Academic journal article Review of European Studies

The Kula Ring of Bronislaw Malinowski: Co-Evolution of an Economic and Ceremonial Exchange System

Academic journal article Review of European Studies

The Kula Ring of Bronislaw Malinowski: Co-Evolution of an Economic and Ceremonial Exchange System

Article excerpt

Abstract

The Kula Ring described by Bronislaw Malinowski is a system of the ceremonial exchange of gifts among a number of tribal societies inhabiting various island groups in the region east of Papua New Guinea. Two ceremonial gifts continually circulate in opposite directions: necklaces clockwise and armshells counterclockwise. After a brief description of the social system of Kula exchange, a game-theoretic interpretation of the ceremonial exchange as a signaling system for peaceful relationships, with inbuilt checks against cheating, is given. A simulation model of the starting mechanism is presented to account for the emergence and stability of the observed pattern of circular exchange of the two ceremonial gifts. Three processes are distinguished: the development of an economic trading network, the spread of peaceful relationships and the evolution of a ceremonial exchange network of Kula valuables. These processes are systematically linked to model the spontaneous emergence and co-evolution of the Kula Ring.

Keywords: Kula Ring, Social order, Ceremonial exchange, Signaling, Simulation

1. Introduction

The Kula Ring described by Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922 is a system of the ceremonial exchange of gifts, which has been cited and analyzed over and over again. The bibliography of Martha Macintyre (1983a) contains 625 publications that have dealt with the phenomenon of the Kula. Scholars have been fascinated by the specific pattern of the exchange network, which links numerous partners directly and indirectly in a ring-like structure, and where two ceremonial gifts (vaygu'a) continually circulate in opposite directions. The total structure has neither been intentionally created by the individual actors nor designed by a central authority. It is the unintended by-product of so many doings and at the same time provides favorable conditions for its reproduction.

The theoretical interpretations of the Kula so far presented have mainly concentrated on the functions of this institution which could also help to explain its maintenance. However, an unsolved problem remains: What kind of starting mechanism could account for the spontaneous emergence of peaceful exchange which builds only upon the strategic situation of dyadically interacting potential partners having an incentive to trade but being uncertain about the intentions of potentially hostile foreigners and (at least in the beginning) not being bound by a universally accepted "norm of reciprocity" which does not only apply to clan members but to strangers too?

2. Outline of the Argument

After a brief description of the social system of Kula exchange, we discuss three processes underlying the development of such a complex macro-structure: the development of an economic trading network, the spread of peaceful relationships and the evolution of a ceremonial exchange system. Before elaborating the assumptions of our simulation model, we present the methodological approach and describe the explanandum - the "observed" Kula Ring - and the empirical boundary conditions.

In the following sections we then discuss the three processes more in detail. The behavioral assumptions of our simulation model are derived from game-theoretic reasoning. Special emphasis is given to the importance of cheating and trust and the controlling influence of reputation. We then ask how such a macro-structure may have arisen out of the individual actions of multiple groups of actors. A simulation model of the starting mechanism is developed to account for the emergence and stability of the observed pattern of peaceful trade and the circular exchange of the two ceremonial gifts. Differentiating among separate "historical phases" improves the empirical fit of the simulation model. Results are then presented to demonstrate the implications of a "counterfactual" assumption about the number of vaygu'a. Thereafter, we briefly discuss changes of the historical Kula Ring observed in the 1970's and describe how these may be explained. …

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