealth. No such society ever existed.

It took a long time for this to become clear. The Kula ring is a very complex system. Some of the Trobiand’s customs and beliefs are very far removed from western rationality. Given natural abundance, producing foodstuffs was relatively unproblematic and work was being alternated with long ritual feasts. The level of social stratification remained low and it was not rigid, but it did exist.

In his ‘institutional analysis’ and his theory of modes of economic integration, Polanyi attempted to negate or minimise the relevancy of notions like scarcity, value and goal-oriented action in traditional societies. In doing so, he did us a great disservice. An enormous amount of ink has been dedicated to these problems (4). While it can be argued that scarcity, in his modern meaning (of mimetic eagerness) was absent before modernity (see, for example, Sahlins, Girard and Achterhuis), it is impossible to argue that strategic actions do not explain social behaviour in traditional societies (5). The reverse is true: all societies have always been organised around a series of practices to minimise scarcity.

Polanyi’s great divide – ‘the great transformation’ – is almost farcically simplistic and ignores enormous amounts of data. On the side of tradition, everything is enchanted and magical. Communities are held together by sharing, gifting, generalised trust, customs, etiquette, magic, altruism and human greatness. Modernity, on the other hand, is a dystopia of iron cages: disenchanted, hyper-rationalised technotopes, capitalist superstructures, autopoietic bureaucracies and, essentially, powerless communities. Nothing is or has ever been that simple. 


(1) As well as bullying. Cf. ‘The giver often stands above and shouts down to the recipient. The latter remains silent, often looking away … The giver of the return gift, the closing gift, if he does not have another opening gift to give, is not in a position to mark his superiority over the receiver. Furthermore, although bad etiquette, the person who gave the first gift can take its return without it being formally offered” (Damon, 1980: 273) –  a far cry from Polanyi’s ‘etiquette’ indeed.

(2) This is actually an incredibly important point, but it has never been developed and now it is too late: the Kula ring no longer exists. Instead of people writing highly abstract treatises in Paris (Mauss) and London (Polanyi), a mountain of empirical work was necessary. What was it that the islanders gave to the Neates without receiving adequate compensation in return? What exactly did they want? How was the situation before the colonial era? It is not difficult to see that the complaint made by Neate’s employees embodies the collision between two very different types of societies, one which produces mainly use value (though part of it is being expropriated) and one which functions on the basis of abstract labour. But these are only typologies. Many social theorists have developed sharp distinctions between non-capitalist and capitalist societies, as if there are no overlaps. The validity of these distinctions depends on the degree of capitalist penetration into the social world as well as on the characteristics of the system that preceded it. These are empirical questions. Nicos Poulantzas, for example, argued that it was possible to find areas in France which were not dominantly capitalist well into the 1920s. Marx argued in the Grundrisse that the category of abstract labour “expresses an ancient relation existing in all social formations,” adding that only in capitalist societies did labour become an interchangeable, tradable good, an “input” with a known price tag and was also practically treated as such. It is a matter of nature and degree (see also Postone, 1978).

(3) Years ago, I asked Damon (who had been living on Woodlark island) about his views on the ships. He answered that, ‘without doubt, the boats were designed to impress’ and that they were indeed impressive technological creations: ‘I would suggest “wonder” and “appreciation” rather than “fear” and both of these can lead to “seduction”, which is also what the Kula is about’ (Damon, personal communication).

(4) See Isaacs’s review of Sievers’s Has Market Capitalism Collapsed. A Critique of Karl Polanyi’s New Economics. Isaacs writes: ‘Dr. Sievers does not make any mention of who Dr. Polanyi is or why a book of 305 pages deserves a commentary of 387 pages’, adding that the conclusion is ‘ … repetitious to those who read (it)’ (Isaacs, 1950: 161). Those were the days.

(5) Of course, scarcity always existed, but, until the 19th Century, the concept never signified a general condition of humankind and it never meant a relationship between limited means and unlimited averice. Traditionally, scarcity always referred to exceptional circumstances – crises, catastrophes, famines, wars. 

References not hyperlinked in the text

Damon, F.H., 1980. ‘The Kula and Generalised Exchange: Considering Some Unconsidered Aspects of the Elementary Structures of Kinship’, Man, 15, 267–92.

Damon, F. H., 1983, ‘What Moves the Kula: Opening and Closing Gifts on Woodlark Island’, in J.R. Leach and E.R. Leach (eds), The Kula: New Perspectives On Massim Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 309-342.

Gell, Afred (1998), Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory, Clarendon, Oxford.

Godelier, M. (1999), The Enigma of the Gift, UP Chicago Press Books. 

Weiner, A.B. (1992), Inalienable Possessions. The Paradox of Keeping While Giving, California UP, Berkeley.

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