by Liv Barnett

Academics are often accused of failing to make their research matter to audiences other than themselves. Anthropologists are particularly criticized for writing theories and ethnographies that not only go unread by non-anthropologists, but are also too inaccessible to those they may be writing about. Here I hope to try and explain a central aspect of my PhD research in Papua New Guinea and share some of the ways it has got me thinking about politics and economics in the UK.

The stereotyped anthropologist gets criticized for using the experiences of a usually colonised ‘other’ for their own project of producing knowledge that counters the taken for granted understandings people have of humanity or society in ‘the West’, which are presumed to be universal to human nature. This is a legitimate argument which has to be taken seriously. Therefore, I self-consciously use some of my observations in Papua New Guinea (enabled by the generosity of those who I lived with in PNG) and the ideas of European/western social theorists.

This is a legitimate argument which has to be taken seriously.

It was within the first few weeks of my stay in the capital of the Eastern Highland’s Province in Papua New Guinea, Goroka, that I learnt from new friends and colleagues that polite social interactions are critical to one’s safety and social reputation. Both the gifting of food and objects, and the acknowledgement of another person through friendly statements are the simple bases of what I term an ‘economy of recognition’.

German philosopher, Axel Honneth, refers to recognition in the sense of people receiving respect from others in daily life, and acknowledgement for their cultural or social identities in a broader political sense. He is locked into a theoretical debate with Nancy Fraser, well-known feminist social theorist, about what is more important – to focus on a critical politics that affirms someone’s cultural identity whether that be their sexuality, gender, cultural background; or to fight for a society that ensures a fair redistribution of resources. As critical social theorists, both writers aim to move the world in a more pleasant direction for everyone. Honneth’s argument is that being acknowledged by another is the basis of being human. This acknowledgement must be noted and reciprocated somehow. We have many versions of this in European societies including embodied gestures that denote mutual recognition such as the handshake, or kisses hello.

( Axel Honneth – Wikipedia Commons)

The act of giving, receiving and returning with another gift, words of appreciation or mutual embodied gestures together maintain good feelings and make for stronger relationships. This is how I interpreted the work of anthropologists who have understood gifting practices that occur in everyday, ritual and ceremonial exchanges between large families, villages and clan groups in Papua New Guinea.

For example, in the act of exchanging pigs, or giving appropriate foods at important life events, men and women both acknowledge relationships they have to the deceased, relatives and neighbours and in-laws. The act of gifting a pig, or a pile of garden foods such as yams, bananas and other indigenous foods, is fundamental to demonstrating one’s hard work and generosity.

As Marcel Mauss, famous anthropologist writer of the Gift in 1922, argued – the gift is a social phenomenon that has three aspects to it. There is the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and the obligation to give back. But what is given, received and returned does not have to be material. As I argued in my thesis, in Goroka the gifting economy includes emotional acts and gestures, and these are acknowledged by gifting material objects. Hence I concluded that emotions and how the emotional states of others are recognized alongside their material needs or sacrifices are very important to understanding the gifting.

what is given, received and returned does not have to be material

Now to extrapolate this experience and insight back to the context to the UK, I want to apply this idea of gifting goods and showing concern for other people’s emotional well-being at the same time – what would it look like if we had a society or community based on principles of recognition that involved material exchanges and acknowledged others’ emotions? This economy would not only start valuing other’s emotional and material needs, but would organise itself around the continuous mutual recognition of other people’s humanity? Nancy Fraser argues it is through wages that people have their worth recognized in the west, and so we need to ensure these continue to be maintained and widened to include much of the unpaid care work that women in particular do for the elderly or unwell within their families.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social policies of the 1980s aimed to break the collective action of trade unions, encouraged entrepreneurship and private property over public provisioning (e.g. selling the council houses), there has been a general decline in the extent to which society is presented as something that we are all in a reciprocal relationship with.  The massive growth of the third sector since the neoliberal ideology cemented itself during New Labour’s government and David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ have seen charities, social enterprises and NGO’s (and now academy schools) all fill gaps where the welfare state once delivered universally. However, these gaps are not filled with any sense of reciprocity, instead people are forced to demonstrate their ‘neediness’ and depend on the generosity of other’s voluntary help through foodbanks or charity work. Whilst this is on the one hand a kind of gifting of time, effort and energy – there is not always a reciprocal exchange. The universal gifting system of society to itself has become a woollen blanket with more holes than wool, failing to catch people in need or keep everyone warm.

There are many ways people already exist within economies of recognition in this country. Perhaps going to the pub and taking turns to buy a round for friends for example, this both redistributes resources, and acknowledges a mutual humanity and emotional bond. Similarly, exchanges of dinner bring people together, foster closeness and are often reciprocated, sharing resources over time.

Reciprocity such as this, which can make some people appear better or more generous than others, but still engages us in mutual transactions is what I want to focus on. In our efforts to help the homeless, refugees, or other such people within our society that are often isolated and left behind – how do we foster mutual recognition? What kind of exchanges take place that mean people feel heard, seen, acknowledged and valued? And what aspects of this work are reciprocal? Is philanthropy or charity work sufficient if it is based on a uni-directional concept of ‘help’? Or should we be involved in efforts that level us all, so we become mutually knitted together in an economy where we can depend on each other for resources when we need them?

As I walked into Liverpool station last week, a young man perhaps in his early 30s, shuffled towards me with tousled hair, and asked for help. Once I realised he was homeless, I had to admit to him I had already given much of my cash to another homeless man a few minutes earlier and so I didn’t have much left. He said, “please, no one here listens to me, people act like I don’t exist. I just want to be treated like a human, I want to be seen.” His comment prompted me to think back to the conclusions of my thesis and the theoretical work of Axel Honneth who insists that mutual recognition is critical to human well-being. Honneth’s argument has a similar sentiment to an ancient poem written by Persian poet Sa’adi, Bani Adam, now written on the side of the UN consulate in Geneva:

 Human beings are members of a whole,

    In creation of one essence and soul.

    If one member is afflicted with pain,

    Other members uneasy will remain.

    If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,

    The name of human you cannot retain.

(trans. by M. Aryanpoor)

Talking with anyone living on the streets can get us to reflect on the processes that mean more and more people feel invisible, unwanted and, perhaps most significantly, unloved. How can we put the importance of recognition and redistribution at the core of our economies? And how might this help us all to feel less alienated, competitive and individual? These are the questions that I suggest sit with all of us as we try to transition to a kinder world.


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