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Cultural Analysis: !Kung San

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Gift-giving as a way of life

Material possessions in the !Kung culture are seen as nothing more than objects to be shared or given in order to form alliances, such as between families during weddings. In a nomadic culture, accumulation of wealth is impractical, what is kept is what is needed. In the !Kung, the material possessions are often provided by men for use by women, including tanned skins for carrying sacks, digging sticks, mortars and pestles, sinew, and shoes.4

Food Gathering

The division of labor between the sexes in the !Kung is very apparent. While women and children gather foods such as mongongo nuts and food from the many available plants in the area, men's primary responsibility was to bring in meat. The availability of nuts and plants in the area is so stable that women pride themselves on being able to feed their families utilizing only three days per week devoted to gathering. With vegetables comprising about 80% of the overall !Kung diet, women also help supplement the diet with small game such as lizards, snakes, tortoises, etc.4

Typical game that is available includes wildebeest, gemsbok, and giraffe and can also include reptiles and birds as well as honey when available. When game is brought into the village, every part of the animal is used: hides for blankets, bones for marrow and tools.9

Gift Giving and the Sharing of Resources

The !Kung community organization is based on gift-giving even though there is no emphasis on material accumulation, with gifts being exchanged even years after the fact.1 As the often receivers of gifts, the women are generally in charge of caring for the items as well as maintaining them.4

In the culture, a large focus is also placed on reciprocity and sharing of resources. Since game is not plentiful and sometimes hunters must travel great distances to find food, meat is usually sparse in the community. Within the village, any meat brought in by a successful hunter is shared fairly among the group.9

The Encroaching World

In the 1980's, it became more and more apparent that the !Kung way of life was under attack. Excursions into the bush became less frequent, and huts were built to last. Today almost no San live solely by hunting and foraging. Involved in farm labor, participating in government, and relying on government handouts, they have become increasingly sedentary.11 Many !Kung work on farms in Botswana where they are paid no wages and are very poor.12


Functionalist Perspective

In order to allow a society to strive in any environment a few basic needs are required: shelter, food, water. While the !Kung do not have an external source for economics, do not have a monetary system, and don't actively trade for any goods, they still achieve these basic needs. Foraging and hunting enables the !Kung to co-exist with their environment in order to help them survive. In addition, the emphasis on gift-giving serves the purpose of providing closer ties within the community, something that is extremely important when everyone needs to work together for a common goal, especially when that goal happens to be survival.

Conflict Perspective

Gift-giving and the sharing of resources is a direct process of alleviating most conflict before it has a chance to happen in a part of the !Kung social structure. Because the !Kung way of life is one of reliability on each other, gift-giving and the sharing of resources helps remind them each day of their needs for the group to be strong and cohesive.

As time marches on, though, conflict increases in the !Kung way of life. Forced to live in closer contact with other San groups while also changing their entire life routine from foraging to farming, the !Kung society is depleting under the strain. Unable to cope with the changes, the !Kung are being consumed by a larger group and the !Kung identity is disappearing rather than evolving.

Symbolic Perspective

Food represents life in the !Kung society. Not just individual life, but life for the whole village. No single acts are congratulated because the entire group survives through working together, not through heroic individualistic efforts. In addition, the gifts that are given are less about the material (since the accumulation of material goods is more of a hindrance than anything else) and more about the spirit in which they are given. The act of giving is much more important than the act of receiving.



This site was created for SOCIOLOGY 1 SEC DE1 (21594) FALL 2005.