Argonauts of the Western Pacific Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 61-page guide for “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” by Bronislaw Malinowski includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 22 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Scientific Ethnography Requires Intensive, Rigorous, Fact-Oriented Fieldwork and The Power of Myth and Magic in Trobriand Society.
Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (1922) is an ethnological monograph by Bronislaw Malinowski, a leading anthropologist of his time. It concerns his research in what was then called “Melanesian New Guinea,” which is today known as the Kiriwana island chain, northeast of New Guinea. The work focuses on the trade, magic, and cultural traditions of the Trobriand people on the archipelago, centering around a trade phenomenon called the Kula. Malinowski’s work is considered foundational to the modern field of ethnography and the first field study. Argonauts of the Western Pacific is the first in a trilogy on the Trobriand people. It was followed by The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia in 1929 and Coral Gardens and their Magic in 1935.
This guide references the 2005 reprint published in the Taylor and Francis eLibrary.
Argonauts centers around a trade phenomenon called the Kula. This consists of the circulation of two kinds of jewelry—bracelets made from white shells and necklaces made from red shells—among islanders throughout the Trobriands and the greater region. The necklaces and bracelets each move through the islands in distinct routes. They are a kind of social currency that hold no monetary value and are only ever exchanged for each other. Yet they are highly prized and confer social status to their owner, especially when given away. The Kula occurs every two to three years, during massive trading events organized by village chiefs and during smaller events throughout the year. Argonauts of the Western Pacific closely investigates the Kula, detailing everything from initial planning stages to the trade itself, while weaving in detailed information on the natives’ agricultural customs, magical beliefs and practices, gender roles, and the construction of Trobriand canoes and tools.
Malinowski considers himself above all an observer. He advocates for scrupulous, objective research on the Trobriand islanders and avoids sweeping generalizations about his objects of study. He uses his observations to define a social system as a series of activities with practical functions, noting that all social systems are highly complex and interdependent. Even in the civilizations that seem most primitive to a Western observer, economies interact in countless ways with forces such as belief and social status.
As a founder of functionalism, Malinowski believed that every aspect of a society has a role, and these parts integrate together into a self-reinforcing whole. He advocated for a synchronic (non-historical) approach to culture, focusing on the present state of things rather than trying to analyze the past—which will only serve to legitimize what is practiced now.
Malinowski’s most lasting contribution was in how to practically do anthropology through detailed participant observation. He believed that to really understand a culture, deep immersion and fluency in the local language was necessary. This would help avoid conjecture based on artifacts, stories, secondhand data, and pre-existing biases. Ultimately, the ethnographer must live like the studied people to learn about their lives, not merely study them at a distance from a standpoint of scientific objectivity.
This approach to anthropology makes the book extremely detailed and full of detours, but its survey of daily life is often repetitive. This makes it particularly challenging to summarize. As such, this study guide aims to provide a primarily conceptual overview of the material. Specific facts and details will be discussed insofar as they illuminate these broader themes or shed light on the kind of observation Malinowski engages in. Many other details will not be included for the sake of succinctness.
Malinowski begins with a general statement of his intention to redefine how anthropological research is conducted and how its findings are transmitted to the world, encouraging in-person, intensive research rather than relying on outdated stereotypes and secondhand data. Chapters 1 through 3 set the scene and give an overview of the Kula and important cultural practices. Chapters 4 through 16 give a detailed look at how the Kula is conducted, by taking us through the whole process. We begin with preparatory canoe building then voyage from Sinaketa to Dobu before finally returning home. We make several detours along the way to learn about related events and mythologies. Chapters 16 through 18 give in-depth discussion of magic and language, particularly how they relate to and reinforce social structures and the Kula. Chapters 19 through 21 discuss three variations of the Kula, including the inland Kula and other “branches and offshoots” of the Kula. Finally, Chapter 22 concludes the monograph as an explanation of the meaning of the Kula, with statements on Malinowski’s hopes for the discipline of ethnology.