Topic: ‘Off the Veranda’ (film / documentary)
To kick start the commentary, I would like to begin with a brief summary of the documentary that put up on IVLE for viewing. The documentary predominantly talks about Bronislaw Malinowski who is known as one of the founding fathers of Anthropology (more notably ‘Social Anthropology’) and he was more well-known for theorizing methods of studying the natives through modes such as participant observation and detailed note-taking.
The documentary highlights his most famous case study of the Trobriand Islanders and how he approached to study them in the most effective way possible. There were many expressions of personal ideas, emotions and feeling, coupled with a nice blend of interpretations of the behavioural aspects of the tribesmen which he later conceptualized the idea of ‘functionalism’. The documentary also provided a very interesting mix of concepts such as human survival, co-operation, exchange (social and economic), kinship ties, magic, research methodologies, coping with death, ancestor worship, religion, family as well as sex relations. The documentary ended off on a grand note by leaving the audience to not only think about but also appreciate the legacy left behind by one of the greatest Anthropologists of all time, Bronislaw Malinowski.
I aim to discuss the content depicted in the documentary by factors and I will attempt to offer my personal reflections as well.
Points for Discussion
Malinowski’s Research Methodology
As mentioned in my brief summary, Malinowski conceptualized his research methodology into what is known as ‘participant observation’ which radically changed the conduct of research at that time period. The documentary showed the transition of ‘armchair research’ which usually was void of direct interactions with the subject of study, to ‘participant observation’ which stressed on the importance of ‘lived experiences’, learning the language of the people being studied as well as mingling and interacting with them.
Photos showing Malinowski's interactions with the Trobriand Islanders
Through this method, Malinowski was able to get a very strong grasp of the kind of ‘everyday experiences’ that the Trobriand Islanders lived through as well as gaining a sense of symbolic meanings attached to their actions and behaviour at every part of the day. Although the documentary was able to effectively capture Malinowski’s feelings of ‘lonliness’ and ‘depression’ in the initial stages, the knowledge he gained from the method, very much helped to set a ground-breaking framework for social research and methodology.
I was able to learn that for Social Anthropology, it would be essential to document the everyday lives of people and their attached social meanings and subsequent actions to best understand them and the culture that they are placed in. ‘Participation Observation’ is certainly a key approach to the study of people especially Natives where you would begin as an Outsider trying to study them and the best possible way to study them is by living with them.
Malinowski and Functionalism
The idea of a ‘function’ became relevant to Malinowski’s studies of the Trobriand Islanders when he saw that in the tribe, most if not all aspects of social life were designed for achieving basic human needs. These biological needs were characterized subsequently by derivative requirements and led to action-oriented patterns such as co-operation, exchange and economic pursuits. The establishment of central groups and Kinship systems subsequently led to the formation of social institutions with the aim of settling basic human needs.
I saw the idea of functionalism in Malinowski’s studies to be very relevant as he looked at every of the Trobriand Islanders’ actions as a symbolic and meaning-making act all centred upon the idea of settling basic human needs. However, it made me think about the same concept of ‘basic human needs’ in the context of a Tribe, juxtaposed to a modern state where the stark contrast in characterization of the everyday lives, completely changes the meaning of ‘basic human needs’. The institutions that help the individual to achieve these basic needs will then be structured accordingly to the definition of the basic needs.
‘Magic’ / Coping with Death
The documentary adequately covered the aforementioned themes with regards to Malinowski’s observation of the Trobriand Islanders. Malinowski discovered that in everything the tribesmen did, magic was used as a way for them to start their activities on a good note and ensure that all ends well. Beyond that, magic represented a belief in something beyond that could not be explained in human terms but had a lot to do with supernatural beliefs.
Similarly, existence and eventual death of people is something that has always fascinated the human being and coping with the grieviences of death can sometimes be quite overwhelming. We saw in the documentary how there is a ritualistic process involved in the death ceremony as the tribesmen smear ashes on their body, wear ‘death necklaces’ and shave their heads bald.
With regards to magic, I interpreted it as a way to cope with problems in life that may seem beyond our control to solve. Leaving the issue in the hand of supernatural powers and then tying your best to solve the issue, takes a lot of stress off the minds of individuals and you can concentrate on the activity proper and to the best of your ability. Also, I felt that more than the ‘power’ of magic on its own terms, I saw that the ‘belief in magic’ is often the stronger one which makes the individual more hardworking and eventually to complete the task well. On the issue of death, it has always been a mystery to man to understand existence and ceasing to exist sometime later and indeed, the case study of the Trobriand Islander chow us how expressions of mourning are still very much necessary to cope with death. Comparing this with the modern world, the Trobriand Islanders are still a little more ritualistic in expressing their mourning but in any case, these expressions are necessary to cope with death.
“The Kula Exchange”
“The Kula Exchange” is system of exchange involving annual inter-island visits between trading partners who exchange highly valued and venerated shell ornaments namely the soulava (necklaces) and mwali (armbands) that circulate in opposite directions. The exchange expedition is characterized by a highly ritualistic process with inter-weaving elements of magic as well as fostering and maintaining friendship ties.
An example of a Soulava / An example of a Mwali / Trobriand Islanders on a "Kula Expedition"
What I found very interesting about the exchange ritual was that when one tribe passes their ornaments to another tribe, their excitement and emotions should be hidden and concealed. The reason for this is that the emotions should be concealed because some day, the receiving tribe may have to give up the ornament to a guest / visiting tribe. I got the idea that in life, nothing is ever permanent and that the human being is always subjected to changes around him and his subsequent adaptation to the situation must be present. That understanding of ‘reduced expectations of permanency’ on the part of human beings is very important so that he does not get disappointed when he has to give things up. “The Kula Exchange”, even though is set in a very tribal context, is very relevant to the modern world of understanding that not everything in life is permanent. We can even draw links to understanding human relations as a temporary affair till death strikes so that we are better able to cope with death.
Gunter Senft, ‘Magical Conversation on the Trobriand Islands’, Anthropos , Bd. 92, H. 4./6., 1997, pp. 369-391.
Bronislaw Malinowski. (1918). Retrieved November 6, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wmalinowski_triobriand_isles_1918.jpg
Bronislaw Malinowski. (not dated). Retrieved November 6, 2011, from Malum Nalu Blog: http://malumnalu.blogspot.com/2009/01/call-to-papua-new-guinea-actors-and.html
Death in the Trobriand Islands. (1914 to 1918 time period). Retrieved November 6, 2011, from Postcards from The Trobriand Islands: http://www.janeresture.com/trobriand_postcards/index.htm
The Mwali (armband). (not dated). Retrieved November 7, 2011, from University of Manitoba: http://umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/courses/122/module5/kula_ring.html
The Soulava (necklace). (not dated). Retrieved November 7, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kula_bracelet_with_insert.jpg
The “Kula Expedition”. (not dated). Retrieved November 7, 2011, from University of Manitoba: http://umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/courses/122/module5/kula_ring.html