Timewarp: Does telematic communication follow rules
of "primitive" societies ?


| French |

Dagmar Hexel, Olivier de Marcellus, Marc Bernoulli
Researchers at the Centre de Recherches Psychopédagogiques de la Direction Générale du Cycle d'Orientation, CRPP-DGCO, Geneva, Switzerland


Exchanges of e-mail between school pupils strangely resemble
ritual exchanges of traditional societies


To give, receive, and return: a symbolical and social urge

Our first observations in the context of the SOCRATES Mailbox Project, looking at how electronic mail was practised in the classroom, rather surprised us. How could these pupils and students take such an interest in exchanging messages that were often very conventional, not to say boring ("I'm 12. I have a sister, a cat...?", etc,)? Not only did most of the messages seem relatively uninteresting, but they also were exchanged with abstract, anonymous correspondents that the pupils would most probably never actually meet. We were surprised to see how important these messages were for the children. They would often do their very best to win back a correspondent who seemed to be abandoning them. We started to ask ourselves what could be the source of such a strong motivation for exchanging and communicating. This strong bond connecting partners seems to take its origin in a deep symbolical or social urge.

The field of anthropological research may offer an insight concerning this bond. Electronic communications among children seem to have a strong resemblance with the rules of social exchange, the obligation to "give, receive, return"; described by a number of ethnologists such as Malinovski, Boas and Mauss (1). Similar rules have been shown to still determine many social interactions in modern societies (see Godbout, "L'Esprit du Don").


Kula: an anthropological model to understand electronic communications

To better grasp this system of symbolical exchanges, we would like to compare the use and practice of electronic communication in a few Swiss classrooms with the exchange rituals of symbolical goods described under the term of kula by B. Malinowski (2). This analogy will help us understand the strong reciprocity-based bond that exists between pupils writing to each other, building up a kind of virtual friendship, a link with an unknown partner from whom they impatiently expect - and demand - a response.

Kula is a vast circuit of symbolical exchanges that has been observed in the North-West of Melanesia, in an area constituted by some twenty islands. Exchanges are primarily focused on two types of objects: sea-shell bracelets and necklaces. The value of these objects is neither utilitarian or decorative, it is essentially ceremonial and symbolic. Partners engaged in this ritual are not seeking to be rewarded in economic terms. Kula gives social status and renown to those who participate in it, directly or indirectly. In addition, Kula creates and consolidates a social bond. Although these rituals often take place between tribes who do not share the same language or culture, living at great distances across the ocean, they are capable of creating links of life-long friendship.

If we now compare this kind of exchange with electronic communications, we observe that pupils too do not write electronic mail in order to gain something (interesting information, for example) from the exchange, or to pay back and "be quits" with one another. On the contrary, they send messages in order to propose or maintain a relationship of friendship with the "Other", that is to say to create and maintain a social link which is also a source of social status for both parties.

Reciprocity - a basic social ritual

For example, a pupil from upper primary school explained to us very clearly the importance of the fact that the exchange was not instantaneous, but on the contrary permitted a long-lasting relationship: "Email is nicer than just chatting, because we wait for the answer, and we don't know what to expect. We keep wondering whether the other one is going to respond or not. Maybe that's what motivates us...". Such a motivational basis probably explains the curiously artificial and forced aspect of electronic communication activities. Pupils try to sustain exchanges rather as people from Melanesia exchange necklaces and bracelets. The emphasis is not on the correspondent, nor on the contents of the messages sent, but much more on the spirit of reciprocity created and fostered by the exchange as such. This is particularly evident with primary school pupils, who are at an age at which many social activities are based on different sorts of barter (exchanging stickers, stamps, marbles, etc.).

The analogy with the observations made by ethnologists is also striking with regards to the idea of voluntarily breaking the exchange cycle (an act that the mélanesians consider to be actually dangerous). It is considered extremely bad form, almost as though one was breaking a taboo. Pupils were rather shocked when the observers asked if they sometimes wanted to change correspondents: "Yes... but it's bad! One can't say that one wants to change. One must keep them and start a new one..." Children who do want to change correspondents even told us of strategies they used to end exchanges without seeming to want to.

Comments or additional observations on this position paper are very welcome.
Do not hesitate to write to us !

Dagmar Hexel, Olivier de Marcellus, Marc Bernoulli


(1) see also the members of La Revue MAUSS (Mouvement anti-utilitariste dans les sciences sociales), esp. J.T. Goodbout et al. and A. Caillé, L'esprit du don. Paris: La Découverte, 1992, back to text

(2) B. Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, London, 1922 - Les Argonautes du Pacifique occidental. Paris: Gallimard, Tel, 1989, back to text

Last update: 27.1.98; pdf

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