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Anthropological Theory And Fieldwork Essay, Research Paper

The ways in which a society organises itself are often centred

around one anthropological theory which forms a basis for all

that is done within that society, e.g. rituals, ceremonies etc..

This essay will examine one anthropological theory;

functionalism, and the way in which it has influenced and shaped

the culture and society of the Trobrianders of Papa New Guinea,

the people on whom the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote

an ethnography. The theory of functionalism is the idea that all features of a

culture, such as roles, norms, institutions etc., have a positive

and vital function, and are performed in order to fulfil all the

needs of the individuals within that society. Malinowski lived

with the Trobrianders for a total period of 26 months between

1914 and 1918, and by living in a tent among the people, learning

to speak the language quickly, participating as much as possible

with the different members of society, observing the activities

that occurred around him and by learning about the beliefs and

customs of the community (this process of long-term, intense

interaction with society is known as Participant Observation), he

came to the conclusion that the theory that formed the basis for

all that was done within the society was functionalism.

The process of participant observation was what provided

Malinowski with great and detailed insight on the reasons for

which the Trobrianders behaved as they did, and was what enabled

him to write an ethnography on them. Malinowski realised that the

Trobrianders had a different way of looking at life than he did,

and believed that, as an ëinsiderí, he could learn

more about what the behaviour meant to the people themselves, and

that he could able to gain the trust and respect of the people by

becoming less of a stranger and allowing them to feel more

relaxed and confident about talking to and confiding in him. Soon after he began living with the Trobrianders in 1914,

Malinowski began to notice that many of the rituals, customs,

ideas etc. of the members of the community all served to fulfil

their biological and psychological needs, as well as any other

needs that they had. After learning more about the culture, he

also began to observe that many rituals which at first seemed

time-consuming and pointless, were also done for this

purpose. One of these rituals was the ëkula ringí, a

recurrent exchange of valuable gifts between the different people

of the various Trobriand islands chain. This ritual involved

members of the society making dangerous voyages across the seas

in canoes in order to frequently exchange these gifts. Although

from an outsiderís point of view this process would have

seemed pointless, Malinowski learned that it did fit into the

idea of functionalism as this ritual was considered very

important, worthwhile and sacred because it fulfilled the

islandersí social and psychological needs- it allowed them

to feel a sense of power and prestige. There were many rituals that were performed before the canoes

left the islands, and these also served to control various

emotions and psychological needs, such as anxiety, which the

islanders faced before setting off on such journeys. As the

Trobrianders were relatively behind the Western World in terms of

technology, rituals such as the ones performed before the kula

served to bring about a sense of security and power, thus helping

to overcome feelings of powerlessness and tension. Another example of functionalism in this society was the

tradition that involved the chief of the Trobrianders receiving

very large amounts of foods and other tribute from the villagers

who lived in the area under his reign. The chief was also the

sub-owner of many of the agricultural foodstuffs that these

villagers owned, and claimed many supplies of these which he was

obliged, by custom, to re-distribute at a later stage in the form

of payments for various public services performed by the

villagers at his command. This meant that the villagers were in

fact consuming the products of their own labour, except this was

done after the wealth went through the chief and thus emphasised

and reinforced his control and made his wealth an instrument of

political power in their society. Although there were hundreds more rituals, customs, rules etc.

that could have demonstrated the application of functionalism to

this particular society, the few traditions examined in this

essay illustrate the complexity of what would, from an

outsiderís point of view, have seemed so backward and

perhaps even pointless. Virtually everything involved in the

Trobrianderís culture and behaviour is related to the

basic idea that everything done within that society should serve

a purpose. What can be concluded from this essay is that cultures

such as that of the Trobrianders? consist of different elements

which either work independently or fit together to form a sort of

system. This system is what keeps the society together, and is

what allows it to maintain long-term survival for its members by

providing it with its demands.