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The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea by Annette B Weiner Introduction A Sacred Place Working in footsteps of celebrated anthropological ancestor Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski Before him most anthropological knowledge of Papua New Guinea societies was based on reports and diaries from missionaries govt officers and explorers Major research objectives survey as many unstudied Papuan peoples as possible and record their customs before colonization and missionary efforts created vast cultural changes in their traditions Intrigued by the Trobrianders society and their organization around high ranking chiefs he spend a total of 2 years in residence between 1915 and 1918 Recorded vast amounts of info and observations were detailed over a long time period No one in England had done this kind of fieldwork before Argued against earlier conceptions of primitive societies made by armchair anthropologists Study marks a watershed in Britain social anthropology making ethnology come of age as a scientific discipline Radically changed the way ethnographers approach fieldwork Argued for the important of field studies that lasted for a year or more cautioning the ethnographer to work in the local language and establish rapport with informants Cardinal rule of field work see reality from the natives point of view Malinowski s theoretical ideas about the functional relationship b w basic human needs and social institutions have been displaced by other more sophisticated theories He used the Trobriand material to argue in general about economics kinship sexuality religion and myth The Trobriands became the classic example of a small scale society Ethnographic Comparisons 60 years separate Malinowski s and Weiner s field work Comparison illustrates the developments in anthropological knowledge and inquiry from his time to mine Each difference can be traced historically within the discipline of anthropology Most significant point of departure women s productive work In original research plans women were not the central focus On the first day Weiner took up resident in a village she was taken by them to watch a distribution of their own wealth bundles of banana leaves and banana fiber skirts They exchanged with other women in commemoration of someone who had recently died Watching this forced Weiner to take women s economic roles more seriously then she would have by reading Malinowski s studies He had attributed Trobriand women s high status and importance to the fact that Trobriands reckon descent through women giving them genealogical significance in a matrilineal society For Malinowski the basic relationships within a Trobriand family were guided by the matrilineal principle of mother right and father love A father was called a stranger and had little authority over his own children A woman s brother was the commanding figure and exercised control over his sister s sons they were members of his matrilineage rather than their father s matrilineage According to Malinowski matrilineal drama played out biologically by the Trobrianders belief that a man has no role as genitor A man s wife is thought to become pregnant when an ancestral spirit enters her body and causes conception When a child is born it is the mother s brother who presents a harvest of yams to his sister so that her child will be fed food from its own matrilineage Malinowski conceptualized a matrilineality as an institution in which the father of a child as a member of a different matrilineage was excluded from participating in the procreation and from giving any objects of lasting value to his children provisioning them only with love Weiner s study Trobriand father isn t a stranger or powerless figure as 3rd party A man gives his child many opportunities to gain things from his matrilineage adding to the available resources that he she can draw upon Giving creates obligations on the part of a man s children toward him that last beyond death The roles that men and their children play in each other s lives are worked out through extensive cycles of exchanges which define the strength of their relationships to each other and eventually benefit the other members of both matrilineages Women and their wealth are central to these exchanges Kinship relationships form the basis of chiefly power Of all the Trobriand Islands only on Kiriwina are chiefs granted extensive authority and power Malinowski did most of his fieldwork on Kiriwina and couldn t have known about variations on other islands Only on this island do exchanges of women s wealth reach such large proportions and involve men in such critical ways Exchanges of women s wealth establish stability in the exchange relationships b w men The necessity for women s wealth each time someone dies requires the expenditure of certain kinds of men s resources The presence of women s wealth means that men aren t totally dependent on their own shell and stone valuables at death These aspects stabilizing relationships leveling some kinds of men s resources keeping other kinds free determine the level of hierarchy that chiefs are able to maintain while showing the limitations chides face in gaining additional powers that would bring them greater autonomy Malinowski s visionary ideas about the nature of human societies put him in the forefront of his day at the time many scholars believed that primitive peoples exhibited nonrational prelogical mentalities and placed such savages on the lowest rung of an evolutionary scale that in unilineal progression ended with civilization There was a picture of primitives as mechanical beings w o individual personalities who merely followed the same customs w o change as a group Malinowski exposed the ethnocentrism and racism behind these views Yet his claims that rational behavior could be documented by finding the pragmatic function for each custom or institution prevented him for appreciating the complexity of meanings expressed through symbolic actions that illuminated social political interaction Malinowski was tied in many ways to the very 19 th century philosophical ideas which he fought against According to Malinowski it is only when confronted by situations they cannot control because their pragmatic skills are inoperable that Trobrianders out of psychological stress turn from technology to magic Weiner observed that they turn to magic not out of psychological distress over a physical environment out of control but when it is essential that they produce a

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FSU ANT 3212 - The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea

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