What compels people to exchange things? Why is it so difficult to refuse a gift? How is the gift different from a bribe or sacrifice? What goes into making an object a commodity? What does it mean to call an object “priceless”? What are the various ways in which a person can be indebted? Why can’t money buy you love? What is the difference between taxation and robbery? Why is cash both precious and “merely pieces of paper”?
This course is an intensive introduction to cross-cultural studies of exchange and value. It explores the role of material objects in social and subjective life and how their exchange shapes human relationships. We will study how persons and objects are valued through circulations of gift and commodities in diverse times and places – in societies without money and in societies with complex market systems, including our own. Combining classical and contemporary ethnographies, we will explore historically salient and enduring debates around the nature of valuables, their circulation, possession and mediums of exchange.