Friday, July 01, 2011

Reading :: Argonauts of the Western Pacific

Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea
By Bronislaw Malinowski

I've been taking some time this summer for pleasure reading, getting to some of the classic ethnographies and case studies that have influenced contemporary qualitative research. This book is one of the great classics, written by one of the giants of anthropology. It covers Malinowski's 1914-1918 work on the islands off the coast of New Guinea, particularly the Trobriand Islands. And although it's a bit thick in places - his writing style reminds me of Jules Verne's in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - the account is fascinating.

Malinowski still uses terms such as "savages." But he also tends to be even-handed and sensitive about comparing the cultures (for the most part). For instance, he spends much time describing the Kula, a massive exchange of valuable necklaces and armbands that takes place across the islands of New Guinea in a giant, continuous circle. We Westerners might look at the valuables and think that they aren't impressive - "greasy" is the word he uses - but he says we need to get some perspective: when natives opened oysters and found pearls, they would either throw them away or give them to the children to play with. They viewed Westerners' obsession with pearls in exactly the same way that Malinowski's readers might view the islanders' obsession with necklaces. It's not the intrinsic value that makes these things so valuable, he reminds us, but the value that a society attributes to them.

Malinowski applies this even-handedness - mostly with success - to the islanders' religion, magic, rituals, and views on sex, all of which are very different from those of his readers. For instance, Malinowski notes that the islanders don't realize that men are involved in reproduction. Thus the society's organization is matrilinear and their views on marriage, fidelity, parenthood, and sex are quite different from those of his readers.

The principles of ethnography set out in this book have become foundational principles for ethnographic research. But we might get some perspective on these principles by reading some of the expedition's background on Malinowski's Wikipedia page:
On his most famous trip to the area, he became stranded owing to the outbreak of World War I. Malinowski was not allowed to return to Europe from the British-controlled region because he was a Pole from Austria-Hungary. Australian authorities gave him two options: to be exiled to the Trobriand islands, or to face internment for the duration of the war. Malinowski chose the Trobriand islands. It was during this period that he conducted his fieldwork on the Kula ring and advanced the practice of participant observation, which remains the hallmark of ethnographic research today.
If he had not been forced to stay in the islands for the duration of World War I, would Malinowski have developed participant observation in the same way, or conducted fieldwork to the degree that he did, or develop the insights that he did? I wonder. But Malinowski did what qualitative researchers must often do, making a virtue of the uncontrollable misfortunes in his circumstances, and that long irritation developed this remarkable pearl of a book. Read it when you get a chance.

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