Money, the Miser, and the Power of Symbols

Hoard of ancient gold coins
A hoard of ancient gold coins

Anthropology, by focusing on the “other,” attempts to understand the full range of human experience in the world. Without anthropology, we focus far too easily on aspects of our own culture as if they are true.

By training people to look outside of our own cultures, anthropology allows us to differentiate between what is normative in our everyday lives and what is fundamental to all humans.

There are many things that we “believe” are true of all people, even though they are products of culture. For example, many people have a deep-seated belief that all of us want money, or need money, and that driving belief is core to who and what people are. But such a statement is based on a number of underlying assumptions, such as the belief that we’re individuals, and that money is somehow “real,” and that trading our time and effort for money is something that crosses all cultures.

The Kula Ring

Kula bracelet
In the Kula exchange system, all of the valuables are “non-use” items, often pieces of jewelry like the one pictured here.

We can step back from the idea that money is real and universal, and realize that we’re making certain assumptions. If we rewrite these ideas outside of culture, we come up with something more like, “people give away things they value less for things that they value more. The details of those exchanges depend on cultural values.”

Money isn’t a thing in and of itself. It’s just a metaphor for certain kinds of power and social status. As part of culture, money isn’t a thing so much as it’s a symbol — a shorthand for larger concepts. Money is a tool, and tools are part of culture rather than a priori of it.

If we go back and look at the research of the first anthropologist to do long term fieldwork, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 – 1942), we’ll see that the Trobriand Islanders work to gain certain items for trade, and then give those items in trade to others, through the “Kula ring.” We discover that money is not the root of anything, but simply one means (albeit a powerful one in many cultures) as a medium of exchange and reciprocity.

By looking at the Kula ring we can realize, though sometimes with difficulty, that some “things” in culture aren’t really things at all. They are instead physical representations of relationships.

An Old Aesop

Aesop
Aesop was probably born around 620 BCE.

This “truth” isn’t really anything new, even in Western culture. You might remember the famous fable of Aesop about the miser who kept his gold buried in his garden.

The miser would leave his house and dig up his gold to look at it. It made him feel good about himself to think “I am a rich man.” Then one day, the gold was gone, stolen. His neighbor took one look at the situation, and suggested that he bury a rock, and go look at that instead. Gold that wasn’t used wasn’t worth more than a rock.

The moral of the story was that wealth that is not used is of no use to anyone. Wealth is about relationships and exchange. The story’s a reminder of something that’s easy for us to forget when we’re caught up in everyday life: that our symbols are “only” symbols.

Anthropology goes further, though. It also reminds us that symbols can be incredibly powerful — not in some intellectual way, but as representations of the relationships between people.

It’s not even fair to refer to them as “only” symbols. Wealth, career, knowledge, and faith are all symbols, but they are also very real. They affect how we live, how we think, and how we relate with others. These symbols affect how we make decisions, how we talk, and whether we’re listened to.

In other words, symbols aren’t “only” anything. If the natural sciences have shown that physical laws are the most powerful force in the universe, then anthropology has show that culture comes a close second.

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