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Essentials of the kula

In his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Bronislaw Malinowski, has given "An Account
of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipclagoes of Melanesian New Guinea." As he
has himself pointed out, he is mainly concerned with the economic activity of theTrobriand
This activity centres on the institution known as Kula. Thus this monograph is particularly
concerned with one phase of the savage life only. However, as Malinowski has said in the
foreword of this book, "One of the first conditions of acceptable Ethnographic work certainly
is that it should deal with the totality of all social, cultural and psychological aspects of the
community, for they are so interwoven that no one can be understood without taking into
consideration all the others."
Therefore the book deals with economic theme but constant reference has been made in
social organization, magic, mythology and folklore. As J. G. Frazer has appreciated in the
preface of this book "It is characteristic of Dr. Malinowski's method that he takes full account
of the complexity of human nature."
Definition of the Kula
Before pointing out the essentials of Kula, Malinowski starts with a temporary definition of
this institution. He says, "The Kula is a form of exchange, of extensive, inter-tribal character;
it is carried on by communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form a closed circuit."
This form of exchange is carried on under definite rules of transaction and elaborate magical
ritual and public ceremonies. Therefore, the Kula is a big complicated institution.
Characteristics of Kula
The above mentioned definition of the Kula has been exemplified by an analysis of
characteristics of the Kula ring. According to Malinowski, "Every movement of the Kula
articles, every detail of the transactions is fixed and regulated by a set of traditional rules and
conventions, and some acts of the Kula are accompanied by an elaborate magical ritual and
public ceremonies." The characteristics of the Kula are as follows:
1. Participation of limited number of men
On every island and in every village, a more or less limited number of men take part in the
Kula. They receive the goods, hold them for a short time and then pass them on.
2. The article (barang) can not be retained for long
In the Kula transaction one receives arm shell or necklace of red-shell discs and then it has to
be handed on to one of his partner's. His partner, in his turn, gives him the opposite
commodity in exchange. Thus no one can keep an article for a long lime. Those who do not

exchange fast are criticised as miserly. In any case no one can keep an article for more than a
3. Once in the Kula always in the Kula
This rule shows that one transaction does not finish the Kula relationship. Kula partnership
between two men is a permanent and life long affair. The articles are always travelling and
changing hands.
4. Ceremonial exchange
According to Malinowski, though Kula appears to be an economic exchange, in fact it is a
ceremonial. In the words of Malinowski, "The main principle underlying the regulations of
actual exchange is that the Kula consists in the bestowing of ceremonial gift, which has to be
repaid by an equivalent counter-gift, after a lapse of time is it a few hours or even minutes
though sometimes as much as a year or more may lapse between payments."
5. Secondary activities and features
Side by side with the ritual exchange of arm-shells and necklaces, the natives carry on
ordinary trade, bartering commodities of use. Besides, there are other activities such as the
building of see-going canoes for the expeditions, certain big forms of mortuary ceremonies
and preparatory taboos.
6. An organic whole of several tribes
The Kula is a big and complex institution. According to Malinowski, "It welds together a
considerable number of tribes, and it embracesavast complex of activities, interconnected
and playing into one another, so as to form one organic whole." The participants, however,
have no knowledge of the toU! Outline of Kula. No one knows how big it is or what
sociological function it performs. No one has an integral picture of Kula in his mind.
It is the ethnographer who alone has any idea about the jtotal institution. The ethnographer
here performs three activities-1. He has to find out that certain activities which appear
meaningless have a meaning, 2. He has to find out what is essential and what is accidental. 3.
Finally, he has to construct the picture of the institution based upon laws and rules of
7. Economic institution
Kula is essentially an economic institution. It is hence that Malinowski has called it, "A form
of trade". Trade, however, in this context, has a wide interpretation. It includes almost the
total social life. It is routed in myth backed traditional law and surrounded by magical rights.
It is a life long transaction. It involves duties and privileges.
8. Spontaneous

Kula is not done under stress of any kind. Its main aim is to exchange articles which are of no
practical use. Therefore, it is more a part of culture. It is a means of establishing inter-tribal
relationships on a large scale. In the words of Malinowski, "Myth, magic and tradition have
built up around it definite ritual and ceremonial forms, have given it a halo of romance and
value in the minds of the natives, have indeed created a passion in their hearts for this simple
The exchange of articles in Kula ring is based upon certain rules of trasnsaction. These rules
are as follows:
1. Transaction between partners only
The Kula transactions can be done only between partners and not between any two persons.
2. Formal partnership
The manner of partnership is definite and formal. It constitutes a life long relationship.
3. Variation of partners
The number of partners a man has varies with his rank and importance. A commoner may
have few partners whereas a chief would have hundreds of them.
4. Interpersonal relationship
"Two Kula partners have to Kula with one another, and exchange other gifts incidentally;
they behave as friends, and have a number of mutual duties and obligations, which vary with
the distance between their villages and with their reciprocal status."
The rules of partnership' lead to the following cumulative effects:
(i) In Kula ring there is a net work of relationship, interwoven together.
(ii) Objects given by one in time reach some very long distance to direct partner or other.
(iii) In the long run, not only objects of material culture but also customs, songs and general
cultural influences travel along the Kula route.
5. Definite rules of transaction
Every man has to obey definite rules as to the geographical direction of his transactions. He
constantly passes the arm-shells from left to right, and the necklaces from right to left.
6. Circular exchange

In Kula one finds a circular exchange or a ring or circuit of moving articles. According to
Malinowski, "On this ring, all the villages are placed in a definitely fixed position with regard
to one another, so that one is always on either the arm-shell or on the necklace side of the

7. No back-trading.
According to another rule, the armshells and shell-strings always travel in their own
respective directions on the ring, and they are never, under any circumstances, traded back in
the wrong direction.
8. Non-stop exchange
The exchange of Kula articles never stops. A man who is in the Kula never keeps any article
for longer than a year or two.
9. Influence of personal power
Success in Kula is ascribed to special, personal power, due mainly to magic, and men are very
proud of it.
10. Community consciousness
The whole community glories in a specially fine Kula trophy, obtained by one of its members.
11. Nature of Individual transaction in Kula
The individual transaction in Kula is based upon the following regulations and principles:
(i) Ceremonial gift Kula means the bestowing of a ceremonial gift. This gift has to be repaid
by an equivalent counter gift after a lapse of time which may be from few hours to as much as
a year. This exchange of gifts is based upon decorum and not upon the principle of barter.
(ii) No enforcement According to Malinowsi
"The second very important principle is that the equivalence of the counter-gift is left to the
giver, and it cannot be enforced by any kind of coercion." The exchange is governed by social
consciousness and social code.
(iii) Noblesse oblige

According to the rule known as Noblesse oblige the noble members such as chiefs are under
obligation to make exchange according to their status. More and more generosity is expected
from the members comparable to their high status.
(iv) No primitive communism
Malinowski rejects the idea of primitive communism of savages. He is also against the
diametrically opposed idea of the acquisitive and ruthlessly tenacious native. According to
him the savage is as much normal as the civilized man.

(v) No actual haggling

In Kula transactions there is no actual haggling nor a tendency to do a man out of his share.
The giver is quite as keen as the receiver that the gift should be generous. A man who is fair
and generous in the Kula will attract a larger stream to himself than a mean one.
The above principles, according to Malinowski can be summarized into two main principles.
In his own words, "The two main principles, namely, first that the Kula is a gift repaid after
an interval of time by a counter-gift, and not a bartering; and second, that the equivalent
rests with the giver, and cannot be enforced, nor can there be any haggling or going back on
the exchange these underlie all the transaction." Associated Activities and Secondary Aspects
The Kula is associated with preliminary and secondary activities. This precedence is implied
in the institution itself. The preliminary activities are intimately associated with the Kula.
These include the building of canoes, preparation of the outfit, the provisioning of the
expedition, the fixing of dates and social organisation of the enterprise. The secondary
activity is trade.
The secondary trade includes the following activities:
1. While some of the things are carried to be given away as present, a good deal is carried in
order to pay for the objects desired at home.
2. Big Kula centres are not efficient in any of the industries of special value. The necessary
goods are procured by minor trading expeditions. Primary Natural Kula
Order of precedence in Kula activities shows its primary nature as follows:
1. The dates are fixed, the preliminaries settled, the expeditions arranged, and the social
organization is determined with regard to Kula.
2. The big ceremonial feast held at the start, refers to the Kula.

3. The final ceremony of reckoning and counting the spoil refers to Kula.
4. The magic refers only to the Kula.
5. Where Kula is practised, it governs all the other allied activities.
6. The primary nature of Kula is expressed both by the working of all the arrangement as well
as by the behaviour and explicit statement of the natives.
Kula and Magic
The institution of Kula is intimately associated with magic. This is clear by the following
1. Relief in Magic
The belief in the efficiency of magic dominates the Kula, as it does over so many other tribal
activities of the natives.
2. Magical rites
Magical rites must be performed over the seagoing canoe when it is built, in order to make it
swift, steady and safe.
3. Soliciting luck
Magic is performed over a canoe to make it lucky in the Kula.
4. Averting dangers
Another system of magical rites is performed in order to avert the dangers of sailing.
5. Overseas expeditions
Kula magic is connected with overseas expeditions. It consists in numerous rites and spells,
all of which act directly on the mind of one's partner, and make him soft, unsteady in mind,
and eager to give Kula gifts.
Kula community
According to Malinowski, "A Kula community consists of a village or a number of villages,
who go out together on big oversea^ expeditions, and who act as a body in the Kula
transactions, perform their magic in common, have common leaders, and have the same
outer and inner social sphere, within which they exchange their valuables." The Kula
community consists of the following:

1. It consists of the small, internal transactions within a Kula community or contiguous

2. It consists of the big overseas expeditions in which the exchange of articles takes place
between two communities divided by sea.
Thus the Kula trade involves trade within the district, inter-district trade and overseas
expeditions. There is a permanent trickling of articles within the village and from one village
to another. But in overseas trade a whole lot of variables are exchanged.

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