Kula ring  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Kula, also known as the Kula exchange or Kula ring, is a ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea.

The Kula ring spans 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago, including the Trobriand Islands and involves thousands of individuals. Participants travel at times hundreds of miles by canoe in order to exchange Kula valuables which consist of shell-disc necklaces (veigun or soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction) and shell armbands (mwali) that are traded in the southern direction (circling anti-clockwise). If the opening gift was an armshell, then the closing gift must be a necklace and vice versa. The terms of participation vary from region to region. Whereas on the Trobriand Islands the exchange is monopolised by the chiefs, in Dobu all men can participate.

All Kula valuables are non-use items traded purely for purposes of enhancing one's social status and prestige. Carefully prescribed customs and traditions surround the ceremonies that accompany the exchanges which establish strong, ideally life-long relationships between the exchange parties (karayta'u, "partners"). The act of giving, as Mauss wrote, is a display of the greatness of the giver, accompanied by shows of exaggerated modesty in which the value of what is given is actively played down. Such a partnership involves strong mutual obligations such as hospitality, protection and assistance. According to the Muyuw, a good Kula relationship should be "like a marriage". Similarly, the saying around Papua is: "once in Kula, always in Kula" (Damon, 1980: 282).

Kula valuables never remain for long in the hands of the recipients; rather, they must be passed on to other partners within a certain amount of time, thus constantly circling around the ring. However, even temporary possession brings prestige and status. Important chiefs can have hundreds of partners while less significant participants may only have fewer than a dozen (Malinowski, 1920:98). Even though the vast majority of items that Kula participants have at any given time are not theirs and will be passed on, Damon (1980:281) notes that e.g. amongst the Muyuw all Kula objects are someone's kitoum, meaning they are owned by that person (or by a group). The person owning a valuable as kitoum has full rights of ownership over it: he can keep it, sell it or even destroy it. The Kula valuable or an equivalent item must be returned to the person who owns it as kitoum. The most important Muyuw men for example own between three to seven Kula valuables as kitoum while others do not own any. The fact that at least in theory all such valuables are someone's kitoum adds a sense of responsibility to the way they are handled, reminding the recipient that he is only a steward of somebody else's possession. The ownership of a particular valuable is, however, often not known. Kula valuables can be exchanged as kitoum in a direct exchange between two partners, thus fully transferring the rights of ownership.

The right of participation in Kula exchange is not automatic. One has to "buy" one's way into it through participating in various lower spheres of exchange (Damon, 1980:278). The relationship giver-receiver is always asymmetrical: the former are higher in status. Also, Kula valuables are ranked according to value and age and so are the relationships that are created through their exchange. Participants will often strive to obtain particularly valuable and renowned Kula objects whose owner's fame will spread quickly through the archipelago. Such a competition unfolds through different persons offering pokala (offerings) and kaributu (solicitory gifts) to the owner, thus seeking to induce him to engage in a gift exchange relationship involving the desired object. Kula exchange therefore involves a complex system of gifts and countergifts whose rules are laid down by custom. The system is based on trust as obligations are not legally enforceable. However, strong social obligations and the cultural value system, in which liberality is exalted as highest virtue while meanness is condemned as shameful, create powerful pressures to "play by the rules". Those who are perceived as holding on to valuables and as being slow to give them away soon get a bad reputation (cf. Malinowski, 1920:100).

The Kula exchange system can be viewed as reinforcing status and authority distinctions since the hereditary chiefs own the most important shell valuables and assume the responsibility for organizing and directing the ocean voyages. Damon (1980) notes that large amounts of Kula valuables are handled by a relatively small number of people, e.g. amongst the Muyuw three men account for over 50 percent of Kula valuables. The ten most influential men control about 90 percent of all and almost 100 percent of the most precious Kula objects. The movement of these valuables and the related relationships determine most of Muyuw's political alliances. Fortune notes that Kula relationships are fragile, beset with various kinds of manipulation and deceit. The Muyuw for example state that only way to get ahead in Kula is to lie, commenting that deceit frequently causes Kula relationships to fall apart (Damon, 1980:278). Similarly, Malinowski wrote of "many squabbles, deep resentments and even feuds over real or imaginary grievances in the Kula exchange" (1920:100).

The Kula ring is a classical example for Marcel Mauss' distinction between gift and commodity exchange. Melanesians carefully distinguish gift exchange (Kula) from market exchange in the form of barter (gimwali). Both reflect different underlying value systems and cultural customs. The Kula, as Mauss wrote, is not supposed to be conducted like gimwali (barter). The former involves a solemn exchange ceremony, a "display of greatness" where the concepts of honour and nobility are central; the latter, often done as part of Kula exchange journeys, involves hard bargaining and purely serves economic purposes (1990:22-23). Kula valuables are inalienable in the sense that they (or an equivalent object) have to be returned to the original owner. Those who receive them can pass them on as gifts, but they cannot be sold as commodities (except by the one who owns them as kitoum).

See also

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