What was the significance of Malinowski's Discussion of the Kula?
It is widely accepted that Malinowski was the founder of true anthropological fieldwork and this is a view shared by many anthropologists. An example of one such anthropologist was Adam Kuper. In 1973 Kuper undertook the writing of an analysis of the complete history of social anthropology in which he speaks comparatively highly of Malinowski. "Malinowski has a strong claim to being founder of the profession of social anthropology in Britain, for he established its distinctive apprenticeship- exotic fieldwork in an exotic country." (Kuper, 1973) Kuper is referring to the amazing lengths Malinowski went to in order to accurately study the culture of the Trobianders in Papa New Guinea, from his ethnographer's tent. The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the truth of Kuper's point of view and critically discuss the significance of the theories that transpired from the pivotal fieldwork completed by Malinowski, concentrating on those of which surround the discussion of the Kula. Many anthropologists of the late 19th Century, for example Frazer or Taylor, were known to conduct their research from the comfort of their own homes. Although keen to expose the lifestyle and routines of societies foreign to their own, they had limited techniques in which to do so. Their theories were only conceptualised by arranging information from the many accounts written by various travellers who may have happened upon an out of the ordinary culture. In this way the theories they produced have very little concrete evidence to back them up, as travellers, missionaries and other sources had very little anthropological experience.
The next generation of anthropologists including Hadden, Seligman and Rivers, did move a step closer to real fieldwork. By travelling to the country that concerned their area of study, they came out of the house and this coined the phrase onto the veranda'. These anthropologists were able to make deals with tribe members who were enticed to the veranda to give information on their culture and ways of life in return for rare commodities such as tobacco sticks. However this form of information gathering had its own disadvantages also. Again the anthropologists were relying on secondary sources. It could not be ruled out that the information given was to a certain extent fraudulent. It is possible that demand effects could have interfered with this type of research, the informants only giving the information they thought the experimenters wanted to hear in order to obtain the tobacco.
One anthropologist who had written much at this time often called for more intensive work. His name was William Halse Rivers. Although Rivers often used information provided by the missionaries he was the first to condemn this method of fieldwork. In his article Anthropology and the Missionary (1920), Rivers wrote of all the shortcomings of using missionaries as the primary source for information. He protested that after the missionaries had completed their own duties, they had little time left to achieve adequate training for the anthropological work. There was also the issue, which Rivers was keen to point out, of the divergence with the natives that their professions brought them. According to Rivers, the missionary is equivalent to a patron of the anthropologist as opposed to an associate. It was this disparagement of the need for missionaries in anthropological fieldwork that caused Rivers to necessitate a more rigorous method. At this time, Malinowski was beginning to mention his own "hatred of missionaries" (Malinowski, 1967, 31). There are many references found in Malinowski's diary which gives good evidence of the influence he experienced of the method Rivers suggested. "Reading Rivers, and ethnological theory in general is invaluable, gives me an entirely different impulse to work and enable me to profit from my observations in an...
References: Kuper, A. (1973). Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School. London Routledge.
Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Eastern Pacific. London: RKP.
Malinowski, B (1967) A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Mauss, M. (1990). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.
Rivers, W.H.R (1920) Anthropology and the Missionary. Church Missionary Review. Vol 71, Pg 208-215.
Shack, W. (1985) The Kula: A Bronislaw Malinowski Centennial Exhibition. Robert H. Lowie. Museum of Anthropology.
Wax, M.L. (1972). Tenting with Malinowski. American Sociological Review. Vol. 37 (1) Pg 1-13.
Young, M. (2004) Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist, 1884-1920. Yale University Press.
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