The Trobriand Land Dispute Schema

Edwin Hutchins (1980) recorded and transcribed a formal dispute in the Trobriand Islands, in which two men, Motobasi and Kailima, make speeches to an open court in their village. In these speeches, both men claim the right to cultivate a particular garden plot.

Motobasi, it seems, has sent one of his followers to cut a garden. Kailimila disputes Motobasi’s right to cut the garden. Motobasi says:

It is easy for me to take up this garden and cut it. I was cutting it when my younger brothers said ‘‘you have recently come. You shall not touch these things. These are our things because we pokala’ed previously.” But as you know, this was a woman’s garden, Ilawokuvamalasi's garden. My older brother cut it by himself. When he died, he gave it to his sister. (Hutchins 1980:68)

To win the case, Motobasi will have to refute the statements of his younger brothers who tell him ‘‘You shall not touch these things.’’ To understand Motobasi’s logic, we need to know that pokala is the giving of something by someone of inferior status to someone of superior status ‘‘in the hope, but without the promise, that something will be returned’’ (Hutchins 1980:25-26) and that Trobriand society is divided into matrilineal descent groups.

Motobasi's claim on the garden depends on his listeners filling in around the edges. He hopes that his matrilineal claim, through his sister, will trump his younger brothers’ claim through poloka. Eventually, the fact that Motobasi could not specify the person whom the brothers had pokala'ed will prejudice his case.

The most important finding in Hutchins's account, though, is not that the Trobrianders have a schema for dealing with property disputes and that their schema—with its matrilineal clans and poloka exchange, and so on—is very different from our own. Hutchins shows that, within their schema, the Trobrianders use the same logic as we would use in coming to a decision in a dispute. This implies that the rules of logic are universal and it lays to waste the idea that technologically primitive peoples are not up to the abstract logic that Westerners are so proud of inventing (Hutchins 1980:128).

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