Exchange and inequality, time and personhood: comments on A Papuan Plutocracy: ranked exchange on Rossel Island

Otto, Ton (2009) Exchange and inequality, time and personhood: comments on A Papuan Plutocracy: ranked exchange on Rossel Island. Suomen Antropologi, 34 (4). pp. 91-99.

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This is a book that captures the reader’s attention from the start, not only because of its beautiful lay-out and illustrations and the exotic phenomena that it describes, but also thanks to the author’s academic assiduousness that transpires through its pages. It is the culmination of more than 35 years of dedicated study of a curious and complex system of monetary exchange that exists on Rossel Island, an eastern outlier of the Louisiade Archipelago, far to the east of the mainland of Papua New Guinea. In Part I ‘The Setting’, the book provides an overall ethnography of the Island, which forms the background for its focus on ranked exchange in Part II. Rossel Islanders have developed a system of monetary exchange which is unique in the world because of its complexity. Two distinct shell currencies (ndap and kê) each comprise as many as twenty ranked categories of shells that play different roles in various exchange practices. It is a prime achievement of this book to describe these practices in detail and to develop an original set of theoretical concepts to be able to do this. Thus the shells can variously be used to make a deposit, provide a security, constitute a replacement, solicit a gift, offer a pledge, or return a (reduced) substitution (see p. 298 ff.). Ranked exchange is of course not limited to Rossel Island, but the unique complexity of the Rossel system derives from the combination of three features: the extraordinary number of categories in the rank order; the feature of ‘licensing’, which involves the use of inalienable shells in initiating exchanges (making a deposit that is later returned); and the mobilisation of high-ranking shells as pledges along a chain of serial incremental transfers. I find John Liep’s description of ranked exchange on Rossel an impressive ethnographic and analytic achievement and believe that it will be a touchstone for future work on monetary exchange.

Item ID: 9274
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 0355-3930
Keywords: exchange; social inequality; time and value; personhood; Melanesia
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Date Deposited: 14 May 2010 01:24
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 100%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 100%
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