Feel free to browse the extensive resources available on the Discover Anthropology page, here

Our friends at Cultural Anthropology also host an amazing set of Teaching Tools, here

February 2019

From Potlatch to Prisoner’s Dilemma: An Effective Classroom Simulation for Teaching Some Anthropological Concepts


Anthropologists who are teaching undergraduate students are faced with the challenge of not only explaining key anthropological concepts, but doing so in ways that make these concepts memorable.  Classroom simulations can be an effective pedagogical tool that can be used to more fully convey complex ideas and principles in a way that students will find understandable, engaging, and memorable. In-class simulations can create for students a type of embodied experience, in which they have to apply logic and persuasion, to solve problems that have real consequences, at least in relation to the micro-culture of the class room.Students’ emotional reactions to in-class exercises can often play an important role in allowing them to inhabit a cultural point of view (an emic perspective) different from what they typically experience.

This paper describes an exercise I developed to teach anthropology students about how some traditional societies maintain political order and economic cooperation in the absence of a centralized authority. In the exercise, modeled on the “prisoner’s dilemma”, groups of students must negotiate with each other, but lack any way to enforce any negotiated agreement. Because the game is presented as having an effect on their class grade, they are very engaged and their emotions are heightened. They experience frustration with negotiations, distrust toward other students, and anger toward classmates that have tricked them. During the post-exercise debriefing, participants discover that all students will earn extra credit rather than just the “winners”, and that they have briefly faced the types of challenges often faced by people living within stateless societies.


In our role as teachers of undergraduate students, we are faced with the daily challenge of not only explaining key anthropological concepts, but doing so in ways that make these concepts memorable. Many of us have long recognized that different types of active learning, experiential learning (learning through reflection on doing), in-class games or exercises, can be a particularly effective way for students to more fully reflect on some of the more abstract concepts that we want them to understand and apply. Less often discussed, however, is how these in-class games or simulations can provoke strong emotional reactions, sometimes even negative ones such as resentment or anger, which can serve a pedagogical role. Students’ emotional reactions to in-class exercises can often play an important role in helping students better inhabit a cultural point of view (an emic perspective) different from what they typically experience.

In this paper I describe an in-class exercise (really a simple simulation) that I created while teaching Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. This exercise helps students reflect on how people living in acephalous societies (societies without some type of overarching centralized authority) face significant challenges in relation to maintaining social order, especially in relation to avoiding warfare with neighboring communities. In the exercise groups of students must negotiate with each other, but lack any way to enforce any negotiated agreement. Because the game is presented as having an effect on their class grade, they are very engaged and their emotions are heightened. They experience frustration with negotiations, distrust toward other students, and anger toward classmates that have tricked them. During the post-exercise debriefing, participants discover that all students will earn extra credit rather than just the “winners”, and that they have briefly faced the types of challenges often faced by people living within stateless societies.

Class Preparation before the Simulation:

Before carrying out this class exercise, it is important to already have reviewed in class some classic concepts within political and economic anthropology. In a previous class meeting, I have described several types of non-market economic exchange frequently found in traditional societies. For example, I have reviewed the differences between generalized reciprocity (with little or no expectation of a return exchange), balanced reciprocity (in which exchanges balance out), and negative reciprocity (in which participants attempt to gain an advantage over the other), as originally defined by Marshal Sahlins (1972). I ask students to try to identify within American society some examples of each of these types of non-market exchanges of goods. They often identify the Halloween custom of “trick or treat”, in which adults give candy to children of strangers without expecting anything in return, as a form of generalized reciprocity. They sometimes identify the exchange of birthday gifts between friends as an example of delayed balanced reciprocity, and the exchange of gifts at Christmas as an example of the less common simultaneous balanced reciprocity. Students, however, generally find it more difficult to find institutionalized examples of negative reciprocity, other than the haggling found in some market places.

As an example of negative reciprocity that is found in a non-Western society,  I describe some examples of competitive gift giving, such as the Moka “gift economy” found in New Guinea, and the Potlatchsystem of the Pacific Northwest in North America. Students are surprised to learn of economic systems in which individuals and entire villages give large amount of wealth (100s of pigs, or vats of salmon oil), not to their friends, but to their adversaries. Furthermore they do this not as a way of establishing a friendship, but as a way of humiliating them, and putting them into a sub-ordinate position, in debt, until the gift is repaid with significant interest. Marcel Mauss (1922) described this type of exchange as existing as a form of aggression through gift giving. I begin to describe to students how, counter intuitively, that even though these economic exchanges are not friendly, they create social ties that tend to reduce violence between communities that are normally hostile to each other. The lender does not want to attack the debtor, for fear of delaying repayment. The debtor must repay the gift, or risk losing status, or even being ostracized from the Potlachor Mokasystem of exchange. During class discussion, some students ask why these gift exchange systems are necessary at all, and wonder why they don’t just establish non-aggression peace treaties instead, rather than develop these elaborate gift economies. I developed the following exercise to illustrate the inherent difficulty that people in traditional societies with no centralized authority faced when trying to negotiate agreements with neighboring groups.

Materials needed and the Class Activity (30-35 minutes):

  • A bag of candy (or some other small reward)
  • 6 red & 6 black poker chips (for 6 groups of 4 or 5 students)

At this point, I announce to the class that they are going to play a game, and that how they play this game will have real world consequences for the course. I explain that depending on how they play the game, some students will get extra-credit (in this case drop their lowest quiz score), essentially getting a higher class grade, and other students by default will have a slightly lower class grade (because students’ cumulative quiz grade is calculated according to a class curve and students who do not drop their lowest quiz grade will have slightly lower cumulative quiz grade)[1]. This very effectively gets the attention of every student in the classroom.

I explain the rules and consequences of the game to the class by showing the following PowerPoint slide;

Illustration 1. PowerPoint slide with the rules and consequences of the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game.

My introductory course usually has between 25 and 30 students. I divide the students into small teams, typically six teams or tribes of four or five students each. All of the teams are given two poker chips, one black and the other red. Each team is paired with another team, so there are three pairs of two teams. Each team will play this game only with the team with whom they are paired.

I explain that I will give the teams five minutes to talk among themselves, but at the end of five minutes, I will ask a representative (a team captain/“big man”) from each team to come up to the front of the class, with a single chip held behind their back, and that on the count of three that person will display to the other team captain either a black or red chip. Depending on what each team captain displays, there are three possible outcomes.

  • If both team representatives display a red chip, all the members of both teams earn candy.
  • If one team representative displays a red chip, and the other team representative displays a black chip, the tribe with the displayed black chip gets candy, and extra course credit (in this case having their lower quiz grade dropped). The other team gets nothing.
  • If both teams display a black chip, however, neither team gets candy or extra credit.

I explain that they will only get one chance to play this game, and that all results will be final.

Student Reactions to the Game Prompt:

Students in their teams examine the prompt, go over the different possibilities, and usually conclude fairly quickly (1-2 minutes) that they will display a black chip. They realize that only by displaying a black chip, will they have a chance to improve their individual class grades, and as a small added bonus get some candy. If they display a red chip, and the other team displays a black chip, they will get neither a grade bonus nor a small consolation prize of candy. The possibility of getting class extra-credit far outweighed the benefit of each team member getting a small piece of candy. Only very rarely, did team members realize that they can try to negotiate with the opposing team. When I first ran this simulation, the result was that when I called up the three pairs of tribal leaders, all six leaders would, with rare exception, display a black chip, sometimes with groans of disappointment, because they all realized that no one would earn extra credit, or candy.

Inter-Tribal Negotiations

More recently, after getting the teams together, explaining the rules, and letting them discuss their options for 1-2 minutes, I remind them that they can negotiate with the opposing team. This has led to more interesting situations, where opposing teams try to negotiate some mutually beneficial outcome. Sometimes one team, for example, proposes to the other that if they are allowed to win the class grade extra credit (by having one team display a black chip and the other a red chip), that they would give the candy they would also win to the other team. This is usually not an acceptable proposal for the team being offered just the candy, because of the unequal rewards.

Sometimes a team tries to convince the other team to display a red chip, and promise that they too will display a red chip, and that both teams will win candy. They argue that this is better than both of them displaying black chips, and both teams getting nothing. Usually the other tribe sees this as a ruse, and believe that the other team is trying to trick them, and will refuse to make the agreement. Sometimes they make the agreement, and both teams betray each other, both tribes earn nothing. Sometimes, rarely, they make an agreement to display red chips, and they actually follow through, and both tribes win candy.[2]A happy ending in which everyone is a winner. But more frequently when both teams agree to display a red chip, one of the teams betrays the other team, and wins both the candy and the extra-credit. This can create a tense situation, with the members of the losing team getting genuinely angry at the other.


After finishing the game, I begin to debrief the students by asking them why they took the actions that they did. Typically teams that ended up tricking their partner team claim that they assumed that the other team was trying to trick them, and that is why they lied about which chip they were going to display. Tricked teams express their frustration. To reduce any lingering tension and anger between the students, I tell them that not only will the tribes that tricked their opponents earn extra credit (by dropping their lowest quiz grade), but that in fact everyone in the class will have their lowest quiz grade dropped and get thecandy reward. I explain that I did not technically lie to them, as I never stipulated that I would not extend the grade bonus to everyone. I tell the students that they have just attempted to solve a version of the notorious “prisoner’s dilemma” originally developed by game theory theorists during the 1950s (Axelrod 1984).

I display a PowerPoint slide that explains the prisoner’s dilemma;

Illustration 3.) Slide that explains the prisoner’s dilemma and illustrates how

Two bank robbers, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, but, having separated both prisoners, offer them the same deal: If both remain silent, both prisoners will be sentenced to only 1 year in jail for a minor charge. But if one agrees to testify against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent one receives a long 20-year sentence. If both betray each other, each receives a 10-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. Neither prisoner, however, knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. What should a purely self-interested prisoner do?

In the ensuing discussion, some students agree that they should betray each other. Some argue that if they really trusted each other, then they should both refuse to “rat” out the other thief, so that they will each only spend one year in prison rather than 20. But reflecting on their own recent experience, some will argue that even if a bank robber is 100% sure his confederate will not rat him out, that a bank robber who is truly only concerned only about his own self-interest, should betray his partner. Why serve even one year in jail if you can walk out completely free?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma Connected to Potlatch/MokaGift Exchange Systems:  

I now connect the prisoner’s dilemma game they have just played, back to social conditions of communities living within an acephalous society. Without a centralized authority to enforce laws, how do tribes, communities, villages, trust that their neighbors will not to attack them? How would it even be possible for them to establish and enforce treaties? If you believe that a neighboring tribe might attack you in the middle of the night, massacring you, what is the most logical thing for you to do? You must attack them first, preferably during the middle of the night, perhaps with no survivors who might take revenge.

Early political scientists, such as Thomas Hobbes, could not even imagine how these societies without centralized authority could maintain order. Hobbes argued that life in a society in which there was no centralized authority to enforce laws and social order would lead to violent chaos. He famously argued that before the emergence of a sovereign king (a centralized authority) society consisted of a “war of every man against every man”, that made life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 1651). He envisioned a world in dominated by a “prisoner’s dilemma” that could not be solved, and cooperation seemed impossible. In the class simulation, students themselves saw how difficult it was for them to establish trust and cooperate with their classmates.

Economic exchange systems like the Mokaand Potlatch, however, illustrate some ways in which acephalous societies are able to maintain social order, even without having a superior authority enforcing the rules. Self-enforcing systems emerge that provide incentives for rational actors not to cheat. Students through their own in-class experience come to see that social order, does not necessarily come from authority, but rather from cultural systems.


Classroom exercises such as this one can help convey complex ideas in ways that students can understand logically, visualize concretely, and experience emotionally. Because students’ experiences are limited to living in a world that has long been controlled by states that enforce laws and legal agreements, it is hard for them to imagine the challenges people faced maintaining social order in acephalous societies. This exercise reflects an experiential perspective toward teaching in which students themselves experience the challenge in having no one enforce agreements made between groups of students. Additionally, because the exercise often evokes temporary emotions of frustration when agreements cannot be forged, and even anger toward students on another team when they realize that they have been tricked, it makes the lesson more memorable. This type of in-class exercise can create an embodied experience in which students apply logic and employ persuasion to solve problems that have real world consequences, at least within the micro-culture of the classroom.


Axelrod, Robert (1984) The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books

Hobbes, Thomas (1982) [1651] Leviathan. London: Penguin Classics.

Mauss, Marcel (1990) [1922] The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies.

London: Routledge.

Sahlins, Marshall (1972) Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldein-Atherton.


Teaching Tolerance

One year on from the inauguration of Donald Trump, the following resource provides an thoughtful and well-informed starting point for exploring questions of tolerance not only in the teaching of anthropology but in the project of teaching and learning more generally. Click here to explore how anthropologists of education are addressing questions about teaching and tolerance.

Feminizing the Canon:  Classics in Anthropology from the Perspective of Female Authors

PhD Ana Gretel Echazú Böschemeier, PPGSCol/UFRN (Brazil)[i]

PhD Izis Morais Lopes dos Reis, MPDFT/DF (Brazil)[ii]

PhD Natalia Cabanillas, PPGS, FAFICH/UFMG (Brazil)[iii]

PhD Olga Rodríguez-Sierra, ICe/UFRN (Brazil)[iv]

MgSc Maria José Villares Barral Villas Boas, UnB (Brazil)[v]

PhD Lucrecia Greco, UBA/ICS (Argentina)[vi]

What is a classic? Have we ever questioned the grounds to consider a text a ‘classic’? As young anthropologists in Brazil, we present this syllabus departing from this very simple question. We have inherited astonishing obedience to the “founding fathers” of the discipline, by reading their monographs, discussing their theories, and memorizing their disputes and polemics (Eriksen & Nielsen, 2001). Often, women appear as subjects of the research only in the background or mentioned in the acknowledgments as wonderful colleagues and partners of their male counterparts. However, female anthropologists have existed, they have written a variety of texts and ethnographies. Where are these female authors represented in the canon? Is it possible that none of their contributions deserve a place in the list of the so-called ‘classics’? Hence, we insist in the question, what is, precisely, a classic?

The literature professor Ankhi Mukherjee wrote about this question and started from a very problematic statement: “the classic is the one who survives critical questioning” (Mukherjee, 2010: 1028). She proposes that the “classics” are a sociological category defined as the “aristocracy of texts” and that the power of canonicity in the formation of a corpus is “to congeal the literary art of memory” (idem, 2010: 1029). We believe there has been a theoretical and experiential alienation from several generations of anthropologists who have been educated by reading, memorizing, discussing and quoting theoretical and ethnographic texts in which the subject that writes is primarily a man.

In Brazilian academy the situation acquires particular contours. Except for the outstanding contributions of the European anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966), the North American anthropologists Margaret Mead (1928) and Ruth Benedict (1934), the Brazilian anthropologists Mariza Peirano (1981) and Mariza Corrêa (1990); the anthropological corpus of classic texts in Brazilian universities has been dominantly masculine. The remarkable research from Miriam Grossi and Carmen Rial (2002) points towards the important contributions of three French women ethnologists and Marcel Mauss’ students: Denise Paulme, Germaine Dieterlain, and Germaine de Tillion. The ethnologist Marcel Mauss is one of the so-called “founding fathers” of anthropology; however, his female students appear more like the living memory of an extraordinary man than as singular contributors to anthropology themselves. The downplay of women contributions has been a frequent situation in our discipline. In this line, Mariza Corrêa states the difficulty of recovering the imprint of women as contributors to anthropology, who appear as “minor characters, people passing through the halls” (2003, p. 17).

Driven by a vigorous interest in diversifying the canon, we propose a course syllabus that gives substance, vitality, and a new light on concerns of past and present female authors. We organized the proposal by geographical locations, intending to decenter knowledge production from the Eurocentric pattern. Our proposal is more provocative than exhaustive: the aim is to socialize our discomfort. We are convinced that bringing female authors into basic anthropological discussions will disrupt opressing disciplinary pedagogies and help grow our discipline towards a more diverse discussion.

Our course addresses the following questions: Who are those women anthropologists? What did they write about? What were their concerns and interests? Which concepts and methodologies they brought to our field? How can we build a timeline made from fragments of a story that has yet to be unified? Further, our general framework includes other systems of power intersecting with the variable gender, such as race and class (Crenshaw, 1995). To this end, our course is not only grounded in feminist theory but also in a postcolonial approach. To say it explicitly, the authors regarded as classics of the discipline were not only men; they were white men writing from the position of privilege where social relations of modernity, capitalism, and patriarchy favored them. We put particular emphasis in searching for those perspectives that have been silenced or given less importance due to their symbolic place of writing.

From a methodological standpoint, the genderization – as well as the racialization – of women during fieldwork is precious to the very constitution of politics of a situated knowledge (Haraway, 2009). The interlocutors in the field, the research focus, and the links between problematic nodes (Oldfield & Salo, 2009) allow the emergence of a differentiated perspective. Our purpose is to start a discussion that brings the theoretical and methodological diversity of women’s voices; for instance, the indigenous, the Afro-descendants, and the mestizas. Also, the voices from collectivities that struggle for their right to representation and proportionality in the scientific field as well as in other domains of society (e.g. the LGBTT community). Facing this era of “post-humanism” haranguing masses all over the world, the deconstruction of the anthropological canon emerges as a platform for diversity and defense of human rights. The history and contributions of female authors deserve to be acknowledged as a precious legacy to be remembered and expanded by new generations of world anthropologists.

About us

This initiative stems from postgraduate students and alumni of the Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social at the University of Brasília (PPGAS/UnB), and has been complemented by researchers linked to South African, Mexican and Argentinian universities that spent different academic periods at Brazilian universities. We are authors of monographs and articles that have learned to face the unconscious gender biases that permeate through the practice of science. Silence is the most common survival strategy, silence about gender inequality and violence in our classrooms, syllabus, committees, publications, and congresses. To identify those pitfalls, we have decided to socialize the deconstruction process of the ‘classics’ as a sociological category through discussions and insights happening inside and outside the classrooms. Our hope is to cherish the style, concerns, and positions of all those women who write anthropology.

Find the syllabus below: 

 [embeddoc url=”” download=”all” viewer=”microsoft”]


Benedict, Ruth (1934), Patterns of Culture, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Corrêa, Mariza (2003), Antropólogas e antropologia [Female anthropologists and anthropology], Belo Horizonte: Editora da UFMG.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1995), Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, New York: The New Press.

Douglas, Mary (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London & New York: Routledge.

Eriksen, Thomas & Finn Nielsen (2001), A history of anthropology, Chicago: Pluto Press.

Haraway, Donna (2009), ‘Situated Knowledges. The science question and the privilege of partial perspective’, Cadernos Pagu, (5): 7-41. Available at:

Mead, Margaret (1928), Coming of age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for western civilisation, New York: William Morrow and Company.

Mukherjee, Ankhi (2013), What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon, Standford: Stanford University Press.

Oldfield, Sophie; Salo, Elaine (2009), ‘Nurturing researchers, building local knowledge, the body politics project’, Feminist Africa, (13) 87-94.

Rial, Carmen; Grossi, Miriam (2002), Mauss Segundo Suas Alunas [Mauss from the view of his female students]. [Documentary] Available at: