Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kula in Argonauts of the Western Pacific( 1922) by Malinowski

The Book 'Argonauts of the Western Pacific' is about one set of activities of the Trobriand Islanders which they call Kula.They and the inhabitants  of some neighbouring islands form a kind of league for the exchange of certain objects,long necklace of red shell and bracelets of white shell.

In the system of exchange the necklace pass through communities one way round the circuit of islands and the bracelets pass the opposite way round.These objects have no practical value but only a ritual and prestige value the prestige consisting in the renown a man gets by receiving,possessing and then passing on particularly esteemed objects.

Those men who take part in these exchanges have partners in the islands they visit.The exchanges take place with formality and decorum and there must be no haggling ;though when the ritual exchanges are completed ordinary commercial transactions,bargaining for food or articles of particular use take place.The kula is the system of ritual exchange within which the necklaces and bracelets go round the island communities in everlasting circuit.

To carry out these exchanges the chiefs of the villages and groups of nearby villages organize large trading expeditions.This means the preparation of canoes,nautical knowledge of magical spells to aid against the chances of the adventure and knowledge of tradition and myth to guide the Argonauts in their voyages and negotiations.

Malinowski has given detailed accounts of magic and myth to describe the background and how the natives cultivate their gardens what is the social position of their women,how they construct and sail their canoes and so on.

To Malinowski a social system is a succession of activities  or events  and not a set of abstractions.To go on an expedition,Trobriand Islanders make canoes.In making canoes they utter magical spells.These spells have stories or myths,accounting for their origin.They also belong to someone by inheritance from his maternal uncle.In the making of canoe and in planning the expedition there is organization of labour and direction by the chiefs.The chiefs have authority largely because they are richer than commoners.They are richer because they have bigger gardens.

To Malinowski all these different activities form a system because each is dependent on all the others  and the functions of each is the part it plays in the total set of activities which have a direct or indirect bearing on the exchange of the ritual objects of kula.

According to Evans Pritchard Malinowski failed to see what is perhaps the most significant feature of the kula the bringing together through the acceptance of common ritual values of  politically autonomous communities.Also comparison  between the social life of a people described  and social life of other people similarly portrayed  is limited to assessment of cultural similarities and divergences and cannot be of structural kind for which abstraction is required.

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