Get access

Inalienable ethnography: keeping-while-giving and the Trobriand case



In Inalienable possessions, Annette Weiner (1992) focuses on the paradox of ‘keeping-while-giving’ rather than the ‘norm of reciprocity’ as the central issue of social life, drawing heavily on Trobriand examples. In this article, key elements of Weiner’s theory are contrasted with prevailing views of Melanesian personhood and agency and with canonical Western notions of exchange, and her use of the Trobriand materials is juxtaposed with previously published ethnographic accounts of the same practices. It is argued that Weiner’s ethnographic illustrations do not lend support to her theory of inalienable possessions; that her conceptual framework is at considerable variance with well-founded understandings of Melanesian sociality; and that the paradox of keeping-while-giving is more appropriately seen as deriving from Western presuppositions of individual boundedness, subjectivity, possession, ownership, and hierarchy, and the need to establish permanence in an entropic world.