The Trobriand Society

Download a PDF of this thesis     

By Susan P. Montague

University of Chicago
June 1974

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Social Sciences
in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Department of Anthropology



            Trobriand Islanders, unbeknownst to themselves, have fascinated anthropologists ever since Malinowski published his Kiriwinan ethnographies. With a combination of charismatic teaching abilities, an interesting writing style, and quantities of exotic data, Malinowski managed to make Trobriand ethnography on of the few data languages widely spoken in anthropology, a field wherein lack of mutual data comprehension poses very serious communication problems. The unusual position of the Trobriand material as one of the few bodies of cultural data with which most if not all anthropologists have more than a nodding acquaintance, and about which most of them have formulated decided opinions places special burdens on anyone who would attempt to become a first hand Trobriand expert through independent field work. Either one disappoints by not being conversant about one of the many theoretical controversies in which the data have figured, or, and what is worse, by having to point out that Malinowski did not have all the cultural facts right, especially facts about village social organization. The latter is particularly distressing since anthropologists have all in good faith assumed the accuracy of certain principles of organization and utilized them as the basis for construction of theory. Their often considerable commitment to these principles as stated by Malinowski is understandable.
            In part this “Malinowski as Gospel” situation has arisen because a comparatively long period has passed during which the Trobriand material has been used by theoreticians and during which there has been very little field data made available. Leo Austin, a local government administrator, commented in the 1930’s on Trobriand conception beliefs, but on little else. It was not until 1950 that a second anthropologist, Dr. Harry Powell, did additional field work on Kiriwina Island. And unfortunately the bulk of his findings have not yet been published, although he has written on Trobriand politics and kinship (1965; 1968; 1969a and b). After Powell’s field trip there was a lapse of twenty years, until in 1970 and 1971 three anthropologists independently decided to attempt restudies, myself, Annette Weiner, from Bryn Maur, and Gerald Leach, from Cambridge University. Ms. Weiner worked on exchange and magic in a central Kiriwina village, and Mr. Leach on classifications in a coastal Kiriwina village. Hopefully our work in combination with the reanalysis Powell is currently conducting of his data will significantly improve the level of accuracy in Trobriand cultural data available to scholars. It should also help clear up certain theoretical problems which are based on factual misinformation.
            However, I wish to state at the outset that I am to a large extent ignoring my burden in this thesis. Readers looking for specific reanalysis of such controversies as virgin birth, patrilateral cross cousin marriage rules, or the tama-kada kinship displacement problems will be disappointed. There is considerable data presented which is relevant to these problems, but rather than focusing upon them I have organized my ethnography around a somewhat different set of theoretical approaches which I currently find particularly interesting. As they underly this monograph I will present them briefly.
            David Labby (unpublished Doctoral Thesis, University of Chicago, 1972) has elegantly argued that anthropology is best considered not as the science of cultural, but rather a science of culture. By this he is referring to the fact that we Westerners have no monopoly on models of what human life is about and how it works. Social anthropologists have, formally, attempted to create models to account for the organization of societies which, by being pan-societal in their application, are both superior to and can ignore native social models. The problem which arises is that it is difficult to define a series of units and transactions with which to relevantly describe social transactions apart from the units and transactions defined by the actors involved. A notable example is Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma (1965), wherein the author first states his intent of providing an anthropological model of Kachin political organization, then outlines the gumsa-gumlao model, and finally winds up validating his model by insisting that it is the model the natives use themselves. Anthropologists working on cross-cultural models of social organization face this dilemma even more acutely, for they in fact are working on models abstracted from cultural statements, not based on observed actual transactions. One can only, with any sense of validity, describe “matrilineal” societies as such on the grounds that these societies possess rules of “matriliny.” Of course, one can always have recourse, as Levi-Struass sometimes does (1967:128-59), to masked organization principles, but this is rather dangerous in that it is by definition unverifiable. In fact, most comparative social organization analysts are interested in the composition of native organizational principles, that is, in the native models of social organization. They are hindered by the fact that the assumption that one can somehow validly describe social transactions without recourse to the culture of the people engaging in them tends to produce monographs which lack precisely the data which they need to provide a data basis for their analysis.
            This situation might be further clarified by using the analogy of games. Social anthropologists have been trying to find universals with which to describe any game in play. To do this they have focused on watching and describing games being played rather than learning the rules governing the games in play. As anyone who has ever watched a game which they did not know (and “knowing a game” in American lay parlance consist of at least being acquainted with the rules) is aware, it is very difficult to construct a predictable model of what is happening and the implications of that action for the future turn of events. The only way to even describe the action is by using and modifying the rules of other games on already knows, which in anthropology has led to the wholesale application of Western domain distinctions to foreign cultures. A far easier approach,  of course, is to inquire about the rules of the game, whereupon the observed play beings to make sense.
            The same is true of social transactions. But the higher goal still tempts us. For there is indeed such a thing as game analysis which specifies the character of all games apart from their individual set of rules. Further it provides a set of principles with which it is possible to look at the course of different games in play, and to compare and contrast them. Why then cannot the same be done for the organization of social transactions?
            Hopefully it can. I would maintain that the problem is not unfeasible, but that anthropologists have not been looking generally in the right direction to carry it out. Attempting to describe and account for social action apart from the culture of the actors involved has had two pernicious results. The systematic collection of native cosmological models has been largely ignored, and there has been an altogether too ready tendency to gloss the information gaps with our own categorical definitions. Detailed descriptions of how non-literate peoples define their physical and social universe are rarities in the anthropological literature. There are happily some exceptions in the social literature such as Evans Pritchard on Nuer religion and Leinhardt on the Dinka. And the more recent interest in symbolism has of course focused on native ideologies. But even so, there are comparatively few monographs dedicated explicitly to the question “What is life all about to the So-and-So?” Certain ideological themes are identified and their implications for social action discussed, but there is only a very limited attempt to deal with over-all native cosmology.
            David Schneider (Systems Lecture, University of Chicago, 1968) has suggested that all cultural systems are based on a relatively limited number of unit definitions and procedural principles. The actor exists by internalizing these and using them to generate the more specific, situationally relevant ideas applicable to his every day actions. One quality of basic cultural definitions would be that they lend themselves to a good deal of ideological manipulation. Again the game analogy is relevant. Interesting games are those wherein the rules, a small, readily learned set, leave room for a great deal of manipulation and calculation in the actual play of the game. Chess and bridge are good examples. In Levi-Strauss’ terms, such rules are good to think because in application they create, for practical purposes, an infinite combinational set.
            If Schneider is correct it would be desirable to isolate the basic cultural definition which underlie the more specific, situationally relevant statements given by our informants. And, following upon the success of games theorists, it should be possible to work out models which handle both the logical structure of such rule sets and the principles of how they are manipulated to lead to action constructs. That is, both the qualifies of the rules themselves and the characteristics of the games which may be played with them might be made explicit. Two problems, however, arise at this point.
            First, if basic cultural rules, unlike game rules, tend to be unconsciously learned and internalized by our informants such that they do not state them systematically for the ethnographer, he is faced with the job of constructing them out of the myriad of specific situational statements he receives. The situation would seem to be the same as that confronted by linguists who attempt to come up with rules by which informants generate sentences. The difficulty is that it is impossible to check generative grammar models directly with informants. The best that can be done is to test them for consistency against an ever larger set of sentences, for informants cannot retrieve their unconscious enough to verify whether the proposed processes are indeed those which they use. However, anthropologists really are not in this position. What we are after is the message content of basic definitions and informants can in fact, when we put them to the rules we think they may be using, indicate whether or not we are correct. In this respect Schneider’s own work on American kinship (1968) is illuminating. American informants have not ordinarily thought of their kin classification as based on manipulations of the symbols nature, culture and love, but when this formulation is put to them they intuitively recognize it, and further can offer corrections on his basic model. They, in other words,  are fully capable of thinking critically about basic symbols and rules for their interaction.
            The second problem lies in specifying the qualities of basic cultural models. Game theorists have succeeded precisely because all games are structured around the same type of logic: they all pose a problem capable of solution, they define the units and manipulations of these units which are to be involved in accomplishing the solution, and they operate on a zero sum set where some of the actors win and others lose. What games theorists have done is to say that the rules of any game are a unique instance of a single logic, recognized as such by the players. They can, therefore, by analyzed as a set. However, we do not know this to be the case of different cosmologies, nor do we have the data available with which to find out.
            This thesis, then, is an attempt to begin rectifying our information gap. My information is far from complete. I have focused on Kaduwagan concepts of human beings and human interactions My data on the spirit world and how people relate to spirits, on the animal world, and on the character of the physical universe in general is severely limited. However, my informants were extremely helpful on the topic of people and society. In large part this is due to the necessity to educate a naïve foreigner to the point that she might know how to act properly in the village My social data comes only in small part from interviews since I rapidly found that I learned the most when attempting to participate as an actor in village events. At that point my informants had direct stakes in my education and had well defined contexts to determine what sort of information I should receive. The problem of contexts was always tiresome when I interviewed because I did not know enough to construct them properly and without them informants were at a loss as to what sort of information they should be trying to convey. I would ask a question and my informant would respond, “If the question you are asking is this (there would follow a statement of some question) then the answer is …” Often I had no more idea of what he was talking about then he did of me. This situation did not arise when I worked in contextualized situations created by my informants.
            My initial interests in the Trobriands were centered around some of the inconsistencies in the data in Malinowski’s Sexual Life of Savages (1929). In order to investigate Trobriand “kin” organization I settled in the village of Kaduwaga, the largest village on the island of Kaileuna, itself the second largest of the Trobriand Islands. Kaduwaga is mentioned in the Argonauts as one of the strongest maritime villages in the Trobriands, with an especially large fleet of sea going outrigger canoes (waga masawa). Like Omarakana, Kaduwaga is controlled by the Tabalu and enjoys their prestige. Katubai, the current chief (guyau), counts all of Kaileuna, Manuwata, and Kuyao Islands as falling under his political dominance. Although he does not directly control the other villages on these islands, he intervenes to settle disputes within or between them when asked to or when he perceives it in his interest to do so, and he is recognized by them as the strongest political figure in the area. Kaduwaga is likewise recognized as its largest and most powerful village, although fierce village pride prevents members of other villages from defining Kaduwaga as more prestigious than any other. Kaduwaga is the largest Trobriand village on any island other than Kiriwina, and is larger then most on Kiriwina with a population of around 150 adults. (Vanoi, the Paramount Chief, estimated for me that Omarakana has about forty adult residents).
            While I intitially perceived my project as involving topics covered in Sexual Life of Savages such as dala and clan structures and the “kinship” terms, I rapidly discovered that it is impossible to treat on these apart from a consideration of exchange rules since the utility of these various relational units is defined by Kaduwagans in terms of their exchange roles. Although Malinowski devotes considerable space to specific types of exchange such as kula and uligubu, I was quite unprepared for the Kiriwinan preoccupation with exchange itself. Fortunately on my way to the Trobriands I was able to visit with Harry Powell and he explained to me something of what existed in Kiriwinan terms would involve, namely constant meticulously exacting reciprocity in the form of payment for goods and services. I think a major difficulty for any Westerner living in a Trobriand environment is that we characterize social acceptance by a certain informality in exchange reciprocity. The American position is expressed in the contrast: purchase and impersonal relations, gifts and personal relations. Although we expect balanced reciprocity with our friends in the long run, it is rude to harp on each transaction. Kaduwagans are, of course, also able to express social distances in their exchanges, but they do it according to a different logic.  Instead of contrasting immediate reciprocity, long term reciprocity, they use different categories of reciprocity. Thus my closest friends in Kaduwaga kept as careful a tally on each of our exchange transactions as if we had been strangers, but they categorized our exchanges as pilasi (help), not gimwala (buying and selling.) Each involve exacting short term reciprocity, but the former is the proper term for exchanges between friends who care for one another and who are exchanging because of that care. Thus someone would bring me cooked food for dinner, and state that she helps me and I help her. Shortly after dinner a member of her family or she herself would turn up wanting tobacco, or maybe rice or some tea and sugar. Once I gave Katubai a pen and tried to explain that it was a gift. I doubt he understood, but in any case he quickly put it into the category pilasi and thought of something he had done for me for which he was willing to consider the pen payment.
            The Kaduwagan position on exact reciprocity is but one instance which arises out of a broader philosophical position which is in sharp contrast to that found in America. Kaduwagans define a person as estimable according to what and how he exchanges. Hence my friends frequently said, “Oh, we’ll be so sorry when you leave. There’ll be no more tobacco or money for us. We’ll just be left here.” They were not being greedy, but rather saying that they would miss me as an exchange partner. (Dr. Powell has told me that his informants also said the same sort of things at the time of his departure from Kiriwina.)


Click here to continue reading the 'The Trobriand Society' thesis