Emory Report

October 4, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 7

New freshman seminar examines 'Meaning of Money'

Studying such diverse topics as shell necklace exchanges in New Guinea, Karl Marx's Capital and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, a new freshman seminar is trying to divine "The Meaning of Money."

The course is designed to help students "unravel their assumptions about money and exchange" and "think critically about money, commodities and consumerism," said its creator, Ellen Schattschneider.

Discussion topics include gifts and exchange, money and the spirit of capitalism, the commodity fetish, and money and global modernity.

"Throughout the course, we will juxtapose theoretical and historical readings with original observations by students on the meaningful aspects of money," said Schatt-schneider, a sociocultural anthropologist with the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.

One assignment is a research paper investigating a specific aspect of money and its multiple meanings in a social context. Students may choose a historical topic, such as the meaning of gold in early modern European folk tales, or a more contemporary topic, such as the meaning of money in modern hip hop lyrics.

Over the semester each student also will develop web pages on some aspect of money and exchange. This web project, which will be based on original observation and library research, will combine visual materials and text and relate some aspect of the readings to contemporary American life. Since the seminar is being taught in the new Emory Center for Interactive Technology (ECIT) classroom in Woodruff Library, students will be able to work with Wayne Morse, ITD teaching and resources specialist, to design their web pages.

Schattschneider has put together a collection of early and contemporary American films that "have something to do with money," and the students will view short segments in class. They will also watch taped segments of the "Antique Roadshow," which she describes as "a kind of morality play." "It's this wonderful sort of social drama of people bringing in these things they've found and finding out whether they've hit the jackpot," Schattschneider said.

The course begins with a non-Western example of gift exchange described in Annette Weiner's book, The Trobrianders of Papua, New Guinea. "The point of this reading is to disrupt some easy assumptions by the students on how value is created and how exchange works," Schattschneider explained.

On the Trobriand Islands, men engage in a very complex transaction of shell necklaces, or kula. "Within Trobriand society, these necklaces have a very deep symbolic meaning and value to the people, and they effectively operate as a kind of currency," she said, noting that age and histories of their own add value to the necklaces.

The object of this exchange system is to accumulate kula and then trade them. "They trade them from island to island over the generations and often with people they've never met," Schattschneider said. "It sets up a very complex system of debt and obligation among the men who trade them."

Since Trobrianders have to travel long distances in small dugout canoes under difficult circumstances just to make the exchanges, "this is not an easy thing, and it's not an incidental event," Schattschneider said. In this process of accumulating and trading necklaces--some of which are famous and even have names--Trobriand men also gain fame. At the same time, the women engage in an exchange system of food and banana leaves, "which actually makes this whole shell exchange on the part of the men possible," she added.

Regarding our own society, Schattschneider observed that as money becomes more abstract--from gold coins to paper money to checks and credit cards--"it becomes more uncontrollable, or at least that's our perception of it." This has both negative and positive aspects.

"On the positive side, there's more flexibility," she said. "On the negative side, that freedom threatens to take one over because the kind of physical, tangible link to the value of money has been severed. With each step, you're further and further away from a sense of how much you've spent."

-Linda Klein

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