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Posted October 2, 2012
Bronislaw Malinowski’s “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” is undoubtedly a book of its time. Malinowski has preserved the culture of the Trobriand people through an incredibly detail rich and communicative book. The book is immediately laid out not only in the preface , but also in the table of contents. However, because this book is so descriptive, it may be hard to follow for those with little background in anthropology or the western pacific.
In the period when this book was written, its audience then had more time to devote to the involvedness of this ethnography. In the 1930’s, people were not as infatuated with “getting to the point” like they are today. Instead, individuals spent their time reading detail rich books that were both confusing yet engaging. This book captures the complexity of a culture that was supposedly simplistic. In a sense, this book is proof that societies that are viewed as barbaric are in fact more complicated than they appear to be on the surface.
Malinowski devotes almost one hundred pages to the complexity of canoe (Waga) craftsmanship. “A CANOE is an item of material culture…But- and this is a truth too often¬¬¬¬¬ overlooked- the ethnographic reality of the canoe would not be brought much nearer to a student at home, even by placing a perfect specimen right before him.” (105) Here he describes how explaining the importance of the canoe in the form of a detailed ethnography is more beneficial to the reader than to just place an object in front of them and to expect them gain the fully capacity of its importance to the culture. “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” is composed of variety of underlying anthropological theories that are emerged within the details. Malinowski explicitly goes against Tylor’s theory of unilineal cultural evolution, simply by expressing the detail of the society in such a descriptive manner, which ultimately displays the complexity of the Trobriand people.
The Kula exchange is conceivably the most important and complex topic of the ethnography. Malinowski draws in all the aspects of the society through the exchange, including magic, social organizations and the notion of alternative trade. He looks at the complexity of each facet of the culture while never losing his focus; how each component affects the civilization as a whole.
Although “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” is incredibly detail orientated, Malinowski is writing for an audience not only composed of ethnographers. Deeper issues like colonialism vs. de-colonialism and race and racism lye behind the thick descriptions of life in the Kula islands. The ethnography works to preserve both the culture of the western pacific in the 1930’s and to document the deeper social issues that were present in the civilization. Cultures like those in the western pacific were thought to be dying off in the time when Malinowski was writing his ethnography, which might have something to do with the richness of the text.
“Argonauts of the Western Pacific” has had an extensive application in most anthropology classes since its publication. Malinowski has accurately captured the reality of life in the western pacific. The strength of this book is in the detail, which proves that the culture is anything but simplistic. Scholars, ethnographers, anthropologists, and undergraduates with an interest in the discipline will find this book useful for their studies. This book is rightfully the classic example of e