Cultural Anthropology 110
Ethnography Paper: The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea
The Trobriand Islands, anthropologies “sacred” place. These chain of islands off of the coast of Papua New Guinea were the host of groundbreaking fieldwork conducted by Bronislaw Malinowski in the mid to late 1910’s. The reason why Malinowski’s fieldwork is so substantial is because of the way Malinowski conducted his research, focusing on individuals and their daily tasks. After his research on the Trobriand Islands, he went on to publish papers and hold lectures arguing against ethnocentrism and the Social Darwinist ideas of a set trajectory for cultures to be inaccurate. While Malinowski’s fieldwork is highly important, Malinowski missed crucial parts of the Trobrianders culture. This book was written by Dr. Annette Weiner who revisited the islands from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s to conduct more anthropological research on the Trobrianders and made several discoveries about them and their culture, allowing for a better clarification of the meaning of certain customs the Trobrianders used and who participated in them.
One of the major discoveries found by Weiner that I found interesting in particular was that women had a major contribution to the islands economy, which was originally thought to be non-existent. “My taking seriously the importance of women’s wealth not only brought women as the neglected half of society clearly into the ethnographic picture but also forced me to revise many of Malinowski’s assumptions about men.” (Pg. 5) This was caused by Malinowski mainly focusing on the male side of wealth and production when researching the Trobrianders, failing to observe women in their daily activities. This is one of the more important points brought up in the book because before Weiners research, the conception about Women was that their main importance was their matrilineage, however this was thwarted after seeing the economic importance of exchanging banana leaf bundles and skirts. The reason I found this interesting is because it brings up the idea of cultural universals and how early anthropological research was unfortunately not fully objective. Malinowski failed to apply cultural universal of women’s roles into economy, roughly half of the Trobriand islands population. This is important to bring up because when studying another culture anthropologists need to look at past mistakes of others so that they can learn from them so that they can be unbiased in their research. By observing what goods the Trobrianders exchange and how much value they place on goods, for example the importance of yams in their society, it allows us to be less ethnocentric in thought.
“This particular time period provided important insights into the past history, while underscoring Trobrianders impressive resistance to foreign intervention.” (Pg. 13) The 1970’s and 1980’s was a majorly significant time for Papua New Guinea, having gained independence from Australia in 1975. After independence western tourists stopped traveling as much to the islands, causing a lot of the woodcarvers to no longer be able to make a living off of selling their carvings, this meant there was less of an influx in western money was coming onto the island prolonging western cultural diffusion. This was fine with a majority of the Trobrianders as they wanted to keep their islands status quo. This didn’t mean that western culture hasn’t diffused into the islands culture. Papua New Guinea had been subject to Australian colonialism for over a century, and Western influence was still present even to present day. While this has had significant impact on the lives and traditions of the Trobriands, they have been incredibly resistant to change. For example during Australian colonial times many of the traditions centered around death and the mourning processes had to be modified because of them being considered unsanitary or taking too long. This can be seen as a win for the Trobrianders because before World War Two the Australian Government and mainly the missionaries on the islands wanted to remove the islands traditional values in place for more western ones. Had the islanders been less resistant they could have had their entire way of life changed permanently. Their resistance to western cultural ideas is highly remarkable, even when removed from the Trobriand Islands the people still practice their traditions. In Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, the Trobrianders still participated in mourning rituals when they had heard that a chief passed on the island.