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Monday, August 8, 2011

Monday Ground Up: Profit motive, Exchanges, and Kapauku society

Kapauku society is heavily influenced by a singular need for power and recognition. A sense of individualism which ultimately sets each member, mostly the males, of Kapauku society apart. Leopold Posposil, the leading authority on the Kapauku, labels their economy as “primitive capitalism,” characterized by the pursuit of wealth in the form of cowrie shell money, status distinctions based on such wealth, and an ethic of individualism [1]. Kapauku economy rests on the use of money. Cowrie shells and two types of necklaces are used both as money for purchase and exchange and as a measure of value and worth [2].

Profit motive must understood as meaning much more that simply the desire to maximize monetary gain in transactions if it is to be a valid principle.

When confronted with choices and decisions, people tend to make the one that maximizes personal profit. This is a European concept or idea held by contemporary economists, but such cases are not the same in all societies, especially nonwestern cultures. Someone’s “profit motive” may not always stem from monetary gain. Whether the goal is to concrete social relations, marriage, gain prestige or allies, the use of money may not always be a consideration. The context of the “profit motive” must be understood so not to overuse the term so loosely.

Jessica Hurbon notes, “The accumulation of monetary wealth doesn’t drive all economies in all cultures. It helps to understand each culture’s definition of “profit” (how one will benefit from a transaction) to understand their motives for transactions.”

In the case of the Kapauku, one example of “profit motive” is between the missionary church and themselves. The church will run out of supplies in which to trade with the Kapauku, therefore no goods=no exchange=no maintained social relations. Subsequently, game animals are deemed valuable to the Kapauku, and when caught, become the property of the individual trapper because of the access granted by the lineage ownership. All of these examples suggest the desire for “Individualism”. The Kapauku aspire to satisfy a singular need for power and recognition. Although wealth is found via pigs, lands, and water rights, the ownership of these assets strokes the ego for them personally, and demonstrates their prominence in society.

What motives do people have besides economic profit when they make exchanges with each other?

If we consider nonwestern cultures, social relations almost always outweigh economic profits. Individuals may try to maximize things like prestige, pleasure, comfort, or social harmony. Furthermore, a hunter and a farmer might exchange wild game for a bag of wheat, or immigrants working at plant nurseries may trade labor for food and lodging.

Bands and tribes will use generalized reciprocity as an expression of personal relationships. Balanced reciprocity usually occurs between people who are more distantly related, usually exchanging some type of horticultural crop. On the flip side, negative reciprocity can be used as a form of manipulation, especially when one of the parties in the exchange attempts to get an item for as cheap as possible. Is manipulation the motive? In the case of negative reciprocity, it appears that it allows someone who’s already stingy, who has the means to exchange, to undermine an individual from another tribe or society.

The importance of the tonowi in Kapauku society

A tonowi acts as a representative of his own group in their dealings with outsiders and other villages. Within his group he negotiates settlements and judges blame in disputes. Although a man may be wealthy, he won’t always assume the role of the big man, especially if the man holds on to that wealth without distributing it to everyone else. Of course, if he remains stingy with his fellow tribesmen, frequently he is “put to death” or may be shunned and ridiculed by society.

The Kapauku economy does not include gift giving, therefore the willingness of a tonowi to make loans allows him to acquire political power. Prestige is thus gained via generosity. Thus the widest possible alliances are forged, and the tonowi exacts loyalty from the majority of the villagers. The position of the tonowi can change at any time, considering his wealth (pig breeding) might suddenly decrease due to a poor management decision. In this event, the power structure will shift, with no individual in a position of authority for an extended period of time.

© Het Geheugen van Nederland/Koninklijke Bibliotheek - Nationale bibliotheek van Nederland, 2003

So what will a tonowi do to shift his position of authority? Ricky Lindsay mentions that “a tonowi will occasionally through grand pig feasts where neighboring villages are invited to come and celebrate over a period of months. These feasts provide an opportunity for the tonowi to gain alliances through his generosity and to increase the loyalty of those under him”.

The tonowi does not inherit his wealth, he acquires his wealth individually. There is no communal wealth in a sense, as a prospective big man will pay attention to his own needs and acquire lands, pigs, canoes, etc, in which he will own. Therefore individualism is the vantage point from which to view all economic cooperation within each household in Kapauku society.

You might find these articles interesting:


  1. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3458000315.html
  2. Peters-Golden, Holly. Cultural Sketches: Case Studies in Anthropology. McGraw-Hill, 2005.
  3. Hurbon, Jessica. UCF Anthropology student.
  4. Lindsay, Ricky. UCF Anthropology student.


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