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Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski

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Renowned as the father of the functionalist school of anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski was a British anthropologist with Polish decent and nobility who was born on the 7th of April 1884. Functionalism is a socio-anthropological model that views social institutions such as society as cooperative channel to satisfy individual needs and stability. It focuses on the operations and meanings of interdependent components of society i.e. people, institutions, traditions, religion which ultimately functions for the continued existence of the people and society in general. (Mulkay, 99-105)

Malinowski’s acquaintance with Sir James Frazer honed his yawning interest on society and cultures especially of the primitive people.  Thus, his fervor for Mathematics and Chemistry shifted philosophy, psychology and anthropology, on which fields he have become a profound influence for modern practitioners especially on ethnography and reciprocity.  (Ellen and Gellner, pp168-175)  The former pertains to a holistic research methodology that entailed more than fieldwork but one’s immersion to the subject of study in order to provide a more accurate description of human societies in parallel with philosophical frameworks of relativism and psychological perspective of constructivism.  Reciprocity on the other hand refers to the casual exchange of goods and information sharing of information i.e. conversation/ dialogue among people, which in the case of a researcher is for scholastic endeavors. (Stuart Kirsch, 78-82) These methodologies and principles of Malinowski is conspicuously applied and derived from his original field expeditions in the Pacific Islands, especially with the Trobriand islanders.

Argonauts of the Western Pacific

The Argonauts of the Western Pacific is book by Malinowski originally published 1922 which contained the vivid findings of his study about the Trobriand islanders, who resided on a small archipelago called the Kiriwina Islands in Papua New Guinea. The book is actually the first of a series of Malinowski’s books about the Trobriand people, which was followed by The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia in 1929 and Coral Gardens and their magic released in 1935. The book is basically an account of the familial associations, commerce, rituals and religions and the connection between cultural standards and authentic everyday life of the Trobriand people and in relation to their island neighbors.

One of the customary traditions that may have caught Dr. Malinowski’s interest is the ceremonial exchange of gifts and valuables e.g. shell bracelets (mwali) or necklaces (veigun) called the “Kula”, among neighboring regional islands. “The kula is a form of extensive, intertribal exchange performed by communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form a closed circuit.” (Malinowski and Frazer, p62). The rituals are strict and demanding as every movement of the Kula items and every aspect of the dealings are rigid and detailed. (Mead and Calas, p363)  While their neighbors may have different practices about the ceremonial trade, in Trobriand Islands, only the tribal heads are allowed to participate in the ceremony. The ceremony seemed to serve as a means of emphasizing status, royalty and power hierarchies among the people because the tribal leaders often posses the most precious items and take on the responsibility for putting order in the society and commanding or managing journeys or travels in the sea.  The ceremony also poses as one of mythological commonality in the region, which facilitates diplomacy, fosters good working relations and engenders unity and relative peace among the neighbors.

The book especially provided a comprehensive and detailed account of the life and society of the Trobriand natives.  It tackled the peculiar appearances of the people and their hidden significances. It also described gender roles particular married women.  In terms of the politics, Malinowski provided the political structure or subdivisions of the society, the importance of clans and their political influence, succession of power, and the presence of socio economic stratification.  Magic and ritual forms part of the most important cultural traditions and beliefs of the people which pervasively permeates economics i.e. work, religion and sorcery and spirits of the dead. One of the unique features of the Trobriand people that I find personally fascinating is their high regard to canoe ownership and the canoe itself.  The natives even have ceremonial rituals for building the boat. More importantly, its design and impression has profound meanings to the people not only in terms of social status but also in the emotional and romantic aspect.

Contributions to Anthropology

Ethnography. One of the important contributions of Malinowski as reflected in the book is his method of inquiry, ethnography or participant observation.  Instead of observing a society from a distance or an a third perspective or reflecting on things in a vacuum, this method entails submerging oneself in the subject itself by being a part of it in order to better appreciate and understand their way of life.  This allows a research not only a practical first hand experience of the cultural traditions of the people.  In studying the Trobriand islanders, Dr. Malinowski immersed himself with the natives by living as one of them for a certain period of time.

Instead of simply watching and observing their practices, he tried to perform some of their practices as well. One of the most important aspects of his ethnographic approach is his learning of language.   He especially learned the native tongue of the Trobriand people in communicating with them.  In which case, he recognized the importance of language as the lifeblood of a people’s culture, because it is through which that ideas, concepts and knowledge are formed and transmitted. This is important in anthropological studies because language renditions will inevitably impute cultural limitations and bias to a culture because of a gain or loss of meaning in the translation.  Thus the ethnographic approach of Malinowski allowed him to view the object of study in a phenomenological framework, that which is relatively free of prejudices.

Functionalism. Malinowski’s account of the Trobriand people reflected the functionalist paradigm in which he approached and explained the ordinary practices and behaviors of the natives in relation to their purpose to the individual and to society as a whole.  One of the important discoveries of Malinowski is that the seeming odd superstitious rituals performed by the primitive people actually arise from reasonable, practical and symbolic purposes.  The exotic rituals in marriages for instance were conducted in recognition of marriage as a union of two people institutionalized by the ceremonial rites, which is an integral aspect of a strong community because upon which, roles are defined (the role of husband and wife, father and mother) and families are formed, which lays down the foundation of the community’s solidarity and stability. The socialized roles and behaviors of people emanating from the marriage are critical in fulfilling the needs of society as whole. Superstitions and rituals do not just evolve out of fancies or imagination of people but emerges as part of the people’s struggle to survive. Culture thus, plays a valuable function in the continued subsistence of people and society.  


“Argonauts of the Western Pacific” is more than just a scientific study that narrated the unique lives and society of an indigenous people in Papua New Ginea.  It stressed and revolutionized the importance of ethnography as a comprehensive and effective methodology for research.  More than just providing a qualitative description or record of the mundane life of people, it allows researchers to grasp the deeper significance or appreciate the meaning and purpose of the people’s beliefs, customs, behaviors and relationships in their daily lives.  By immersing oneself to the life of the people, one can empathize the social and psychological dispositions of the people.  The process of ethnography nevertheless is insufficient to create a framework fully free of prejudice or bias because the selection alone of the researcher of what to areas to study already presupposed theoretical doctrines of classification of what is important or not, which can be based on one’s personal interest or the interest of the benefactor who funded the study.

As a pioneer in functionalist anthropology, Malinowski placed emphasis on the individual roles or functions of people and how it forms part in the operations of a whole to bring about society, which in turn helps in the fulfilling or serving the needs of its individual members.  Highlighting the meanings, objectives or purpose of customary practices and beliefs, which developed out of the unique circumstantial history, environment and needs of the people, Malinowski also have obliquely challenged the structuralist principles which adhered to the belief that everything including culture have evolved out of a definite and foreseeable stages of development.  Instead, Malinowski’s work initiated support to relativism, which stresses uniqueness and plurality as well as constructivism, a learning theory which draws attention to the central and dynamic role of learners in individually constructing meaning of the information or knowledge one receives.

Works Cited:

Ellen, R. F.  and Gellner, Ernest. Malinowski Between Two Worlds: The Polish Roots of

an Anthropological Tradition CUP Archive, 1988.

Hughes, Charles Campbell. Make Men of Them: Introductory Readings for Cultural

Anthropology. Rand McNally, 1972

Kirsch, Stuart. Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental

Relations in New Guinea Stanford University Press, 2006

Malinowski, Bronislaw and Frazer, James George. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An

Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, Routledge, 1978

Mead, Margaret  and Calas, Nicolas. Primitive heritage: an anthropological anthology

Random House, 1953

Mulkay, Michael Joseph. Functionalism, Exchange and Theoretical Strategy

Taylor & Francis, 1971

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