How primitive societies work

Life in the Trobriand Islands

Primitive, or should we say pre-market societies, work in a different way to market economies. In market economies, goods are exchanged in the market place and the aim of the transaction is to come out with a profit. Pre-market economies are very different. They work, not as is commonly assumed, by barter, but by what is known as ‘gift exchange’, and since the workings of gift exchange lie at the heart of understanding all early societies, we must first travel to the Western Pacific, to the Trobriand Islands where the anthologist Bronislaw Malinowski first worked out how gift exchange really functioned.


Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski at work in the Trobriand Islands in 1918. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

In 1914, a young Polish anthropologist called Bronsilaw Malinowski set off for the Trobriand Islands off the North East coast of New Guinea to carry out his fieldwork. No sooner had he left than war broke out in Europe, and being Polish he did not quite know which side he was on, nor which side he wanted to be on. Thus, so the story goes, he spent the next three years continuing his field work in the Trobriands and returning only as far as Australia. He was a brilliant linguist, and soon mastered the Native languages, so it therefore became one of the most extensive pieces of fieldwork ever carried out in anthropology.

On his return to Europe, he eventually became Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics where he wrote one of the most famous and influential books in anthropology, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific. He then went on to write one of the best selling books in anthropology, The Sexual Life of Savages. But in the Argonauts he explored virtually for the first time the economics of these primitive, or should we say pre-market economies.

Already by this time a principle had been worked out among anthropologists that primitive societies were different. The differences were first noted in their social structure: they tended to be kin-based, with a very elaborate system where you knew in great detail all your cousins and sisters and aunts – and further afield too. The system was seen at its most rigid in India in the caste society where you always remained in the caste into which you were born, but the system is known widely throughout the world, and anyone who wishes to understand such societies must be prepared to study the ramifications of the kinship system.

Ethnographer's tent

The waterfront on the Trobriand islands. Note the ethnographer’s tent to the right

In the Trobiands, Malinowski went beyond this. Not only did he work out the complicated kinship system, but he also studied the economic basis. Here he worked out, virtually the for the first time, the workings of the gift exchange system, and in particular the famous Kula ring by which gifts were exchanged by canoe over the vast distances of the South Sea Islands.


(His work was later built on and expanded by the Austro-Hungarian philosopher-economist Karl Polanyi, many of whose ideas underlie the main thesis of this history).


On to the  Trobriand Islands