Reciprocity & Exchange: The Kula Ring

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Exercise ID: 1.37
Class size: Any
Level(s): I II III
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Single subject specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: Exchange, Reciprocity
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: Oceania
Culture selection: Student chooses from entire collection
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable: Trobriands

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? No
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Francine Barone, Human Relations Area Files at Yale University

Dr. Francine Barone |
Human Relations Area Files at Yale University

Broadly speaking, economic anthropology is concerned with the ways in which humans “make a living” in different societies or cultures. All societies in the world – industrialized or non-industrialized – have some kind of economic system. By focusing on the circulation of material objects in both market and non-market economies, economic anthropologists are able to address questions such as: why are some people farmers or shopkeepers, while others are stockbrokers or bankers? What items have “value” and how is that worth determined? Do concepts like altruism or self-interest exist in all societies? Tracing the meaning of objects through their production, distribution, exchange, and consumption enables economic anthropologists to evaluate how people make decisions and build interpersonal relationships through transactions.

In this activity, you will:

  • Learn about three modes of reciprocity
  • Explore gift exchange among Trobriand Islanders
  • Conduct research in eHRAF World Cultures
  • Interpret and evaluate ethnographic data

Reciprocity and Exchange

In Stone Age Economics (1972), anthropologist Marshall Sahlins identified three modes of reciprocity:

  1. Generalized Reciprocity
  2. Balanced Reciprocity
  3. Negative Reciprocity

Generalized Reciprocity

Generalized reciprocity refers to a type of exchange of goods and/or services where the giver and the recipient do not keep an exact ledger of value or stipulate the amount or duration of return. It is expected that the exchange will balance itself over time. Examples of this include kinship, friendship and close neighborly relationships where tokens, hospitality, or other helpful actions are exchanged back and forth over time when desired or necessary. For example, you may buy a coffee for a friend one day, with the expectation that at some point in the future, they will do the same for you. Or, perhaps instead they decide to buy you dinner or help you move in to your new home. These small tokens are indicators that you wish to have a prolonged relationship and are not systematically tallied. Similarly, sharing a tray of freshly baked cookies in a communal area at school or work for anyone to enjoy would constitute this type of reciprocity, as would a hunter-gatherer sharing their meat with the entire camp.

A “pure gift”, to quote anthropologist Malinowski, would be one where the giver expects nothing in return and to request it would be considered socially unacceptable; for example, charitable donations.

Balanced Reciprocity

Balanced reciprocity obligates the recipient to return, within a specific time limit, items understood to be of equal value. When we expect that we will receive a gift of equal value from someone that we have given a gift to, that is an example of balanced reciprocity. To illustrate, if you purchased a carefully selected Christmas present for a friend, but received nothing or an object of much lesser value in return, this would likely result in hurt feelings. Additional examples of balanced reciprocity include trading goods at “swap meets”, working as a crew member to cover the cost of ones passage on a ship, or when a group of parents take turns carpooling the kids to school.

The difference between balanced reciprocity in non-market vs. market economies – i.e. using currency instead of bartering with goods or services – comes largely down to intent rather than the medium of exchange. In other words, in market economies, regular shopping transactions like buying clothes result in a material profit for the seller, and the relationship between buyer and seller is short-lived. Conversely, balanced reciprocity in non-market (gift) economies is about exchanging goods or services of an equal value to reinforce or solidify social bonds.

Negative Reciprocity

Negative reciprocity refers to exchanges where one party attempts to act entirely in their own self-interest in pursuit of material advantage or profit. If generalized reciprocity tips the balance in favor of selfless giving without expectation of immediate receipt, then negative reciprocity does the opposite. It is an attempt to “get something for nothing”, or to obtain something of greater value than you are willing to give in return. Sahlins refers to this as the “unsociable extreme”, because it is a type of exchange mostly conducted between strangers rather than friends or kin. Instances of this include barter, haggling, stealing, looting, raiding, or price-gouging. One example would be a banker who promises to invest your money, but steals it instead. A more innocuous example might be a student helping their teacher in the classroom in the hope of receiving a better grade.

Case study: The Kula Ring

Kula Ring

Part 1: Trobriand Islanders

The Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia make a distinction between the practices of ceremonial gift exchange and bartering for commodities. Anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski famously detailed these two types of exchange in Trobriand society. In this activity, you will compare and contrast two Trobriand practices of reciprocity.

Begin by learning more about the Trobriand Islanders (OL06). First, read the eHRAF Culture Summary. Then, write a brief description of the Trobriands indicating any significant cultural elements that stand out to you.

Part 2: Kula vs. Gimwali

Read the following selected passages from Malinowski’s ethnography, Argonauts of the Western Pacificin eHRAF World Cultures. Then, answer the questions about the different types of exchange.

  • For Kula, read pages: 81, 85-89, 93, 95-96
  • For Gimwali, read pages: 95, 98, 361-363

Optional: If you need more information to answer the questions, or if you would like to dig deeper into this topic, you may conduct an advanced search in eHRAF World Cultures to read sources by other authors in addition to the assigned reading from Malinowski.

A sample search appears below:

Trobriands Kula Gimwali Search



Read about kula, then describe the Kula Ring.

  • Who takes part in kula?
  • What are the “rules” of the exchange?
  • What type of reciprocity does kula represent?
  • What items are exchanged and what type of value/significance do they have?
  • Do Trobriand men materially profit from their kula exchanges?
  • What other important functions does the Kula Ring serve in Trobriand society?


Read the passages provided, then describe gimwali.

  • Who takes part in gimwali?
  • How and when is it practiced?
  • What types of things are exchanged, and what value do they have?
  • What type of reciprocity does gimwali represent?
  • How does it compare to kula?

Part 3: Gender, culture, and exchange

Societies are continually changing. Sometimes, ethnographers studying in the same location at different times can shed light on aspects of a culture that have changed or might have been overlooked by previous researchers.

Read the following passages from anthropologist Annette Weiner.

Document: Weiner, Annette B. 1976. Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange.


  • 12 & 14, on the overlooked role of Trobriand women
  • 230-233, on the socioeconomic power of Trobriand women vs. men

Document: Weiner, Annette B. 1988. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea.


  • “An Extraordinary Discovery”, on pages 27-30; and pages 136-138, on women’s wealth and matrilineal identity.


  • What does Weiner’s analysis add to Malinowski’s previous description of economic exchange in Trobriand society?
  • What roles does gender play in Trobriand economic life?
  • Why might this have been overlooked by previous ethnographers?


Part 4: Find additional examples

Conduct your own advanced search in eHRAF World Cultures to find at least one example of each type of reciprocity from different cultures around the world. Then:

  • Create a table like the one below.
  • Copy and paste the paragraph(s) from eHRAF illustrating your examples from each culture into the Ethnographic Data column.
  • Remember to cite the author’s name, date, and page for each reference.
  • Describe why you believe the type of exchange is generalized, balanced, or negative reciprocity in the Analysis column.
Type of Reciprocity Culture name (OWC) Ethnographic Data Citation Analysis



  • Is reciprocity a human universal?
  • How does purchasing an object with money differ from trading or gift-giving?
  • Can you think of examples of generalized, balanced, or negative reciprocity in your everyday life?
  • How does the closeness of one’s relationship to others (e.g. family, friends, acquaintances, or strangers) affect the types of reciprocity that they are willing to engage in?


Malinowski, B. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.

Sahlins, M. 1972. Stone Age Economics. London: Routledge

Weiner, A. 1976. Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.

Weiner, A. 1988. “The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea.” In Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology, xx, 184. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Weiner, A. and J. Beierle. 1995. “Culture Summary: Trobriands”. New Haven, Conn.: HRAF.