Apply Functionalism and Structuralism to the Trobriander Islanders Economy

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Apply Functionalism and Structuralism to the Trobriander Islanders’ Economy

Jonathan Quaade

Ethnographer: Bronislaw Malinowski 1914-1918,

Ethnographer: Anette B. Weiner 1980’s

Location: Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea


The Trobriand Island inhabitants live in a society composed of four clans further divided into subclans or dala, in the local language. These dala follow a matrilineal descent system that define territory, kinship and marriage, and are the corporations of society via the yam exchanges of kin, but the higher structure, clan, have no corporate interest and have no chiefs, but only chiefly dala’s have chiefs, commoner dalas have managers as leaders and they cannot marry polygamous. Although, the Trobrianders have a matrilineal descent system they have patrilocal residence structure.

Looking at the Trobrianders from a functionalist perspective that all aspects of that all aspects of society (ex institutions) have specific functions   Malinowski said that functionalism is the theory that a society is a set of interconnected parts where the social institutions support the needs of the individual’s society by contributing to the social structure. These needs are either social, biological or economical, e.g. biological needs involve aspects such as food and water necessary for survival. Malinowski argued against evolution saying that there is a certain order and organization to every cultural system. His main argument was that societies should be looked at in their own light, and not comparatively to other societies. We can then say that it is a particularist theory and also that Malinowski made a theoretical paradigm shift away from the evolutionistic perspective of universalism and ethnocentrism (with the help of Boas’ ethical paradigm looking at a society ethnocentrically and comparatively (method) was racist), by rejecting the evolutionist perspective in all his research. And he also made a methodical paradigm shift introducing the concept of participant observation.

In his research, Malinowski strongly argue against an evolutionist theory of “survivals,” which said that there were certain parts of society that are still in existence, but have lost their original function in society. Tylor, the evolutionist, used the example of dream charms in British society. Malinowski contradicted this explaining that every act or aspect of society has a function. He especially argued against that matrilineality was a survival in all societies.  In his book the Argonauts of the Pacific (1922), Malinowski countered the concept with his data of the Trobrianders that clearly showed that matrilineality had functions

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Matrilineality and the role of women had a significant role in the Trobrianders society (e.g. women can choose their husbands). It defines the corporate descent system of the dala’s, so you inherit through your mother’s side, not your father’s. Matrilineality functions as the entitlement of the Trobrianders. This is a mythical charter that defines territory, inheritance, marriage rights (Trobrianders are exogamous apart from the chief) and above all your dala (kinship). Like functionalism states, the descent system is a contributor to the wider social structure.

A large part of the Trobrianders’ society revolves around the exchange of ...

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