How primitive societies work
Life in the Trobriand Islands
In 1914, a young Polish anthropologist called Bronsilaw Malinowski set off for the Trobriand Islands off the North East coast of New Guinea to carry out his fieldwork. No sooner had he left than war broke out in Europe, and being Polish he did not quite know which side he was on, nor which side he wanted to be on. Thus, so the story goes, he spent the next three years continuing his field work in the Trobriands and returning only as far as Australia. He was a brilliant linguist, and soon mastered the Native languages, so it therefore became one of the most extensive pieces of fieldwork ever carried out in anthropology.
On his return to Europe, he eventually became Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics where he wrote one of the most famous and influential books in anthropology, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific. He then went on to write one of the best selling books in anthropology, The Sexual Life of Savages. But in the Argonauts he explored virtually for the first time the economics of these primitive, or should we say pre-market economies.
Already by this time a principle had been worked out among anthropologists that primitive societies were different. The differences were first noted in their social structure: they tended to be kin-based, with a very elaborate system where you knew in great detail all your cousins and sisters and aunts - and further afield too. The system was seen at its most rigid in India in the caste society where you always remained in the caste into which you were born, but the system is known widely throughout the world, and anyone who wishes to understand such societies must be prepared to study the ramifications of the kinship system.
But in the Trobiands, Malinowski went beyond this. Not only did he work out the complicated kinship system, but he also studied the economic basis. Here he worked out, virtually the for the first time, the workings of the gift exchange system, and in particular the famous Kula ring by which gifts were exchanged by canoe over the vast distances of the South Sea Islands
Where are the Trobriands? They lie in fact 600 miles north-east of the north east corner of Australia, though they can be more accurately defined as being 100 miles north of the North East corner of Papua New Guinea. They are the outermost of a group of small islands, lying 100 to the north of the New Guinea coast. The Trobriands are one of the smaller groups, the largest of which is only 30 miles long by 10 miles wide. To the outsider they can appear at first sight to be idyllic settlements down by the sea shore. Sailing in their long canoes inevitably played a major role in their life connecting up the islands, and this led to chieftains arising, as chiefs were needed to direct the construction and sailing of the canoes.
The basis of the economy was gardening, mostly growing yams. The land was very fertile, so they could grow twice what was needed, so plenty could be left to rot, but they took great pride in their gardening and they vied with each other to have the neatest garden. At harvest time everyone piled up their produce in neat conical heaps under shelters made of yam vines, and everyone admired the heaps: though no one must have a bigger heap than the chief.
However about three quarters of each heap was passed on – and this is where the gift exchange begins to work. Part of it went to the chief in what must I suppose be called ‘tribute’, - but the largest part went to to your sister’s husband and family, - and here we must take a look at the kinship system in the Trobriand islands.
It was a matriarchal system, where descent passed through the women. To us it was a very odd system indeed, though in fact it is still found in many parts of the world – as in the West Indies for instance. In this system, when you marry, your wife’s brothers are the heads of the family, and you will have to give them a large part of your produce. You give half your produce to your wife’s brother (the maternal uncle), and nominally at any rate they are in charge of your children.
In practice of course it is the father who cares for the children and looks after them and brings them up, but on his death, his belongings will go to his wife’s brother’s children and his children will inherit from their uncles. Thus it is difficult for a father to give a gift to his son. If you give a tree, on the father’s death, the tree will revert to his sister’s family. What you can pass on to your son are the intangibles - especially magic and dances, and thus fathers take great effort in teaching their sons all the most potent magic they know, and all the most intricate dances, for these are an asset that cannot be taken away from them.
How, therefore do you become rich in Trobriand societies? Well, first of all you must be born a chief in a high lineage. This means you can then have lots and lots of wives - up to 40 in the olden days, though by the time Malinowski had arrived in the Trobiands, the influence of the missionaries had reduced this to a mere 16. However, when you realise that each chief received somewhere between 30 and 50% of all the produce of all his wives’ brothers, it is possible to understand how a well-married chief could become very wealthy indeed. Not that the wealth remained for long, for the chief also had his obligations: he had to organise tribal festivities and enterprises, furnish the food for big feasts, and tribal gatherings and distant expeditions; and he had to pay, according to custom, for the many services to which he is entitled.
The various forms of gift exchange are rooted in tradition, and Malinowski reckoned that there were at least five major types of exchange that took place. By far the most important - at least in amount - were what he called the ‘customary payments’ - the gifts payable partly to the chiefs but by far the majority to your in-laws, to your kinswomen and their families: for unmarried men, payments were paid to their mothers and sisters, but once they were married they would go to their wife’s family. Of course it all evened out in the long run. The chief was expected to pay for lavish feasts and your wife would of course receive annual payments from her brothers , but in amount this could be up to three quarters of your annual payments went in this way.
And then there was a second category of pure gifts. Foremost among these were gifts made from fathers to sons. Of course a father couldn’t give real property to his sons because it all had to go to his in-laws but there were certain non-real property one could pass on such as knowledge of magic and dances. It was also possible to pass on say a tree or the rites to a plot of ground but only in one’s life time. On your death it reverted to your wife’s brothers’ sons. Or your sister’s sons.
A third category is perhaps the most interesting of all because it consists of payments made to specialists such as magicians or boat builders. When a boat builder was first engaged he would be given valuable ‘initial’ gifts of food. Then while he was working on the boat he would be fed by the chief with extra special food with coconuts and betel nuts, pigs flesh, fish and fruits – not just the usual yams. But the really big gifts came when the boat was completed. There would be a couple of hundred baskets of yams, some pigs, a good supply of the ‘sweeties’ of the Trobriand world – betel nuts and coco nuts; and finally there were what he called ‘native valuables’ - armlets, bracelets and feather headdresses, and, most interesting to the archaeologist, polished stone axes. This is a category that comes closest to payment, but it was always given as gifts and was never bargained for.
And then there was a very interesting system of regular gifts made to your ‘exchange partners’. There was for example a regular arrangement for exchanging goods between the fishing communities on the coast and the yam growers on land. Each had a regular partner and the yams would be neatly packed up in baskets and left outside the house of your trading partner in the fishing village. Similarly when the fisherman returned laden with fish they would pack them up and lay them respectfully in front of the door of the yam growers. Often the amounts were far too much and the fish rotted before they could be consumed. But it was important to show generosity in your exchange, and the two sides vied with each other in their generosity, to see who could give the most generous gifts.
Compared with this was outright barter, which existed, and was known
as gimwale, bit it was considered a very miserable and degrading form
of transaction. But when bartering was to take place, the yam growers
would come down to the beach and barter yams for fish with clear intention
of haggling and getting the better part of the exchange and with complete
lack of actual ceremony. The most important barter took place with the
tribes from the interior where the ground was too poor for gardening
and so they specialised in manufactured goods - pots, necklaces, and
stone axes. These were brought down regularly and bartered for yams
with tribes of the most fertile areas, and for fish with the fishing
villages. However this was something very much looked down upon: you
did not do it yourself but sent your servant to do it on your behalf.
Indeed when criticising bad behaviour, you say that it was done ‘like
a gimwali’ -‘gimwali walla!’
And finally there is the most famous system of all – the Kula ring. This was trading at its highest level when one chief makes a gift to another chief often hundreds of miles away across the open sea. The gifts were essentially ritual, though not what one would consider valuable but arm bands or shell necklaces. Nevertheless they were treasured and handed on every year like pass the parcel. If you waited long enough your gifts would come round again. At its simplest, there is gift and counter gift. The initial gift is called the Vaga and the final counter gift is offered on the following Kula . this is called the Yotile or clinching gift. However if a suitable yotile is not immediately available giving and intermediate gift as a Basi as an indication that on the next trip a yotile of proper value will be available. If so the Basi itself must be repaid by a counter gift.
If you know that your Kula partner has a particularly valuable Vaygu-a that you want you can offer solicitory gifts. This begins with a gift of food, a pig or a bunch of fine bananas or yams. If this is accepted you go onto the second class of solicitory gifts of greater value e.g. a polished stone axe. If this is accepted it means that the desired gift will be forthcoming on the next Kula trip.
Thus the Kula comes close to trading ie the equivalents of value is at least calculated . However in gift exchange and in the Kula you still aim to give away something of greater value than you receive. This is quite the opposite to Market Trading when indeed to barter when you aim to make a profit on the deal. This way of life is quite typical of primitive economics. Indeed gift exchange or tribute economy is the norm in much of the world. A long side it is the equivalent structure of society – at its simplest a chieftain society but at its most complex becoming something very elaborate such as the case system in India
Conclusion: the gift exchange system
The gift exchange system delineated with such clarity in the Trobiands is probably in essence the norm in most of the world. The economic system that we enjoy in the West is in fact the exception rather than the rule and we must expect to find it to some degree or other being prevalent in all countries prior to the advent of money and the market economy.
What is even more important to remember is that large aspects of gift exchange and prestige giving remain prevalent even in market economies. When modern economists condemn bribery they should think first that they are probably condemning a practice that is the norm in most economies and when display takes place in a modern economy when a father gives a wedding for his daughter with a lavishness to impress all the guests or buys a car whose performance is far in excess of practical needs, we should remember that this is merely the display of prestige and prestige is something that in the long run is well worth acquiring.
There is finally a more sombre assessment to be made. Gift exchange
is not only inefficient both as a means of distributing goods that are
needed and as a means of giving prestige but it is also curiously unsatisfying.
Whereas in a market transaction both sides can and normally do come
away with the feeling that they have if not a bargain at least value
for money. In gift exchange both sides often come away dissatisfied
that they have not really received the gift they deserved. Ultimately
this makes such societies less stable, less friendly, and more warlike
than the market economies. The market ultimately is the great harbinger,
not only of prosperity but also of peace.
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