For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Argonauts of the Western Pacific

by Malinowski, Bronislaw (2002)

Key Passage

…it is important to realise that a Kiriwinian is capable of working well, efficiently and in a continuous manner. But he must work under an effective incentive: he must be prompted by some duty imposed by tribal standards, or he must be lured by ambitions and values also dictated by custom and tradition. Gain, such as is often the stimulus for work in more civilised communities, never acts as an impulse to work under the original native conditions. It succeeds very badly, therefore, when a white man tries to use this incentive to make a native work. This is the reason why the traditional view of the lazy and indolent native is not only a constant refrain of the average white settler, but finds its way into good books of travel, and even serious ethnographic records. With us, labour is, or was till fairly recently, a commodity sold as any other, in the open market. A man accustomed to think in terms of current economic theory will naturally apply the conceptions of supply and demand to labour, and he applies them therefore to native labour. The untrained person does the same, though in less sophisticated terms, and as they see that the native will not work well for the white man, even if tempted by considerable payment and treated fairly well, they conclude that his capacity for labour is very small. This error is due to the same cause which lies at the bottom of all our misconceptions about people ofdifferent cultures. If you remove a man from his social milieu, you eo ipso deprive him of almost all his stimuli to moral steadfastness and economic efficiency and even of interest in life. If then you measure him by moral, legal or economic standards, also essentially foreign to him, you cannot but obtain a caricature in your estimate.But the natives are not only capable of energetic, continuous and skilful work; their social conditions also make it possible for them to employ organised labour. At the beginning of Chapter IV, the sociology of canoe-building was given in outline, and now, after the details of its successive stages have been filled in, it is possible to confirm what has been said there, and drawsome conclusions as to this organisation of labour. And first, as we are using this expression so often, I must insist again on the fact that the natives are capable of it, and that this contention is not a truism, as the following considerations should show. The just mentioned view of the lazy, individualistic and selfish savage, who lives on the bounties of nature as they fall ripe and ready for him, implicitly precludes the possibility of his doing effective work, integrated into an organised effort by social forces. Again, the view, almost universally accepted by specialists, is that the lowest savages are in the pre-economic stage of individualistic search for food, whereas the more developed ones, such as the Trobrianders, for instance, live at the stage of isolated household economy. This view also ignores, when it does not deny explicitly, the possibility of socially organised labour.The view generally held is that, in native communities each individual works for himself, or members of a household work so as to provide each family with the necessities of life. Of course, a canoe, even a masawa, could obviously be made by the members of household, though with less efficiency and in a longer time. So that there is a priori nothing to foretell whether organised labour, or the unaided efforts of an individual or a small group of people should be used in the  work. As a matter of fact, we have seen in canoe-building a number of men engaged in performing each a definite and difficult task, though united to one purpose. The tasks were differentiated in their sociological setting; some of the workers were actually to own the canoe;others belonged to a different community, and did it only as an act of service to the chief. Some worked in order to derive direct benefit from the use of the canoe; others were to be paid. We saw also that the work of felling, of scooping, of decorating, would in some cases be performed by various men, or it might be performed by one only. Certainly the minute tasks of lashing, caulking and painting, as well as sail-making, were done by communal labour as opposed to individual. And all these different tasks were directed towards one aim: the providing the chief or headman with the title of ownership of a canoe, and his whole community with its use.It is clear that this differentiation of tasks, co-ordinated to a general purpose, requires a well developed social apparatus to back it up, and that on the other hand, this social mechanism must be associated and permeated with economic elements. There must be a chief, regarded as representative of a group; he must have certain formal rights and privileges, and a certain amount of authority, and also he must dispose of part of the wealth of the community. There must also be a man or men with knowledge sufficient to direct and co-ordinate the technical operations.(…)Another point must be enlarged upon somewhat more. I have spoken of organised labour, and of communal labour. These two conceptions are not synonymous, and it is well to keep them apart. As already defined, organised labour implies the co-operation of several socially and economically different elements. It is quite another thing, however, when a number of people are engaged side by side, performing the same work, without any technical division of labour, or social differentiation of function. Thus, the whole enterprise of canoe-building is, in Kiriwina, the result of organised labour. But the work of some twenty to thirty men, who side by side do the lashing or caulking of the canoe, is communal labour. This latter form of work has a greatpsychological advantage. It is much more stimulating and more interesting, and it allows of emulation, and therefore of a better quality of work. For one or two men, it would require about a month to do the work which twenty to thirty men can do in a day. In certain cases, as in the pulling of the heavy log from the jungle to the village, the joining of forces is almost indispensable. True, the canoe could be scooped out in the raybwag, and then a few men might be able to pull it along, applying some skill. But it would entail great hardships. Thus, in some cases, communal labour is of extreme importance, and in all cases it furthers the course of work considerably. Sociologically, it is important, because it implies mutual help, exchange ofservices, and solidarity in work within a wide range.Communal labour is an important factor in the tribal economy of the Trobriand natives. They resort to it in the building of living-huts and storehouses, in certain forms of industrial work, and in the transport of things, especially at harvest time, when great quantities of produce have to be shifted from one village to another, often over a great distance. In fishing, when several canoes go out together and fish each for itself, then we cannot speak of communal labour. When on the other hand, they fish in one band, each canoe having an appointed task, as is sometimes done, then we have to do with organised labour. Communal labour is also based upon the duties of urigubu or relatives-in-law. That is, a man’s relatives-in-law have to assist him, whenever he needs their co-operation. In the case of a chief, there is an assistance on a grand scale, and whole villages will turn out. In the case of a commoner, only a few people will help. There is always a distribution of food after the work has been done, but this can hardly be considered as payment, for it is not proportional to the work each individual does.By far the most important part communal labour has to play, is in gardening. There are as many as five different forms of communal labour in the gardens, each called by a different name, and each distinct in its sociological nature. (p.167-175)


No Keywords


Malinowski, Anthropology of Work



How to contribute.