On the persistence of sharing: Personhood, asymmetrical reciprocity, and demand sharing in the Indigenous Australian domestic moral economy


Please send correspondence to Nicolas Peterson: Nicolas.Peterson@anu.edu.au


This article addresses the persistence of sharing in Indigenous Australian domestic moral economies well after hunting and gathering has stopped being the basis of livelihood, by examining the relationship of demand sharing with the more formalised asymmetrical reciprocity found in both pre and post contact life. Understanding the significance of the more formalized asymmetry in the pre-contact situation helps shed light on what happens in the post contact situation, and the independence of sharing from the impact of market forces and utilitarian need.

In Australia the economic disadvantage of Aboriginal people in remote Australia and the social problems many individuals and communities face have received widespread publicity in recent years (e.g. Sutton 2009). Not only are the living conditions in these communities often impoverished, but domestic and other kinds of violence are far more common than in Australian society at large. Many reasons are advanced for this: among the more frequent are the failure of the government to adequately resource the communities, their locational disadvantage, and the morale sapping effects of living off passive welfare for many years, all of which are certainly significant.

Lack of employment and/or involvement in the ‘real economy’, a controversial term, is also invoked by virtually all commentators, whether Aboriginal or not. However, this is a complex issue, for even where employment is readily available local Aboriginal people rarely take it up or, if they do, it is only in terms of target working. This is commonly explained as being a result of the pressure to share their income with others in their community, most of whom are unemployed. Sharing is seen as the principal obstacle to accumulation and a restraint on individuals and families seeking to improve their economic situation as it makes difficult the kinds of accumulation fundamental to material wellbeing in a contemporary capitalist economy.

The central place of sharing in hunting and gathering societies has been discussed in a number of ways: among others it has been seen in terms of risk management, as in the kinship mode of production (Godelier 1975; see also Weissner 1982); as central to the hunter-gatherer/forager mode of production (Lee 1979); as a defining feature of the domestic mode of production (Sahlins 1972); and as intrinsic to the forager mode of thought (Barnard 2002). It is also widely recognised that sharing persists long after actual hunting and gathering has been abandoned or relegated to a marginal economic activity.

Here I will argue that the central reason for the persistence of sharing in the Indigenous Australian context is that it underwrites a relational ontology in which sharing has a profound significance for the nature of personhood. The most important form of this sharing is demand sharing, that is responding to requests, which is intrinsic to the indigenous domestic moral economy, even in quite radically transformed economic and social orders.

Demand sharing (Peterson 1993) is a form of everyday asymmetrical reciprocity in that it places a person in the hands of the one to whom the demand is being made without incurring a debt (see Macdonald 2000), in contrast to the Maussian gift where the receiver is indebted.1 Such asymmetrical reciprocity was also found in more formal forms in traditional Aboriginal social relations where it was related to hierarchy, though it co-existed with an emphasis on autonomy and egalitarianism, as has been so well explored by Fred Myers (1986). Demand sharing in the contemporary welfare economy is partly underwritten by the way in which the notions of formal asymmetrical reciprocity intersect with that economy helping to ensure the reproduction of sharing behaviour well beyond utilitarian need.

Formal asymmetrical reciprocity in traditional life

Despite the widely acknowledged egalitarian nature of Aboriginal societies (e.g. see Maddock 1972: chapter 8), there were significant hierarchical relations. This has been best described by Fred Myers in his discussion of Pintupi political life, with its clear asymmetrical reciprocity Myers (1980a); see also Bern 1979). Older Aboriginal men gave valued esoteric religious knowledge to young men, receiving in exchange meat and deference.2 He shows how the desire for this esoteric knowledge, which was the key to status, recognised rights in land and limited power over others, allowed the older men to regulate the rate at which young men could progress through a graduated system of knowledge. Thus, consciously or not, this enabled older men to delay the age at which young men could legitimately get married to their late twenties, thereby allowing older men to have several wives, some of whom would have been as young as ten or twelve when first married. This authority over young men was experienced as concern and nurturance, and spoken about in terms of the older men kanyininpa(ing), literally looking after the younger men and the valued knowledge, referred to as ‘the law’ in Aboriginal English. Just as the law had been passed down to the older men by their now deceased seniors, they saw themselves as simply looking after it until such time as the young men were ready to take on their responsibilities, and in turn look after it for the generations below them. Despite this succession of members of each generation to the position of power there was, as Myers says, always a hierarchical differential between the senior men and the initiates, which the initiates could never overcome (1980a: 210). Even so, this dependency was sought as it was the path to autonomy that was normally achieved by middle age (Myers 1986; Martin 1993).

A similar hierarchy obtained among women. It was most marked in central Australia where women had a greater range of separate ceremonies than in the north (see Hamilton 1981; Dussart 2000).

Another feature of the relationship between initiates and senior men was uncertainty. As has been widely observed, a central feature of Aboriginal religious life is, and was, the emphasis on secrecy. A taxing element of this secrecy for analysts has always been the fact that some of it has involved apparent deception, not just of those excluded from the secret arena, who are possibly or probably never aware of being deceived, but more interestingly and problematically of those young men being admitted to the secret arena who discover what they have been told up to that point is misleading. My understanding is that the most salient effect of deception of the novices was to entrench in them a deep sense of uncertainty. It underlines to them that nothing is what it seems to be, but in a religious context of serious purpose, in which the young realise they do not properly understand things, they are confident that they can trust the older men to have the true or inside meaning, as Aboriginal people would say. This uncertainty mirrors in a formal way the documented indeterminacy that is so characteristic of everyday Aboriginal life and discourse (see Sansom 1988: 170; Povinelli 1993) and the dependence on others it engenders across all aspects of social life.3

It is important to be clear on the sense in which this relationship between young and old men was one of asymmetrical reciprocity. Age was respected as was the knowledge age brought access to, and in due course young men could safely assume that they would be granted the same respect by virtue of age, and the access it gave to the esoteric knowledge, if they conformed. There was probably less tension around that relationship than in respect of rights to women as wives, and to a lesser extent to sexual access to women by the young men. Indeed, it may well have been the case, as the sorcery accusations on Mornington Island show, that the greater tension was between classificatory brothers over competition for access to wives as much as between older and younger men (see McKnight 1981). Nevertheless, there was also conflict between old and young men over the transfer of religious knowledge that involved negotiation with the eventual replacement of one generation by the next and, in that sense, the relationship between them was dialectical.

Another area where asymmetrical reciprocity can be found is within domestic relations. The asymmetry here is subtle, nuanced and complex, reflecting the subtle, nuanced and complex nature of gender relations. It is not just that both men and women valued the male contribution of meat, especially that of the larger animals, more highly than the vegetable contribution of women to the diet, or that the exchange of labour was unequal. Women provided firewood and water, did most of the cooking including supporting ceremonial gatherings, and granted sexual access. Further, women were socialised to put the needs of their male relatives first (see Cowlishaw 1982), and at an ideological level the relationship was encompassed within the wider ideational system that saw men's religious labour as responsible not only for providing what women harvested but for their fertility too (Bern 1979). Gender relations are thus another aspect of the economy of the nurturant hierarchy.

Thus, mild formal asymmetrical reciprocity was a feature particularly of relations between old and young males in the religious life and more generally between men and women in their domestic life. In the case of the relationship among the men, there was a tension arising from the senior men benefitting from polygamy while having to manage the younger men's sexuality, as the widely reported frequency of conflict over women makes clear. On the other hand there was no such dialectical tension in the domestic sphere, although that is not to say that it was without its tensions in specific situations.4 However, in both situations indeterminacy and/or uncertainty was a central feature of both the relationships around the economy of religious knowledge and the economics of the domestic domain.

Formal asymmetrical reciprocity post-contact

The most obvious area of post-contact Aboriginal life in which relations of formal asymmetrical reciprocity are important was also originally spelt out by Myers in his analysis of Pintupi people's relations with Europeans in the 1970s. But as the work of Gaynor Macdonald (2000) and Diane Austin-Broos (2006) shows, it is still operative in widely different contexts today.

Pintupi speakers were the last group of people to leave an independent life and settle down in central Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. These are the people with whom Fred Myers worked where he witnessed their early attempts to come to terms with the ideas of elected councils and working with Europeans. He demonstrates that the idea of a non-nurturant hierarchy was rejected (1980b: 316) and that the Pintupi concept of the white boss was an extension of their ideas about authority being based on the bosses’ reciprocal obligations. This idea was reinforced by Pintupi experience of rations when they arrived and pensions for their old people. These were fully justified in their view as they saw themselves as having deferred to the white bosses’ desires by helping them build the Aboriginal village settlements of Haasts Bluff and Papunya and were thus due something in return (1980b: 318). This was despite the fact that the people themselves were to be the occupants of some of the houses and had received wages for their work. However, in their view the relationship was not simply economic (1980b: 319). As Myers puts it, there was no coordination of value, not least because the people had been protected from market forces until the 1970s by legislation that set lower pay rates for them, by their status as jural minors, and by geography, all of which helped protect them from establishing values for dissimilar entities through transactions and choices (1980b: 319). Unsurprisingly, Aboriginal expectations of their bosses were rarely met in the way that they thought they should be, and there was certainly no consistency in how non-Aboriginal bosses behaved with respect to these expectations. Such relations were often unsatisfactory on both sides, with Aboriginal workers being seen as unreliable, likely to disappear without notice and not hard working, while from the Aboriginal viewpoint white bosses were hard and mean.

Even with the three principal obstacles to market involvement no longer present, market values have still not strongly penetrated the Aboriginal domain as the post-2000 work of Diane Austin-Broos (2006) in the Arrernte settlement of Hermannsburg, west of Alice Springs, shows. She has written extensively about the culture of work there, documenting how people still see themselves as ‘working for’ somebody rather than simply doing a job. That is, they see work as both manifesting and creating mutual obligations that extend far beyond the work place. Some part of the reason for this may well be that the people of Hermannsburg and its surrounding outstations live in a welfare economy, even though relatively close to Alice Springs. The great majority of their income comes from social security payments of one form or another, and involvement with a full-blown market economy for the vast majority of people is casual, as some few of them move in and out of paid employment.

Although Gaynor Macdonald (2000) writes about western New South Wales, where there has been more than 150 years of contact, the same pattern of relations described by Myers and Austin-Broos in central Australia is still be to found there too. Macdonald describes what she calls allocative power or leadership among people who no longer have an economy of religious knowledge. In that region people in control of Aboriginal organisations that employ people, or distribute resources like housing, are cast in a ‘looking after role’ (2000: 100). People with allocative power need support at meetings, in elections and the like but they are subject to the ‘approval’ power of the recipients who can quickly taint the reputation of the ungenerous through gossip, and a wide range of negative epithets. People with allocative power are seen to be under an obligation to avoid creating relationships of inequality by using that power to restore imbalances, even though their allocative power is, in some sense, based on an inequality.

Like the Aboriginal people in remote communities in central Australia, many of the people in western New South Wales live in enclave economies, protected from the full force of the market economy by working for Aboriginal-run organisations that deliver services to Aboriginal people. They are also protected by a relatively low consumer dependency and a preparedness to tolerate a comparatively low standard of living (see Tonkinson and Tonkinson 2010). However, the allocative power is increasingly being reduced because of changes in local government, tighter accountability and the desire of government to mainstream service delivery to Aboriginal people.

Asymmetrical reciprocity in the contemporary domestic domain

In the early days of settling down payment for work was largely in kind. On the cattle stations, women generally continued foraging for vegetable food and young men working as stockmen provided meat, while in the government settlements men were provided with jobs and most women were not employed. As long as the ceremonial life was strong it maintained male status and the domestic moral economy. Then with the arrival of the cash economy in 1969 and greater influence from the market economy, work for males declined and in conjunction with demographic changes, so did ceremonial life. Men started to become marginalised in the indigenous domestic moral economy, providing neither real resources for daily survival nor reproducing the encompassing cosmology that was the basis of the nurturant hierarchy and authority and formal asymmetrical reciprocity.

However, as Julie Finlayson (1989) has shown, this was not the end of asymmetrical reciprocity within the domestic sphere. Indeed, in some situations it has become more pronounced and entrenched. Well into the 1980s the benefits of the social security system flowed most strongly to supporting parents (almost entirely women in the Aboriginal domain at that time), which paid better than pensions or unemployment benefits (see Rowse 2002: chapter 10). Women were often the ones with substantial resources. But this differential income did not empower women in many Aboriginal contexts. This was because of the deeply sedimented nurturing ethos that meant that mothers in particular, but sisters too, were unable to deny the demands of the their husbands, sons and brothers (see Cowlishaw 1982). That is, by playing on this nurturant ethos, these men were able to demand goods, food, and services through dependence and material lack, a lack often brought about because they had used their resources on gambling and drinking, to service relations among themselves. These claim relationships are a basis of gender domination and an intensified asymmetrical reciprocity based on demand sharing.

Francesca Merlan (1991) elaborates on the workings of this nurturant ethos in respect of women living in Katherine in the Northern Territory. She describes how in this urban location the nurturant practices have been intensified through involvement in the cash economy. Social security income has become genderised, placing the full onus on women to provision children (1991: 288), although they do not want ‘others to presume on their readiness to do for them’ (1991: 289). The impact of money on the service economy of help, helping and helping out, first described by Basil Sansom for Darwin (1988), is not one in which women expand the work they put into the domestic domain (1991: 266), but they do see the bearing and rearing of children as a service to a partner, of ‘having kids for X’ (1991: 274). Merlan argues that value begins with being a relative that is ‘being for’ other people (1991: 263). It is to the significance of that, that I now turn.

The context for demand sharing today

Demand sharing describes the pattern of informal sharing where acting generously commonly takes place in response to demands. It can be understood in part as an outcome of living in societies with modest means but with universal systems of kin classification (see Barnard 1978), where everybody is a kinsperson of some sort and where the obligations to others far outweigh the resources to service them. Under such conditions the generous person is one who responds to demands. It emphasises that much informal sharing is contingent, strategic and pragmatic and may in part be focused on establishing/maintaining the state of a relationship; it may be concerned with coercing a person into making a response, or it may be aimed at drawing another into recognising the demander.

Importantly, it reflects the fact that social relations have to be reproduced by continuous social action. It is in the context of this continuous micro-social interaction that some fundamental values underlying everyday life are revealed. While saying ‘no’ outright to a demand is rare, since it is a very direct rejection of relatedness, demands are often deflected by low level lying, strategic concealment of what might be asked for and, in the case of food, consumption at the site of procuring rather than back in camp. Demand sharing also relates to the apparent low affect that permeates much interaction and, which James Woodburn (1982) observes, is a common feature of hunter-gatherer societies.

Demand sharing is at the core of the indigenous domestic moral economy which has the following features (Peterson and Taylor 2003):

  • An ethic of generosity informed by a social pragmatics of demand sharing
  • Embedded in a universal system of kin classification that requires a flow of goods and services to create and reproduce social relationships
  • A high value placed on both relatedness and an egalitarian autonomy
  • Emphasis on polite indirectness in interaction which makes open refusal difficult

In a context of uncertainty around social relations associated with performative kinship contexts (see Sansom 1988: 170), the asymmetry of demand sharing is emphasised because a demander seeks a response, although (somewhat paradoxically as Gaynor MacDonald has pointed out (2000)) the asker is protected to a degree because no obligation is incurred by the request being met. Nevertheless, it freely creates a subtle status inequality by the asking, because the need for a positive response is so central to the sense of self in a relational ontological context and because it transfers the power of recognition to another person without the certainty of receiving it or with the possibility of the recognition being qualified in the giving.

The import for social change

Aboriginal people in remote Australia have tended to see the relationship with the government, particularly as manifest through the social security system, as part of a moral economy. That is, that there is a moral obligation on government to keep up a flow of valued resources to them, in this case money, based on a personalised working-for relationship with the agents of government. However, this relationship is now no longer personalised because of the bureaucratic way in which social security payments are obtained, and because these payments are now seen as the right they are. But this right is predicated to a substantial degree on not working, and sets a frame for dependence that fits easily with the notion of the nurturant hierarchy.

While poverty and the need to speed up the circulation of resources that come into communities unevenly through the social welfare system, sporadic employment, royalty payments and the like, has almost certainly intensified the level of demand sharing, the argument here is that it has a high degree of autonomy from neediness. Without the constant reaffirmation of recognition that demand sharing engenders, the sense of self is in danger of becoming unmoored, given the importance of the relational ontology. So the interaction between the nurturant hierarchical thinking and demand sharing in the contemporary context entrenches a pattern of social life that is highly persistent and resistant to change.

The pressures that modernisation often brings to indigenous domestic moral economy can be deeply disturbing for many people, as they go to the core of their being. In particular, the costs of moving to a more accumulative mode can usually only be achieved by reducing the amount of income invested outside of the household, which includes avoiding many demands to share. This may well be experienced negatively, as it may increase social isolation for some people, or for some of the time, as the person becomes more focused on the nuclear family, positioned in a moral and reflexive psychological space that is defined by fewer extended kin relationships, and a greater preoccupation with the primary treadmill of accumulation: house ownership.

There are, however, intermediate positions. In a fascinating paper Howard Sercombe (2008) investigated how economically successful Aboriginal people in the Eastern Goldfields managed to meet their obligations to extended family while muting demand sharing. While all of the people interviewed experienced tensions in managing these relationships to protect their higher standard of living (2008: 21), all consciously managed them. All had ways of limiting demands on their resources, the primary way being to self-consciously make a distinction between an inner circle and an outer circle of family members. While there was variation, in general, inner circle members could stay in a person's house, ask for money or request that the successful person look after a child, often for extended periods; outer circle people could generally ask for transport, food and clothing, but rarely get money, except for petrol. This, then, is a case of families operating effectively in the market holding down important jobs and managing mainstream-style living conditions for many years, yet at the same time maintaining modified sharing relations with their relatives. As Sercombe makes clear there is a monetary cost (2008: 24) to this modified demand sharing which, tautologically, could be taken as evidence of those involved not being fully embedded in the market and thus explain the continuation of the relationship. Nevertheless the constrained nature of their sharing practices vis-à-vis that found more generally in the local Aboriginal community suggests the likelihood of some modification in the nature of the personhood of the successful people.

In the normal workings of the market economy social security is only expected to come into play infrequently for those who are ill and unemployed, and the support considered to be at such a low level that most people would not want any ongoing dependency on it. This is quite different from that of the remote dwellers who have graduated from rations to welfare. As Tim Rowse has explored so well (1998 generally, see inter alia 206–207) rationing did not pose a challenge to Aboriginal understandings of the world: indeed, it fitted neatly with asymmetrical reciprocity. As he also points out, this was A. P. Elkin's insight for which he coined the term ‘intelligent parasitism’ (1951). While rations elicited work, the morphing into welfare produced an asymmetrical flow that was ‘unburdened by obligations’ (Rowse 1998: 26). Thus, in Aboriginal understandings welfare has entrenched an absolute asymmetrical flow underwritten by citizenship rights that place obligations only on the government. A low consumer dependency and acceptance of rough circumstances makes moving beyond this situation difficult. It requires not only an increased consumer dependency that necessitates waged-work but also overcoming the challenges these changes bring to the sense of self. And there is the rub. Moving into the mainstream economy as a waged worker means, in many remote situations, moving away from an Aboriginal community and consequently becoming disembedded from the dense network of sociality so crucial to the sense of self and something few seem able forego for long.


A consideration of formal asymmetrical reciprocity in Aboriginal social life makes clear the extent to which it was significant in both religious and everyday life in the past and how it has carried over into the present. Likewise, as the nature of the indigenous domestic moral economy makes clear, the informal form of asymmetrical reciprocity, demand sharing, was fundamental not just to daily life but to the sense of self and remains so today.

The link between these two forms of asymmetrical reciprocity in the contemporary situation is significant. The nurturant, but dialectical hierarchy of the past, which required constant negotiation as the younger generation gradually replaced the one senior to it, has seamlessly rigidified since the early 1970s into a non-dialectical one-way nurturant hierarchy without challenge to Aboriginal understandings. But now the nurturance has become depersonalised into a citizen's entitlements, ‘unburdened by obligations’ as Tim Rowse puts it. A substantial component of these entitlements is unemployment benefits, which are particularly important in funding day-to-day existence in remote communities, thereby ensuring dependency on the social security system and keeping people poor.

Nevertheless, there are processes that initiate some degree of disembedding from the nurturant hierarchy and the dense network of sociality so essential to the reproduction of the sense of self. Most common today is a process entirely controlled by Aboriginal individuals, that is, marrying a non-Indigenous person. Clearly that is not going to be important in the remote communities where it is likely that eventually an increased consumer dependency will lead to the Indigenous domestic moral economy turning inwards and sharing practices being transformed. But this will depend on the standard of living of whole communities being increased at the same time in order to mute the egalitarian pressures that detach people from property. Perhaps as the flow of communication becomes increasingly electronic, it can compensate to some degree for the loss of the dense network of face-to-face sociality with its material exchanges, and help secure the sense of self among a more dispersed population.

I think this analysis may also throw some light on the violence associated with partnerships in which there is chronic dependence on alcohol as is found particularly in Alice Springs. I speculate that with chronic dependence on alcohol the social network becomes limited and the dependence on the partner increases. This in turn leads to an increased fear of separation and to ‘jealousing’5 (Frost n.d.; Lloyd n.d.), in which every glance and unaccounted moment is seen as a potential or likely infidelity that will lead to abandonment with the threat to the sense of self. As with homesickness among Aboriginal people who have left their community for even short periods of time, this speculation emphasises that the number of people in a person's relational network is crucial.


A version of this paper was presented at the workshop on the ‘Domestic moral economy: rethinking kinship and economy in contemporary Oceania’ held at the ANU in September 2012 and sponsored by the ASSA Workshop Program. The workshop was part of an ESRC grant on ‘Domestic moral economy: rethinking kinship and economy in contemporary Oceania’ made to Karen Sykes, Chris Gregory and Jon Altman. I would like to thank Chris Gregory for many stimulating conversations on economic anthropology and Don Gardner, Michael Houseman, Francesca Merlan, Marika Moisseef and Tim Rowse for their thoughtful comments, not all of which I have heeded. I have also benefitted significantly from the comments of the reviewers on the original version of this paper.


  1. 1

    Not infrequently a giver can become, for a time, instituted as such and presumed able to give further so that the asymmetry is more than a one-off affair.

  2. 2

    Myers also includes suffering pain ‘as a kind of payment’ too (see 1980a: 210).

  3. 3

    Povinelli is actually focusing on women's worlds in her 1993 paper but her emphasis on indeterminacy applies much more generally.

  4. 4

    It is possible that there could be a dialectical tension between the senior co-wife and other co-wives if one or more of them was seeking to replace her.

  5. 5

    This is an Aboriginal English term widely used in central Australia among Aboriginal people and in discussions with non-Aboriginal people. It means: ‘Explosive anger, violence and retribution for perceived abandonment by a partner’ (see Frost n.d.).