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kula ring

kula ring An exchange cycle in the Trobriand Isles documented by Bronislaw Malinowski in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). Twice each year, Trobriand islanders launch their canoes and visit other islands, carrying gifts and local specialities for barter. When they arrive, the travellers give gifts, barter, and are feasted by their hosts. These are not simple trading expeditions since the islanders aim to acquire, from special kula-exchange partners, armlets of white shells (mwali) and necklaces of red shells (souvlava). Kula shells are carried from one island to another in a ring, the armlets in one direction and the necklaces in another, in a constant cycle of exchange called ‘kula’.

Kula items have no monetary value and cannot be converted into consumer goods. They are merely for display and prestige, similar to the English crown jewels according to Malinowski, or to a sports trophy held only until the next encounter. The shells are highly esteemed by men who seek them from their lifetime partners in exchange, hence the local saying ‘Once in kula, always in kula’. Every man in the kula cycle receives all of the kula articles at some point. He keeps them for a while and then passes them on. The shells are formally transferred and no haggling is allowed. The time-lapse between the gift and counter-gift is an expression of confidence, on the part of the giver, that the partner will return his due. Men perform magic to ensure goodwill and affection so that shells will be returned, since a man's prestige depends on it.

Malinowski chastised writers who referred to kula shells as money. They are better seen as an exchange of gifts in a moral framework. Thus Malinowski used the kula to make the more general point that the economy is embedded in social relations. The kula ring welds together a large number of islands and their economies. He also stressed the political nature of kula. It provides internal status for men, and strengthens political stability among kula trading islands by reinforcing peace, since Trobrianders are highly reticent to attack islanders who are partners in kula. According to Malinowski, the many interactions which come under the ambit of kula (prestige, political influence, trade, and gift-giving) all form ‘one organic whole’. Malinowski's study of kula exchange is thus a major demonstration of the functionalist method in anthropology. See also EXCHANGE THEORY; GIFT RELATIONSHIP.

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