Symbolic Exchange Essay

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Symbolic exchange is the organizing principle, the cellular structure, of the earliest forms of society. The exchanges that take place within and between clans, within and between tribes and between chiefs and other members of the tribe are more than economic exchanges as we know them in modern societies, and their circulation integrates the members of these societies. Marcel Mauss conceptualizes these exchanges as a form of gift giving, and the gift is a ”total social phenomenon.” They are multi-dimensional: economic, moral, religious, mythological, juridical, political, aesthetic and historical.

Mauss created his concept from the work of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropologists in Melanesia, Polynesia, and northwest America. Like Durkheim, he also wanted to demonstrate the social basis for exchanges as a refutation of the utilitarian notion that individual interests were the foundation for the creation of market relations. There was no ”natural” economy that had preceded political economy. Further, while the tribes of the Americas, Africa and Asia seemed so different, so ”other,” to Europeans, Mauss wanted to demonstrate through comparative analysis the underlying similarities as well. The complex structure of the gift made it more difficult for Europeans to see these groups as inferior primitives whose annihilation or assimilation would be of no loss to humanity.

Gift giving was obviously an economic phenomenon, although it did not involve the exchange of equivalent values as it does in market economies. In the Kwakiutl tribe the potlatch ritual exchanges were competitive and required a reciprocal exchange at a later moment that was of more value than the original gift. This was how the chief, the clan, or the tribe maintained prestige and power; the chief would distribute the gifts later received to the members of his clan or tribe. The chief was the member of the tribe who shared the most. The goods exchanged were often destroyed in festivals which made the accumulation of wealth difficult. Gift giving also involved a relation with nature and created a balanced reciprocal relation between society and nature. The domination of nature is a modern phenomenon; these tribes lived in nature.

Gift giving also included an ethic of reciprocity. The members of tribes were obligated to give gifts as well as receive gifts. Failure to do either would mean a loss of status, perhaps enslavement or possibly war if it occurred between two tribes. The norm of reciprocity bound clan to clan, men to women and tribe to tribe, and the circulation of gifts reproduced these tribes as tribes.

Thorstein Veblen brought the analysis of symbolic exchange to the consumer practices of wealthy Americans. Veblen developed his concepts of vicarious consumption and conspicuous consumption from the same sources as Mauss, from tribal cultures and agrarian societies. The leisure class originally derived its prestige from avoiding ignoble work and devoting its time to pursuits that had little practical significance: sports, indolence, war, religious activities and government. They also derived prestige through the idleness and vicarious consumption of their wives, families and servants. Further, as the members of the middle class took up practical positions as professionals and managers, they derived their prestige from conspicuous consumption.

Jean Baudrillard developed his analysis from a critical reading of Mauss, John K. Galbraith and Thorstein Veblen. Symbolic exchange for Baudrillard was a way to escape the consumer society and the political economy of the sign. He demonstrated in his early writings how the code of consumption and the system of needs had completed the system of production. The use value of the commodity provided an ”alibi” to exchange value. Consumers were even more alienated in their private lives than they were at work. They were unconscious of the process of semiosis that led through their acts of consumption of commodities with their coded differences to the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. The only way out of this system was a return to symbolic exchange where the accumulation of wealth and power was impossible and where exchanges were reciprocal and reversible.


  1. Baudrillard, J. (1988) Symbolic Exchange and Death. In: Kellner, D. (ed.), Jean Baudrillard, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  2. Kellner, D. (1994) Baudrillard. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
  3. Mauss, Marcel, (1967) The Gift. W. W. Norton, New York. Veblen, T. (1953) Theory of the Leisure Class. Mentor, New York.

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