The book, “The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea”, is a study in the fieldwork of ethnography conducted by Annette B. Weiner.  This study is her pre-doctoral work in the study of Anthropology (1971 & 1972), and in 1974 she received her Ph.D.  This work represents over fifteen years of study of the Trobrianders.  Her caseworks began with the fieldwork of Bronislaw Malinowski, who was the first to do any type of study of these people.  Main attributes to Dr. Weiner’s work is that it continued where Malinowski left off and filled in some of the gaps in understanding or misunderstandings he had and some things that were overlooked.

Dr. Weiner’s work gives the reader an inside look at the Trobrianders culture and behavior.  It helped to clarified meaning of some of the customs these people used in this culture such as matriliny, sexuality, and chiefly power.  One of the main focus Dr. Weiner had was on “women’s productive activities” or wealth, where as Dr.

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Malinowski dealt with men’s wealth.  Dr Weiner wrote , “My taking seriously the importance of women’s wealth not only brought women as the neglected half of society clearly into the ethnographic picture but also forced me to revise many of Malinowski’s assumptions about Trobriand men” (p.5).  This study was conducted before external changes of the 80”s influenced change in the culture of the Tribrianders.

In the first chapter the author discusses the basic principals that were factors of change for the Tribriander culture during the years of study in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

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  At this time New Guinea was working on self-government and national independence and as the author wrote, “this particular time period provided important insights into the past history of the island while underscoring Trobriander impressive resistance to foreign intervention” (p.13).  The efforts by the Trobriander was to keep the traditional economic and activities that was linked to the wealth of the women and the role of wealth as it relates to the political life and economics of men.

Monogamy is a rule practiced by most Trobrianders but if the chiefs want to become powerful they must take more than one wife. These multiple marriages involve a long term exchange of yams, which in this culture is wealth and help to establish a more extended political alliance with other tribes or families.

During a period of time before World War II many missionaries tried to change the economic structure of the Trobrianders.  “They wanted men to stop their yam garden work for chiefs and to produce cash crops such as copra” (p. 25).  Over the next couple of years the missions and government did not do what they set out to do.  Even though some chiefs promised officials that they would stop taking any more wives they continued in the way of their culture.

Chapter two entitled Death and the work of mourning deals with something the Trobriander’s resist more to change than any other external pressure.  The rituals that are performed when someone dies are hard driven in this culture.  When someone dies their material wealth, land and social and political relationships are divided between the living.  While the person is dying there is usually a show of family and friends that wail and sob loudly.  When the person dies the message is sent with amazing speed to other villages.

“Each person has a role to play that will change the direction of his or her work for at least half a year” (p.33).  No one is to show or display any kind of happiness during the period of mourning.  This period is very drawn out, but the actual death events happen very rapidly.  Trobrianders believe that if a matrilineage is weakened through the death of a man then someone is deliberately trying to weaken the autonomy of the matrilineage’s chief taking away is supporters and potential heirs.  The men’s part in mourning is to sing ancestral songs.

No one sleeps the whole night after the death.  Tuma is where the deceased is to go after death.  This is an island bout 20 miles from Kiriwina and it is here where they will meet up with other spirits of dead Trobrianders.  When reaching this island they will become young and strong again.  “Villagers believe that on reaching Tuma, the spirit is revitalized by returning to a state of youth and thus continues to live.  Sorcery and death work as one in this cultural belief.

The roles and statuses of men and women are discussed in the third chapter.  The focus is on the birth process and the political consequences.  When looking at the death beliefs and then examine the birth process death is resisted by the Tribrianders.  This resistance to change was evident in material wealth, land, social and political relationships.  But birth had a much different yet complimentary role in the family and definitely with political consequences.  To the Tribriander matrilineal identity, “revolves around the belief that conception occurs through women and their ancestral spirits” (p.56).

When there is a marriage a woman traditionally goes to live with her husband, but shortly before birth she goes back to her mother’s house where she lives for several months before and after the birth.  Within the villages there are smaller hamlets that are expressive of the matrilineages.  Trobriand babies get a lot of attention.  They are continually touched and caressed.

Men and women along with children are all caretakers of these infants.  But in the eyes of the Trobriander culture public responsibility for the economic care of the child is the father’s responsibility.  “His capabilities and commitment to provide his children with food and wealth are observed by his wife and her kin and other villagers as well” (p.58).  Men are also responsible for enhancing their children’s beauty.

Adolescent sexuality that was discussed in chapter four was one very important factor in this study.  It describes how children seven or eight begin playing games and imitating adult sexual attitudes.  In four or five more years they actually look for partners.  They change partners often experimenting with each other.  They will leave their parents home and have a small house usually next door or a few doors down.  This gives freedom to the adolescents to make their own sleeping arrangements.

During this time the elders in the village will watch and guide the young people to fulfill their potential as productive adults.  “Is a young woman capable of making fine skirts? Does a young man demonstrate his increasing knowledge of yam cultivation?” (p. 67). These are just a few of the questions that the elders are making sure the adolescent knows about.  Their productive abilities are not pressured upon the adolescents, their responsibility is limited at this time, and much freedom is given to pursue their own adventures are stressed.  Lovers in the adolescent’s life will help when the young person decides to enter into marriage.

“Gaining lovers is not merely a frivolous adolescent pastime.  It is the first step toward entering the adult world of marriage” (p.78).  Yams and women’s skirts are symbols of status change and their life ahead in marriage and play key roles in their society.  There is no traditional marriage ceremony.  Just one day instead of leaving her lover’s house and before sunrise the young woman decides to stay.  In the morning the two sit together and wait for the bride’s mother to bring them cooked yams.  The reason that there is such a strong taboo exists about lovers being seen together in the same house or eating food together is because these acts make a marriage official.

Marriage and the politics of yams, chapter five, deals with what happens after marriage and the power of one’s beauty is removed from a physical sense to a show of wealth by producing and controlling of the yams grown.  The yams are used to heighten their status with others.  This along with the circulation of the wealth among blood relatives and relatives by marriage that secure networks of social and political relationships that usually will span generations.  After the first year of marriage a woman’s father makes her yam garden.  Then in about five or ten years later her brother takes over that responsibility.  “Annual yam presentations not only represent marriages and economic potential but also the degree of political status that each man has achieved” (p. 91).  By the time that a man has his own yam house built his daughter will most likely be ready for marriage.

Chiefs main network are added to though their polygamous marriages, but the villagers decide if the chief in question has enough influence to have them support him.  “Wealth and the power of persuasion take on even greater importance as chiefs attempt to win fame and consolidate their resources” (p. 14).  This is what is discussed in chapter six.  Since political currency of the chiefs is measured in yam production the women that the chief marries takes on a role of great meaning in their political careers.  A common villager with one wife can never hope to achieve more than a chief in yams.  Chiefs must also know how to control villager’s lives and growing powers of yams with magic spells.  The most dangerous spells deal with control over weather.

This type of power makes them feared by the villagers and that fear creates the power of the chiefs.  Yams and yam production is economically instrumental in the Tribriander society.  Only low ranking chiefs had one wife even if his hamlet had men helping to grow gardens, without multiple wives his status is lower than a chief with many wives.  Large amounts of productivities and expenditures of resources are required for this culture.  Even the death of someone, “transforms a harvest of youthful energy and excitement into a productive effort of a different order in which men’s resources are needed to procure women’s wealth” (p.117).

Women’s wealth is given more attention in chapter eight.  This wealth is a vital force in Trobriand society.  In the exchanges of these yams that mark the end of a mourning period one can see how dependent men and including the chiefs are on the women and their wealth.  In this chapter and the following chapter nine the issues of dominance and hierarchy are raised and the potential and limitation for women and women to achieve fame and autonomy with even jealousy, sorcery, and death.

When women die their wealth is distributed by relatives throughout the hamlets.  Some women will travel to the hamlets to buy bundles in preparation for their own death.  The women of the dead person’s matrilineage are helped in the distribution by their brothers married daughters.  These women are members of other clans.  Everyone who is associated in some way with the dead person is given a bundle.

History is saved through Kula a giving and taking of one armshell for another.  It is a complex set of exchanges between islands and chiefs to immortalize their lives.  This exchange builds strong partners and valuables.  Written on these shells that are exchanged is the history of their chiefdom. In Kula the exchange of the shells must be for one of the same size and value and exact match for what is given.  A Kula man’s fame is created through the circulation of his name in relation to the largest and most valued shells he has gotten.  This type of exchange, armshells and necklaces has been seen for over 2000 years but the beginning of Kula may be only about 500 years ago.

This study deals with how objects form the important stages of a person’s culture and what is valued in that culture shows how weak social and political relations.  But it also defines the people in who they are and where they belong.  The sociological conflict between individuals will and societal pressures are shown clearly in this study.  The significance of this study to anthropology is priceless.

When Malinowski first began his study of anthropology it was just barely established and his fieldwork was the first ethnography that gave academic substance to the field.  It gives in detail a culture that much of the customs are now being lost in assimilation.  It helps the reader in understanding that ethnography is the study of origins, history, and customs of groups of peoples.  This was an important culture to study at the time because the culture centered on chiefdoms and was a matrilineal society that was virtually untouched or influenced by external pressures until recent times.

I found the book easy to read with information on culture that was very informative.  Mentions that ethnographies are just a way of fictionalizing a culture to help the reader to understand and somewhat feel what that culture is experiencing.  Ethnography’s are essential in seeing a glimpse into a culture in a personal way and would not be assessable to many people.  It gives help in understanding ethnocentrism.  Dr. Weiner’s study and findings are clearly going to be useful in studying anthropology for students and laymen.  I recommend the book highly.


Weiner, A.B. (1988).  The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea.  New York, N. Y.: Holt,            Rinehart and Winston.

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The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. (2017, Mar 02). Retrieved from

The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea

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