Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea: a Lasting Society

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  • Topic: Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bronisław Malinowski
  • Pages : 5 (1476 words )
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  • Published : April 7, 2006
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The people of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea have been a source of interest to anthropologists since the early 1900s, when Bronislaw Malinowski first studied them. In a time when anthropology was "barely established as a formal discipline" (Weiner, 1988), Malinowski had an intense interest in ethnographical field work as well as the fascinating culture of the natives of what was then called Papua, the southeastern part of mainland New Guinea. The Trobriand way of life is extremely different from that of typical western or eastern cultures. In addition to being a matrilineal society, the Trobrianders engage in markedly different courtship and marriage activities, and have been able to preserve much of their culture despite colonization and influence from other cultures.

The first anthropologist to perform an ethnographic study of the Trobriands was Malinowski. Between 1915 and 1918, Malinowski lived a total of two years with Trobriand people and gathered information for what would be his most significant and memorable work in the field of anthropology. Though Malinowski made vast improvements in the field of ethnographical research, he was not without flaws. As many early anthropologists and social scientists did, Malinowski focused mainly on the role of males in the society, with less regard to female influence or way of life. Since Malinowski, other anthropologists have returned to New Guinea to study the Trobriands. Among these is Annette B. Weiner, who performed her predoctoral fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands in 1971 and 1972. Weiner was able to confirm many of Malinowski's findings while encountering information that had been overlooked or had occurred in the nearly sixty years between their visits. The writings of these anthropologists and others give insight into a culture that is exotic, intriguing, and unmatched by anything in the western world.

The economy of the Trobriands is more complex than originally thought. When Malinowski lived there, he recognized that yams were used as a form of currency, but paid little attention to the presence of the solely female currency of banana leaves and skirts (Weiner, 1988). Malinowski wrote of the importance of yams in Trobriand society, as they are given to the relatives of daughters or sisters' husbands when she marries and again when a member of the husband's family dies. He also wrote of yam competitions, organized by men to convey wealth or aspirations to higher status. In said competitions, the man gives large amounts of yams to guests—doing so gives the man status and power within the group. Trobriands keep their yams in "yam houses," structures that, in the way that they store currency, are comparable to bank accounts in western cultures. When the yam house is full, the owner is wealthy and capable of fulfilling social obligations; an empty yam house is a sign of either a recent death or marriage (in the maternal line) or a bad harvest (Malinowski, 1922). The aspect of banana leaves and skirts as solely female currency was not a focus of Malinowski's research. Weiner, however, came to understand that though there is no "utilitarian value" in these items, they are the products of extensive labor and are essential for paying off members of other lineages who were close to a recently deceased relative and who helped with the funeral. The wealth and vitality of the dead person's lineage is measured by the quality and quantity of bundles and skirts (dyed red) distributed (Weiner, 1988). Another purpose of the yam house is to provide yams to purchase this "female wealth" if not enough bundles or skirts have been produced. The Trobriand wife may require all of the yams in the yam house, and this system is an effective check on the husband's wealth.

Trobriand society is marked by rank and social differentiation, with chiefs as the primary leaders. Respect must be shown to the chiefs at all times; including never standing or...
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