Download a PDF of this paper

Symbols of Trobriand Kinship

By Gilbert H. Herdt

University of Washington

December 1972


         Trobriand kinship is of continuing interest. This paper is concerned with a cultural description of the rules of how persons and groups are defined as kin, from non-kin, in the Trobriands. Such rules stem from the meanings of three rather pervasive symbols in Trobriand culture which I have chosen to study: "blood," "spirit," and "land."

        Published analyses of Trobriand kinship have in large measure been models which were based upon whatever ideas the analyst happened to think "kinship" was all about.  For Malinowski, for example, "kinship" was the "social recognition of biological facts" (Schneider 1972: 46). The "basic facts" of Trobriand kinship -- the nuclear family, marriage, sexual intercourse, incest, and so forth -- were experienced in the "initial situation" of the family. Certain feelings and psycho-biological meanings became attached to the persons who are called by kin terms used in the family and extended into a person's wider social world.

        In Leach's case (1958), Trobriand "kinship" is all about social categories of persons and groups who are related through common residence, economic affiliation, and a kind of spatial-temporal ecological patterning. Though Leach states that residential grouping, and the meaning of such grouping, is just as important a factor as genealogical affiliation and descent, his primary emphasis is placed on the genealogical grid (Leach 1958: 143). Trobriand kinship classification, with an emphasis upon statistically significant concrete behaviors, instead of jural rules, is his preoccupation.

        Lounsbury's model of Trobriand kinship is concerned with working out the dimensions of the referent "types" of genealogical kin classifications. For Lounsbury, working out the rules for determining how persons are placed on the genealogical grid, is his goal. One of the problems with Lounsbury's approach is that he assumes that a kin term has only one meaning, i.e., that it denotes either a primary or secondary referent "type." Of course Lounsbury admits that there may be other referents. But he claims that these are non-genealogical, and that they thus constitute kinship, or quasi-kinship rules which are still explained through the use of the grid.

        None of the writers, Malinowski, Leach, or Lounsbury, have been interested in the symbolic or cultural domain of kinship. Each has had an essential concern with the social and cultural biology of "kinship." The representation of the meanings of what comprises kin, versus, non-kin rules, have therefore been defined a priori in these studies of Trobriand "kinship." This is because each of the analysts has had a predominant concern with the "bio-genetic premises of a genealogical grid" (Schneider 1972: 37). Genealogical concerns are based, ultimately, on the belief that "kinship" is really about the facts of this single aspect of the system, and no others Thus symbols, which may relate to definitions of persons and groups as kin, distinguished from non-kin, are ignored, for the most part.

       The analysis of smbols which follows, is primarily intended to reveal how a cultural domain of "kinship" can be carved out of the vast complexity of material surrounding Trobriand culture as a whole. The level of analysis which is of concern in the description is consequently that of cultural rules or norms. Such rules are derived from, and represented in, the actual behavior of persons in interaction. But, actual behavior, defining the statistical instances of adherence to norms, is not the concern in this paper. The rules which stem from the meanings of symbols of various contexts, and usages, in Trobriand culture, are the focus of my account.

       I claim that the construction of meaningful rules or norms out of these pervasive symbols can be demonstrated to culturally define certain persons and groups of persons as kin, as distinguished from non-kin in the Trobriands. A Trobriand kinship construct is thus an adequate summary of how certain symbols combine from the widest context of Trobriand culture, to structure interaction, and produce meaning in terms of the "kinship factor" in relationships of groups and persons.

Click here to continue reading the kinship paper