The Tribal Economic System of the Trobriand Islanders

Bellamy's Looking Backward was chosen as an example partly because his economic system dealt separately and explicitly with each of the cate­gories of traditional economic analysis. Such clear-cut distinctions are not available for the anthropologist who studies subsistence and peasant econ­omies. There the economic system functions as a by-product of noneco-nomic institutions rather than as a separate set of practices and relation­ships. Such economic systems are sometimes called primitive because of the relatively simple level of technology and because resource limitations or social behavior discourage capital formation. As we shall see, however, the absence of machine technology does not preclude highly functional and complex ways of organizing production and exchange in subsistence economies.

The economic system of the Trobriand Islands, lying off the eastern end of New Guinea in the South Pacific, was the subject of a famous an­thropological study conducted half a century ago by Bronislaw Malinow-ski. Their society illuminates the extent to which economic systems can function with tradition, rather than markets, providing the signals that organize effort and determine relative shares in the resulting output. It is also an example of a system that antedates the impact of transistor radios and other instruments of Western culture.

A Trobriand Islander learns and follows the rules of economy in his society almost like an American learns and follows the rules of language in his. An American is born into an English-speaking culture. In no sense does he "choose" to speak English because no real alternative is presented to him. So too, the Trobriander is born into a yam-growing economy. He does not "choose" to plant yams rather than broccoli. The question does not arise in this form, but rather in the form of how much of each of very few conventional crops to plant or how to apportion a given work day to several tasks.

In the Trobriand subsistence economy, labor, land and other resources are not purchased, and produce is not destined for sale to others, so it is personal taste within the ecological constraints set by . resource endowment, the technological constraints set by known tech­niques of production, and the social constraints set by the obligation to provide sister's husband with yams that dictate how much of each crop is to be planted.

Several aspects of this economic system deserve special mention. First, even though it is called a subsistence economy, the sweet potatoes that form the main crop are regarded not merely as food but for their prestige value as well (one is reminded of hunting and fishing trophies). Before the yams are collected in private storehouses that display the quan­tity and quality of the owner's possessions, a magical spell is invoked to make the appetites of the inhabitants poor; if the magic works well it is hoped that half the yams will rot before they are replaced by the new crop. Second, the wealth in yams that an individual possesses is not what he has produced through his own labor but what he has received from relatives-in-law as part of a life-long obligation of each man to work for the families of his sisters and other female relatives. These obligations, including the ability to be summoned to do communal work, are recipro­cated with countergifts that fall far short of the value of the work per­formed. Chiefs, through a series of marriages, have the right to receive payments of yams from the male relatives of their many wives and to as­semble them for communal tasks requiring large numbers of workers.

The giving and receiving of gifts permeates Trobriand society; every performance of a service or favor must be repaid with a ceremonial gift. The effect of this web of exchange is to bind the society more closely to­gether in traditional patterns of behavior, including the patterns of work organization and distribution of goods and services that constitute the economic system.

The social nature of the Trobriand Islanders' economic activity is most apparent in their kula trading system. A circular network of islands extending over thousands of miles participates in the ceremonial exchange of shell necklaces, which travel clockwise, and armshells, which travel counterclockwise, around the circle. These items, which have no practical use, are exchanged according to very strict rules. "A firm and lifelong relationship is always established between any participant in the kula, and a number of other men, some of whom belong to his own community, and others to overseas communities. Such men call one another Karayta'a ("partner," as we shall designate them), and they are under mutual obli­gations to trade with each other, to offer protection, hospitality, and as­sistance whenever needed. Each member of a sailing expedition moving from one island to the next one in the circuit will present his trading part­ner with, say, a pair of armshells in anticipation of a return visit. The next year the partner will return the visit, bearing either a necklace of equiv­alent value or a temporary gift of a smaller necklace to serve until he comes into possession of one of adequate size and quality. All of this is accompanied by considerable ceremony and narrative concerning the his­tory of the particular object. The whole system of equivalent exchange is enforced only by tradition and the sense of trust and honor between partners.

Our mental excursion to the Trobriand Islands has demonstrated the strength of reciprocal obligations, reinforced by ceremonial practices and a sense of longstanding tradition, in supplanting private gain as the focus of economic activity. We may speak of "owing" someone a dinner invita­tion or a thank-you note, but it is difficult to imagine devoting the bulk of one's productive effort to meeting such responsibilities. That is because a market economy is impersonal in a way that would equally confound the Trobriand Islanders.