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Comparison of Kula and Moka Practice Essay


The reading of Malinowski’s (1979) article will come particularly handy for just about anyone who tries to get a better insight onto significance of kula as practice that defines the essence of Trobrians’ existential mode. According to the author, kula is the form of ceremonial exchange, in which native inhabitants of islands to the north-east and south-east of Papua New Guinea are being involved, as the way of emphasizing their social status in Trobrian society.

The two items, associated with this exchange, are necklaces made out of red shells (soulava) and arm-bracelets, made out of white shells (mwali). While practicing kula, islanders often travel as far as hundreds of miles in canoe boats, in order to exchange soulava for mwali and vice versa. The following are the two foremost aspects of kula:

1). The geographical direction in which soulava and mwali are being exchanged is firmly fixed – on the route of being traded for each other, soulava items always travel in clockwise direction (from north to south), and mwali items always travel in counter-clockwise direction (from south to north).

This can be explained by the geographical particulars of where arm-bracelets and necklaces are being procured from: “We see that the two sources of the mwali and soulava are at the northern and southern ends of the (Trobrian) ring… each (item) is exported from the districts of its origin towards one, where it is not made or procured” (p. 166).

2). Trobrians, involved in kula, are being expected not to possess soulava and mvali for too long – both items of kula exchange are supposed to remain in the state of perpetual motion, while changing hands with kula practitioners on permanent basis: “A man who is in the Kula never keeps any article for longer than, say, a year or two” (p. 169).

3). Islanders that participate in kula exchange are supposed to remain involved in this practice for the duration of their lifetime – ‘once in the kula, always in the kula’: “The principle ‘once in the Kula, always in the Kula’ applies also to the valuables themselves” (p. 164).

4). Kula exchange is essentially manly practice – even though few Trobrian women of high social status are known to indulge in the practice on small-scale basis, it is mostly men who look onto kula as the foremost instrument of gaining the sense of self-respect and establishing themselves socially: “The Kula is essentially a man’s type of activity. Women do not sail on the big expeditions” (p. 188).

5). Exchanging kula articles for each other is being perceived by those who indulge in this practice as not a trade per se, but rather as gift-giving: “The Kula exchange has always to be a gift, followed by a counter-gift; it can never be a barter” (p. 189).

From Malinowski’s article, it appears that the main purpose of kula exchange is highlighting exchange participants’ socio-tribal status – those who happened to possess a number of kula items at any given time, are being respected on the account of their ‘manliness’ and also on the account of the sheer strength of their ritualistic-mindedness.

According to the author, it is not utterly uncommon for the chiefs in Trobrian villages (a so-called ‘big-men’) to temporally possess as many as hundreds of arm-bracelets and necklaces at the time; whereas, less socially significant inhabitants of these villages may possess only few kula items. By enjoying the temporal ownership of mwalis and soulavas, kula practitioners are being provided with an opportunity to exhibit their ability to act as reliable partners – hence, wining respect with other members of Trobrian rural communities.

In its turn, this partially explains why kula articles are never being exchanged for each other in order to be daily-worn by those who possess them, but rather to provide owners with the chance to brag about being ‘strong in Kula’. Thus, the actual motivations behind this practice can hardly be thought of as rationale-driven but as such that reside deep within the matrix of practitioners’ tribalistic perceptionalism.

Initially, there used to be the set of objective preconditions, which instigated kula exchange, in the first place. Nevertheless, as time went by, this practice was being gradually reduced into an irrational ritual. The main purpose of this ritual appears to be concerned with highlighting social inequality among islanders as something that kula practitioners subconsciously feel would set them on the path of progress.

It is important to understand that it is namely the strong extent of social stratification among the members of a particular society, which traditionally used to fuel such society’s cultural and scientific advancement.

For example, in late 18th century’s British society, there were no people that belonged to a ‘middle class’, in contemporary sense of this word. This, however, was exactly what had triggered the beginning of Industrial Revolution in this country – people’s social inequality, combined with their industriousness, is the compound upon which civilizational progress thrives.

Therefore, Trobrians’ willingness to indulge in kula exchange, despite this practice’s apparent senselessness, is best explained as being driven by these people’s identity-related anxieties – since there are no objective preconditions for the maintenance of social inequality among islanders, they are being naturally predisposed to invent artificial ones.

The kula exchange can be also discussed within the context of what has traditionally defined the actual essence of a rural living. In rural societies, it represents the matter of foremost importance for these societies’ members to be able to choose in favor of a communal existential mode, as the mean of ensuring their physical survival.

The reason for this is simple – giving the fact that in such societies, people’s well-being largely depends on the whims of weather; it represents the matter of crucial importance for them to be able to rely upon each other, while facing life’s challenges.

This is exactly why the practical significance of kula exchange is not being concerned with trading parties’ strive to obtain material benefits through trade, as much as it is being concerned with practitioners’ intention to win favors with whom they exchange kula articles, which explains exchange’s technicalities: “A native will always, when speaking about a transaction, insist on the magnitude and value of the gift he gave, and minimize those of the equivalent accepted” (p. 190).

By providing its partner with the gift of mwali of soulava, the gift-giving islander implies that from now on, the gift-receiving partner owes him a favor, which is exactly the reason why kula practitioners do not appear particularly enthusiastic, when it comes to accepting gifts, and also the particulars of ceremony’s etiquette: “The etiquette of the transaction requires that the gift should be given in an off-hand, abrupt, almost angry manner, and received with equivalent nonchalance and disdain” (p. 189).

In other words, kula exchange emphasizes tribalistic workings of islanders’ mentality as people who perceive ‘favors’ as such that represent a fully objective value.

The validity of an earlier suggestion can be also explored in regards to moka practice, associated with existential mode of members of native tribes that populate area around the base of Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea.

The origins of moka gift-giving, concerned with the process of these tribes periodically providing each other with the gifts of pigs and pearl-shells, can be traced back to primeval times, when these gifts were supposed to serve as compensation for the loss of lives, due to tribal warfare. Nevertheless, as of today, moka exchange had been deprived of its utilitarian significance. Nowadays, it serves as the catalysis of ‘debt accumulation’ for those tribesmen who indulge in this practice.

From technical point of view, moka exchange cannot be referred to as being utterly complex. For example, once the inhabitants of village X have provided the inhabitants of a neighboring village with the gift of fifty pigs, there can be two possible scenarios of how the inhabitants of village Y would address the act of gift-giving, on the part of their neighbors – in time, they can provide their counterparts with whether the gift of equivalent or slightly higher value (let us say fifty five pigs).

If they chose in favor of the latter, the moka ensues – that is, within the matter of a year or two, the inhabitants of X village would have to provide Y villagers with the gift of at least sixty pigs.

And, it is important to understand that despite moka exchange being seemingly concerned with its participants trying to earn ‘interest’, while bestowing each other with gifts, the considerations of material enrichment define actual motivations behind moka the least. By indulging in moka, the concerned parties aim to highlight their ‘greatness’ as their foremost priority.

While referring to profit, generated by moka-participants, Leach and Leach (1983) state: “This (moka-related) ‘profit’ does not have the same meaning as it does in a capitalist economy, for it is encompassed within a wider rule of reciprocity” (p. 74). Therefore, the foremost purpose of moka gift-giving can be best defined as turning the nutritional value of pigs into metaphysical value of debts and favors, which ensure the integrity of tribal societies from within.

According to Godelier (1999): “Moka closely resembles the potlatch; the motive of moka partners is not to make a ‘profit’, but to increase the gifts and to create debts” (p. 98). Thus, just as it is being the case with kula exchange, moka gift-giving appears to be ritually defined extrapolation of native Papua Guineans’ tribal mentality.

Given the fact that, due to a variety of fully objective factors, the realities of living in rural areas of Papua New Guinea and Trobrian islands endow native inhabitants with the sense of communal inter-dependency, it comes as not a particular surprise that these people tend to hypertrophy the meaning of tribal relationship with each other.

Unfortunately, there is also a negative aspect to this – the sheer strength of native populations’ affiliation with tribal traditions is being proportionally related to the extent of their intellectual inflexibility. In its turn, this explains native Guineans and Trobrians’ cultural backwardness.

References

Boyd, D. 1985, ’The commercialization of ritual in the Eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea’, Man, New Series, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 325-340.

Godelier, M. 1999. The enigma of the gift, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Leach, J. & Leach, E. 1983. The Kula: New perspectives on Massim exchange, London, Cambridge University Press.

Malinowski, B. 1979. Essentials of the kula; Technicalities of the kula. In: Young, M. (ed) The Ethnography of Malinowski, pp.162-171,181-198. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Strathern, A. 1971. The rope of moka: Big-men and ceremonial exchange in Mount Hagen, New Guinea, London, Cambridge University Press.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Comparison of Kula and Moka Practice." May 7, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/kula-moka/.

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