Malinowski’s Legacy: One Hundred Years of Anthropology in the Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

(Last week a major international conference was held in Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, where Bronislaw Malinowski did the research on kula that resulted in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (pdf of the conference program)The conference organizer Sergio Jarillo de la Torre was kind enough to write up this report of what happened, which I post here – R) 

As one of the “Malinowski’s Legacy” conference participants put it, good ideas have many fathers but bad ideas are orphans. Allan Darrah’s observation came as we were discussing the origins of the symposium at the Wanigili Centre in Alotau a day before its beginning. As far as my share of the paternity in this conference goes, the idea was generated during a road trip to Buffalo with Joshua Bell, who argued for the need for a third kula conference. It was then put forward to a group of Massim scholars at the 2012 ASAO meeting in Portland. And if 2015 seemed the right time to all (the 100th anniversary of Malinowski’s arrival in the Trobes gave us a perfect excuse to update Massim anthropology), there wasn’t much agreement on what would be the right place.

For my part, I wanted this conference to be a return of sorts and I claimed that it needed to take place in PNG or it wouldn’t take place at all. I think nowadays there is little excuse to keep anthropology far removed from the place where it originates. It is no longer a matter of bringing Pacific and other native scholars to Europe or America for our conferences but rather taking back “our” ideas to the people who help us form them, scholars and non-scholars. If we can’t discuss kula with our partners in the Milne Bay, chances are we haven’t learned much about exchange in these last hundred years…

The idea of hosting the conference in Alotau was met with reluctance by some if not outright opposition. It was indeed a very challenging endeavor, but at that point it had become a non-negotiable clause: a conference on the Massim in the Massim was long overdue. In going ahead with that, Michelle MacCarthy was successful in getting us a $5,000 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Key to the conference’s success was also the commitment of the presenters to come to Alotau and the participation of local institutions, schools and individuals.

In that sense, the Massim Cultural Foundation played a major role in supporting the conference and all the side events and activities that made it such a hit. Local, Provincial and National Governments, as well as the National Museum and Art Gallery, were all represented during the conference and commitments were made on the occasion to increase collaboration among these to enhance the promotion of the Massim cultural heritage.

We had conceived Malinowski as the departure point of the conference, but not necessarily as its arrival. Yet it was soon clear that some of his ideas and methods were still alive and quite influential in the social sciences. To some degree, all the papers engaged with one or several concepts first raised by Malinowski over a hundred years ago. This necessarily succinct summary does not allow for comments on the individual papers but we are hoping to get the conference proceedings published soon.

Yet what made this conference stand out from other such events was the participation of the Milne Bay people who came to Wanigili daily in great numbers, thanks in part to the fact that attendance to the conference was free. For almost a week, a couple hundred people “camped” on the Wanigili grounds, sharing their knowledge of things Massim in multiple ways. Some of the attendants claimed to have learned about their culture through the books written by anthropologists (as Narokobi put it more than 30 years ago) and were eager to add more nuanced layers to this knowledge in their own ways.

Throughout the Q & A sessions and in the open forum for discussions held after the conference closure, it became manifest that the Massim is the land of anthropologists. Not so much because it has traditionally attracted more anthropologists than other areas (at some point during my fieldwork in Kiriwina there were five of us!) but because Massim people are “village anthropologists,” as a Trobriand friend so eloquently put it when addressing the Hagita High School students. Trobrianders have become masters at analyzing their own cultural practices and beliefs in reflexive ways, often anticipating the researcher’s questions.

The creative quality of Massim culture was also highlighted when we debated about exchange, with people using a profusion of metaphors and analogies to illustrate those instances in which exchange lies at the heart of the village life. Gardening, mortuary ceremonies and old and new rituals centered most of the dialogues around the papers presented. And of course, kula, that most fascinating of exchanges, still much practiced in the region in ways that are not always those described in the classic literature, owing perhaps to its own changing and creative nature.

The people in attendance participated widely with their questions and comments, some of which took on uncommon shapes, such as the telling of a legend or the recounting of a kula path and the people involved in the exchange of valuables. Other forms of participation included the performance of songs and dances, the act of carving and the explanation of carved artworks or simple gestures of remembrance involving genealogies of ancestors and relatives, the stories of history and the history of stories. The various photographic exhibitions on display during the conference provided an additional visual cue to some of those comments, as did the kula valuables and the woodcarvings at the Wanigili Centre.

Overall, it was an intense week with many fruitful outcomes. As the conference convener I am pleased that this event motivated so many people here in the Milne Bay and that we managed to somehow return something to the place where our research originates. I can only hope that we can keep the exchanges going and that more people see the need for these initiatives to move away from academia, one step closer to our interlocutors. After all, they too are anthropologists.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “Malinowski’s Legacy: One Hundred Years of Anthropology in the Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

  1. Sounds like a great idea superbly executed. I, for one, am eager to hear about how Malinowski is being read-interpreted-revised these days. Please say more.

  2. As a co-organizer in the early stages (I had to withdraw my attendance due to the birth of my son two months ago), I’d also like to point out that it was nearly impossible to get funding to support this conference. Everyone we approached had a “what’s on it for us?” response, and the ethical responsibility to return discussions and knowledge to the source was of no interest to funding bodies. The Wenner Gren Foundation was the only institution outside PNG to support us, at a small scale in the form of the Engaged Anthropology Grant. Huge congratulations to Sergio and others for pulling it off anyway! Job very well done.

  3. Why am I eager? Back in 1995, I published a chapter titled, “Malinowski, Magic, and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors,” in John Sherry, ed., Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior. In that article I spend several pages discussing Annette Weiner’s study of the Trobriands a half century after Malinowski. I quote Weiner, who, contesting Malinowski’s view that magic appears where technological control missing, writes,

    The words of magic spells are the fantasies of private thought and, when spoken, these words are the projection of power. The practice of magic extends the strength of one’s creative and manipulative intent to control and publicly displays one’s autonomy.

    I remark that “it is hard to imagine a finer description of advertising’s intent.”

    This chapter was inspired by Malinowski’s remark that advertising is the modern analog of magic and his recommendation that anyone wishing to understand the business should read Dorothy Sayer’s detective novel Murder Must Advertise.

    It has now been another half century since Weiner’s fieldwork. I am curious about what is being said these days.

  4. There was quite a buzz surrounding this conference in Port Moresby in June and July, so I’m very happy to hear that it went well. Congratulations to the organizers and the participants.

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