“Once in the Kula”
The Trobriand Islands are a collection of coral atolls lying of the northeastern coast of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific Ocean. Most of the Trobriands are small and uninhabited. Many have severe cliffs that drop straight off into the ocean. When the shore does feature a beach, it’s a small strip of white that is quickly overcome by a thicket of straining palms. Of the many Trobriands dotting the South Pacific, there are four main islands where most of the inhabitants live. They are Kaileuna, Vakuta, Kitava, and, the largest of all of them, Kiriwina.
Kiriwina is a remote island. For most of its existence it remained isolated from the Western world. So when in June of 1915 an unfamiliar white man drew up on the shores of Kiriwina, at a village called Omarakana, it lured the natives away from their daily business to investigate the new arrival. The man hopped out of his vessel and onto the beach, unloading with him all of his possessions. He wiped his hands across his white pants to brush off the dirt, then looked up to survey his new surrounds. Not wasting time after having unloaded his passenger, the Melanesian man piloting the dinghy kicked off from the shore and began puttering away. The white man turned to watch the departure, taking a moment to observe his only means of getting off the island sail into the distance. Then he turned back toward land, grabbed his bags, and began to head into the village.
The man was young, about thirty. He was of Eastern European descent and slender, with closely cropped hair. His glasses had perfectly circular rims, and he sported a white linen shirt and white linen pants—the kind of outfit that you might think of as adventuresome if you had never actually been on an adventure. As he walked up to the gathering crowd, he brought out a package of tobacco, which he cheerfully offered to the natives and the natives in turn cheerfully accepted. The man did not speak Kiriwinian, but the Kiriwinians cobbled together enough pidgin English to make the interaction work. They chatted for a bit, an amicable exchange of perfunctory compliments. The meeting was peaceful, as the man had not come to harm the villagers. His intent, he told them, was the opposite. He planned to live among them. The man’s name was Bronisław Malinowski.
The Kiriwinians were not wholly unaccustomed to foreigners living among them. A missionary had for some time resided in the nearby village and made frequent appearances in Omarakana. But Malinowski wasn’t a missionary. And he had no intention of staying in the next village over in the company of his fellow Europeans. Malinowski’s plan was to live right in the heart of Omarakana.
Malinowski was an anthropologist. He was there to understand the Kiriwinian way of life. His goal, as he later wrote in his famous monograph Argonauts of the Western Pacific, was to “grasp the native’s point of view.” If we are interested in understanding people who come from different factions, then a reasonable place to start is by looking at those who do so professionally. An anthropologist is someone whose job it is to find a group of people different from herself and do everything in her power to understand them better. And not just any group of people, either. She has to find a group of people who are as different from herself as humanly possible. That’s why anthropologists study remote tribes in Africa or deep in the Amazon rain forest or, like Malinowski, an outlying island in the South Pacific.
But Malinowski’s time in the Trobriands wasn’t just any old trip taken by an anthropologist. His expedition marks a turning point in the development of anthropology as a field. Before Malinowski, anthropology didn’t work so well. The problem was that anthropologists were, at best, unreliable in actually having understood the people they studied. At worst their findings were based mostly on the human instinct for xenophobia rather than legitimate data. That changed almost single-handedly with Malinowski. He was the one who developed the methods for fieldwork that anthropologists still use today. After Malinowski, anthropology took off. It was no longer something done as an afterthought by Europeans who wanted to subjugate or convert foreign peoples. It became a productive means of understanding people who do things differently than we do in the West. Anthropology, in short, offers a solution to the problem of how to understand people from other factions.
There are two major milestones in a child’s understanding of others. The first is a biological milestone. It is the critical period during which a child develops what psychologists call a “theory of mind.” This typically begins around nine months. It is the first acknowledgment that what I believe is true about the world is not necessarily the same thing as what you believe is true about the world. The child begins to draw a distinction between objectivity—that’s what is really out there—and subjectivity, which is her best guess at it. She learns, importantly, that two different subjectivities don’t necessarily yield the same picture of objectivity. It is each person’s own responsibility to construct a picture of reality as she sees it. This milestone is biological because any normally developing child is guaranteed to reach it, regardless of where she was born. It is a feature that is built-in.
The second milestone is cultural. This one isn’t built-in. It might be different for someone who grows up in America than it would be for someone who doesn’t. But for everyone who grows up in America, it is the same. The window of time when it occurs is larger, but it usually happens sometime in elementary school, maybe second grade. It is an idea that is passed on from one generation to the next, often after a confrontation between the child and another. It could be her mother or teacher that tells her. But whenever it happens and whomever it happens with, this second milestone always amounts to the same insight: If you want to understand another person, you have to walk a mile in their shoes.
This, they are told, is what it takes to understand another person.
The good news for society is that one’s education generally extends beyond second grade. We go on to learn about the substitution method in algebra, the major events of world history, and—if we’re lucky—what coitus interruptus means. If you were to ask an adult about their positions on our national tax policy, they would give a very different answer than a second grader would. Adults would answer most questions differently than a second grader. But here’s one curious exception:
What does it take to understand another person?
Let’s see how some adults answer this question. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch explains to his daughter Scout, ”You never really understand a person until you consider things from her point of view—until you climb into her skin and walk around in it.” Scout had just asked Atticus about why the Ewells, a family from the wrong side of the tracks, did things differently than their own family. Atticus answers with his account of how to understand the point of view of others. What he says, I think, broadly accords with our idea of how to understand others. If you were to express this sentiment to an auditorium of people, I bet your words would be met with a sea of heads in agreement. Barack Obama once said, “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see the world through their eyes.” He continued, “Learning to stand in someone body else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that's how peace begins.” This is by no means an uncommon sentiment. Hillary Clinton once said, “The most important thing each of us can do is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbor’s eyes.” And it’s not just politicians, either. Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own.” We are, as a society, convinced that what it means to understand another person has to do with seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, and thinking what they think.
But something’s a little off here. You know which other fictional character felt the desire to climb into someone else’s skin and go for a stroll in it? The it-puts-the-lotion-on-its-skin guy from Silence of the Lambs. And he’s not a very good role model at all. Similarly, Obama admits in Dreams from my Father that “My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.” He's speaking of the terrorists who perpetrated the September 11th attacks. As leader of the free world, wouldn’t the foremost enemy of the United States be exactly the kind of people you need to understand best? For that matter, Hillary Clinton was probably just saying that thing about seeing the world through our neighbor’s eyes because it was right after the murder of Eric Gardner and that’s precisely the kind of thing that society expects you to say in that situation. Henry Ford, for his part, hated Jews.
What’s off is that while we all agree about what constitutes an appropriate response to the question of what it means to understand some else, it doesn’t really give us an answer. We agree on the outcome, but never get around to discussing the solution. There’s this metaphor about shoes, and somehow this is supposed to supply us with all of knowledge we need to interpret the whole of human behavior. We take it for granted that what exactly this means is too obvious to elaborate, that it comes naturally if you just try hard enough. I think we need to reevaluate that belief, and dig deeper into what it really means to understand someone who is different than yourself.
There is a term that psychologists use to describe the mental process of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. They call it "perspective-taking." The idea of perspective-taking is that thinking about someone else’s point of view is like putting on a pair of glasses. We remove our own pair for a moment, don someone else’s, and we can see the world the way it looks from their eyes. We literally take on their perspective as our own. The vast majority of the psychological literature on how we understand others is based on this idea. If social psychology were the evening news, perspective-taking would be the weather forecast and reporting on locally-sourced homicides. Sometimes it seems like that’s all they talk about. There is, however, a lesser known alternative to the putting-on-the-glasses theory, coined by psychologist Nick Epley, called "perspective-getting."
The thesis of perspective-getting is simple: the best way to know what someone else thinks is to ask them. Sure, you can lock yourself in your room, put on the glasses, and think very, very hard about what it’s like to be someone else. But that won’t get you as clear of a picture of what they think as going out there and asking them, “Hey, what do you think?” While the idea is simple, what it means in practice can be complicated. That is what we will be exploring the pages ahead. While perspective-getting may not be a common topic in psychology, it is integral to the process of anthropology. As a society—in the West generally and America specifically—we are obsessed with psychological explanations. Understanding a person consists in characterizing their thoughts, their feelings, and everything that makes up their internal state. But anthropology is built on a different premise. In order to understand a person, you have to understand the larger system—the culture, the society, the institution—of which they’re a part.
In this book, I will argue that what it looks like to understand people in other factions more closely resembles anthropology than it does psychology. The book is divided into two parts. The second part is going to look at context, by distinguishing between the ultimate and proximate causes of behavior. Ultimate causes of behavior explain why people behave the way they do once you really try to get to the bottom of it. Proximate causes of behavior, on the other hand, are the more superficial explanations for why someone acted a certain way. I’m going to argue that the ultimate causes of behavior are contextual, not mental, and thus better suited to understanding by anthropology, which looks at context, not psychology, which looks at the individual. The first part of the book deals with the problem of perspective. Specifically, I’m going to argue that the best way to see someone else’s point of view is by perspective-getting, not perspective-taking. This goes double for people from different factions. And in order to understand why perspective-taking is so important, let’s start by setting aside the second-grade approach to our problem and take a look at how the experts tackle it.
Malinowski was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1884 to an aristocratic family. His father was a man of distinction, a university professor. Malinowski may have looked up to his father, but he was closer to his mother. Malinowski shined in his undergraduate studies and went on to do a doctorate in physics and mathematics, following in the footsteps of his father on track to become a professor. But he was derailed during a period of illness. It was during this time that his mother read him excerpts from a book called the Golden Bough, by James Frazer, a large volume of myths collected from different cultures. Frazer was an anthropologist, and his book did a lot to popularize the notion of anthropology back in the late 1800s. Malinowski was among those taken with the enterprise, and decided to pursue the nascent field.
He set his sights on a cadre of anthropologists in England, by the names of Rivers, Haden, Seligman, and Westermark. Happily, this quartet was colocated with a romantic interest of Malinowski’s, Elsie Rosalind Masson, whom he would eventually marry. Malinowski never said as much explicitly, but it is tempting to speculate whether the heart or the mind informed his decision to pursue the group. He arrived in England in 1910, at twenty-six years old. He enrolled at the London School of Economics, where Seligman and Westermark were stationed. Malinowski was quickly identified as a promising student, and his professors helped to raise funding for him to go abroad.
In 1914, Malinowski set sail on a six-week voyage from England to Australia’s southeastern coast to attend the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s conference in Melbourne. He paid his way through by acting as the meeting’s secretary. At the conference, he was exposed to research by all of the most prominent anthropological scholars of the day. And it was at this event that he first became interested in how anthropologists go about their fieldwork.
World War I broke out while Malinowski was in Australia. He knew that, as a Polish member of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Europe would not exactly welcome him with an enthusiastic handshake and a clasp on the back. He decided it would be best if he remained in the southern hemisphere, a safe distance from the throws of war. One of his mentors, Seligman, had done fieldwork in a place called Mailu, off the southeastern tip of New Guinea. Malinowski figured that it would be as good a place as any to get started on his fieldwork, and took a ship up to Mailu.
When he arrived in Mailu, Malinowski soon felt that something was awry. He was accommodated in a European outpost, where he stayed with other people who shared his cultural background—other Europeans, other anthropologists. That allowed him to pick and choose what he saw from the native culture. He could go out during the day and observe a ceremony or two, then retire to the verandah and enjoy an evening’s vodka martini. It was equal parts resort and expedition. That may have been a pleasant enough arrangement for a holiday, but it was not anthropological fieldwork.
“My anthropological explorations absorb me a great deal,” wrote Malinowski while in Mailu. “But they suffer from two basic defects. One I have little to do with the savages on the spot. I do not observe them enough. And two, I do not speak their language. This second defect will be hard enough to overcome.” If he really wanted to gain insight into another culture, Malinowski would need to make some changes. He decided it would be best to start fresh, and left for somewhere new. The village for which he set sail, which he selected on the basis of a rumor that peculiar and exotic rituals happen there, was called Omarakana, on the Trobriand island of Kiriwina.
Our English word "culture" comes from the Latin cultura. In the original sense, it is an agricultural term, referring to the cultivation of a field. A field with cultura bears fruit. A field without cultura is barren and doesn’t produce fruit. The farmer’s job is to take a field without cultura and turn it into one with cultura. This can only happen by slow and incremental progress through much deliberate effort. Cultura, in its most fundamental sense, is a concept of progress.
The Roman orator Cicero took this agricultural term and applied it to human development. His idea was "cultura animi," or cultivation of the soul. Souls, it occurred to Cicero, can attain cultura in much the same way that a field can: slow and incremental progress through deliberate effort. Souls start off like an unkempt field and only through disciplined study can you turn them into something that bears fruit. What cultura means in an agricultural sense is straightforward. If you have a well-cultivated field, then it might produce a row of tomatoes or peas or whatever you planted. But if you have a well-cultivated soul, what exactly does the fruit look like? That’s less straightforward, and it’s a problem that philosophers have thought about at least since Cicero posed it.
There was, however, one aspect of the answer that was clear to every philosopher. Regardless of what precisely a well-cultivated soul entailed, they certainly had one themselves.
Thomas Hobbes, the English political philosopher, was no exception. Hobbes published his famous work Leviathan in 1651, which he wrote in the midst of the English Civil War. In Leviathan, Hobbes considers the question of how to construct a successful government. The role of government, he thought, was to prevent the kind of chaos that he saw happening in the war going on around him. That, after all, is what humans naturally do when there is no adult supervision: they fight with one another. Only something as powerful as a government—or a big-ass Biblical sea monster, as Hobbes’s term "Leviathan" suggests—can step in and break up the fight. The motivation for why Hobbes believed this was empirical. He could look out his window and observe uncivilized humanity duking it out on the streets. But he also had a well-reasoned argument to back up his case. The thrust of the argument was that the human soul naturally lacked cultivation, and it’s only under the supervision of a sovereign government that a society could overcome humanity’s crude state of nature.
Here’s how Hobbes supports that conclusion.
He starts from the observation that human beings are pretty much all the same. Some are a bit stronger and some a bit weaker; some are a bit smarter and some a bit stupider. But, on the whole, they’re within a pretty small range of traits and abilities. This might sound like a contentious claim, but it is easily proved. Take height for example. The tallest person on the planet is going to be taller than the shortest person by a good meter or so. But the tallest person is not going to be as tall as the shortest 40% of people combined. Yet the richest person could have as much money as the bottom 40%. The point that Hobbes makes is that people’s naturally given abilities—such as strength and intelligence—are, like height, pretty close to even among everyone in the population.
Hobbes argues that this is where competition comes from. Competition needs two things: limited resources and a level playing field. Imagine it like a race. In the 100-yard-dash, there is only going to be one first place finisher. And that race will only be a competition if it’s not obvious beforehand who is going to win. Hobbes contends that the playing field of life is about even, since everyone possessed similar traits. The basic competition in which humans are engaged, then, is the one for survival. You either get enough resources to survive or you don’t. Life, according to Hobbes, is a zero sum game.
In this game, Hobbes argues, the best defense is a good offense. You can’t wait around for everyone else to attack you, otherwise you’ll always be vulnerable. The better strategy is to take the game into your own hands and launch a preemptive attack of your own. The point of Leviathan is that you need a government that is powerful enough to convince everyone to stop the fighting and get along nicely. Without this Leviathan, Hobbes says, we’re embroiled in bellum omnium contra omnes, or "war of all against all." That is humanity without cultura.
“In such condition,” writes Hobbes, “there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Perhaps some people thought that this was putting things starkly. But the general sentiment rang true in Hobbes’ era. Of course it’s true that life for primitive peoples was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short—I mean, they don’t even celebrate high tea. As this idea attracted a small group of devoted followers, some people began to ask, “Yes, but precisely how nasty, brutish, and short are we talking?” These people were called anthropologists.
While it’s usually difficult to say where exactly a new line of intellectual inquiry began, I’m going to do it anyway. The field of anthropology began in earnest with Edward Tylor.
Tylor was born in 1832 in south London, the son of well-to-do Quakers. His parents died when he was a young man, and Tylor dropped out of school to run the family business: a brass factory. That career lasted as long as his good health as he soon developed tuberculosis. Tylor’s doctors prescribed him the usual course for someone afflicted with TB: an extended vacation somewhere warm. He went to Mexico. It was there that, presumably, he first encountered tacos, mezcal, and non-Anglo-Saxon culture, and where he first became interested in other societies. He published several major works, including Anahuac in 1861 on his Mexican travels, Primitive Culture in 1871, and Anthropology in 1881. By 1896 he was appointed as the first ever professor of anthropology at Oxford.
Tylor dedicated much of his work to understanding how societies change over time. Victoria was Queen, the Brits were installing their cultural and political regimes across the world, and Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species had made us all very proud of how much progress we’ve made as species, having started out as single-celled organisms and all. Evolution was the zeitgeist, and it seemed like it was the nature of things to progress from simple to complex. Tylor applied that notion to culture. "History,” he wrote in 1881, “so far as it reaches back, shows arts, sciences, and political institutions beginning in ruder states, and becoming in the course of ages, more intelligent, more systematic, more perfectly arranged or organized, to answer their purposes.” Primitive cultures, according to Tylor, evolve into sophisticated cultures in much the same way that chimps evolve into humans.
When Victorian Brits read Tylor’s work, it made sense to them. It resonated with their sensibility of progress. It was certainly in line with Darwin. It was also in line with Hobbes. Society starts off solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Then it progresses to sociable, wealthy, tasteful, civilized, and long—or whatever they felt their lives were like at the time in Great Britain.
Anthropologists like Tylor looked at primitive cultures and saw the same thing they saw when looking over an unkempt field: a lack of cultura. “Culture or Civilization,” wrote Tylor, “taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” For Tylor, culture was fundamentally about complexity. And in Great Britain in the late 1800s it was quite easy to sit in the library at Oxford and picture savages gamboling about in a tropical forest, clad in their loin cloths and engaged in their chief economic activities of exchanging women for goats and rifling through the belongings of a freshly conquested nearby village. What else could they possibly be doing, after all?
This was the state of anthropology when Malinowski arrived on Mailu. When he wrote of the natives he referred to them as "savages." It would not occur to Europeans that this was not perhaps the most delicate term—to say nothing of the most accurate—until Malinowski’s work in Kiriwina had become widely appreciated. What Malinowski found on Kiriwina that so shocked the anthropological community was that the savages were not, in fact, all that savage. Malinowski writes of the Kiriwinians,
“In popular thinking we imagine that the natives live on the bosom of Nature, more or less as they can and like, the prey of irregular, phantasmagoric beliefs and apprehensions. Modern science [by which Malinowski means his own work], on the contrary, shows that they are governed by authority, law and order in their public and personal relations, while the latter are, besides, under the control of extremely complex ties of kinship and clanship. Indeed, we see them entangled in a mesh of duties, functions and privileges which correspond to elaborate tribal, communal and kinship organisation. Their beliefs and practices do not by any means lack consistency of certain type, and their knowledge of the outer world is sufficient to guide them in many of their strenuous enterprises and activities. Their artistic productions again lack neither meaning nor beauty.”
Hobbes believed that the Kiriwinians—along with other “primitive” peoples—lacked the more sophisticated trimmings of culture. But he was wrong. They had all that and more. Their so-called primitive culture was nothing if not complex. They have a network of social connections, elaborate systems for governance, and self-consistent religious beliefs. They know a hell of a lot about how the world works, and they make art that is both meaningful and beautiful. That doesn’t sound so nasty, brutish and short to me. The presence of cultura, it turns out, is more difficult to assess for a society than it is for a field. Hobbes and Tylor couldn’t see it, but Malinowski could. And in order to understand why this is, we have to turn from anthropology to psychology, and go back to the first ever experimental psychology lab, founded in Leipzig, Germany, by a man named Wundt.
Wilhelm Wundt was born in 1832 to a poor Lutheran pastor in Mannheim, Germany. When Wundt went to university at Heidelberg he decided to study medicine, which would offer him a means to support both himself and his family. Wundt took courses in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and physics, but he soon discovered that he did not have any particular affinity for medicine. He found, instead, a passion for physiology. Wundt, it should be said, was not the first German to develop such an infatuation. His countrymen had been responsible for most of the significant advances in sensory physiology during the second half of the nineteenth century. Most notable was Hermann von Helmholtz, who studied the relation between a physical properties of stimulus and the subjective processes of how the mind perceives it. Does, he asked, a change in the physical qualities (say, increasing the amplitude of the waveform) inspire a corresponding mental experience (the sound getting louder)? In 1858, Helmholtz moved his physiology lab to Heidelberg, and Wundt, after earning his medical degree, began working as his assistant.
Though he found himself in the presence of one of the field’s stars, Wundt soon lost interest in physiology as well. Ever restless, he took up philosophy. The particular philosophy that Wundt was drawn to was called Empiricism. As described by psychologist George Miller, Empiricism “provides both a method to increase knowledge and a theory about the growth of the mind. As a method, empiricism means that we learn by making observations, by having new experience, and by conducting experiments. As a psychological theory, empiricism means that a child's mind at birth is a blank slate upon which experience will write." The motto of the Empiricists was “there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” Empiricism, at its core, is a theory about how to construct a whole mind out of mere sensations.
This struck Wundt. He knew from his background in Helmholtz’s lab how sensory receptors worked. That was the German specialty. What he found in the Empiricists was the reason why the receptors were important. That was the British specialty. When Wundt put the two together, experimental psychology was born. As Miller describes it, "What Wundt did was to look at the psychological problems posed by the British philosophers with the eyes of a man trained in the traditions of German physiology. The notion that psychology could become a science of observation and experiment had been stated clearly and explicitly by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his Logic as early as 1843, but it required a person who really knew how observation and experiments are made to bring it off. Wundt was that person."
What was clear to Wundt was that psychology needed to be experimental. What was less clear was what exactly he should experiment on. If you’re an experimental physicist, then you study the motion of falling bodies. If you’re an experimental chemist, then you study how atoms compose into matter. If you’re an experimental biologist, you study how cells are organized into living organisms. But if you want to experiment on the mind, then what exactly do you study?
The intuitive answer is that psychologists should study thoughts. The problem though is that thoughts can’t be readily observed. You can’t take out a ruler and measure them. There is, however, one exception. For every thought, there is one person—and only one person—who can know anything about the thought. That is, the person having it. So Wundt set up the first ever experimental psychology lab, and decided that he would run experiments by asking people to reflect on their own thoughts, a method which we now know as introspection.
There is something rather curious about Wundt’s legacy. He started the world’s first psychology laboratory, at the perfect crossroads between British Empiricism and German physiology. He advised a lot of students, many of whom went onto be eminent in their own right, like Oswald Külpe, Stanley Hall, and Edward Titchener. He wrote prolifically, including hundreds of books and articles on an array of subjects. Wundt should have been the Malinowski of psychology. But he wasn’t. Everyone in anthropology adopted Malinowski’s methodology. Almost no one in psychology adopted Wundt’s.
The reason that Wundt’s work never took hold was that introspection doesn’t yield scientific insights about the mind. His idea that psychology should be experimental was the right one. What Wundt didn’t get right was just what he should be experimenting on. He was doing experiments, but his experiments didn’t lead to anything that you wouldn’t already get from merely searching your own imagination—just had Mill and other philosophers had done before. The point of experiments is that they show us how something works even if it isn’t what we imagine it to be. Wundt had the right approach but the wrong data.
When Malinowski was still on Mailu, he heard tell from one of his colleagues about a ceremony that took place in Kiriwina. This ceremony, they said, was unlike any of the cultural activities that we in the western world participate in. When Malinowski arrived in the Trobriands, it was with the intention of studying this ceremony. It is called the Kula exchange.
The overall idea of the Kula is quite simple. One tribe launches an expedition to travel to another tribe’s village. Once they get there, the two tribes exchange gifts. What is elaborate—and, to an outsider, mysterious—about the Kula is in the details of the script which dictates how exactly the gifts are to be exchanged.
There are two items, and only two items, that can be given during a Kula exchange. One of the Kula items is a kind of armband, made from sea shells, called Mwali. The other item is Soulava, a kind of necklace, also made of sea shells. What is perhaps most notable to foreign eyes about these items is just how profoundly and unequivocally useless they are. The reason for the singular disutility of Mwali and Soulava comes not from their role as armbands and necklaces, but rather their lack of it. They are, as a rule, either too big or too small to fit around the appropriate human appendage. The point of a Mwali armband or Soulava necklace is not to wear it, but merely to possess it.
What is perhaps more perplexing about these items is that you can’t own them in the way we typically think about ownership. They are not yours to keep. You can’t hang on to a really fetching and handsome Soulava in order to pass it on to your first born son. In fact, you are required by the social etiquette of the Kula to pass your Soulava or Mwali on to someone else the next time you launch an expedition or are visited by another Kula partner. Otherwise you will be regarded by everyone else as more than a trifle stingy. It is the nature of these items to be locked in a whirlpool of exchange. As the Kiriwinians say: once in the Kula, always in the Kula.
The thing about the Mwali and the Soulava, though, is that the Kiriwinians find them to be items of great splendor. If you set out on a Kula expedition and come back with a famous Mwali—many of them have their own names—then that will bring you a certain renown of your own, merely for having been associated with the illustrious item.
Strict rules dictate when you can give a necklace and when you can get one. In short, you can only Kula in one direction. There is a series of islands (Kiriwina is one of them) from which you could hop from one to another and eventually find yourself back at your point of departure. Anthropologists call it the Kula Ring. The direction you travel in the Kula Ring dictates which kind of item you can give and which you can receive. If you travel clockwise—say, from Kiriwina to Kitava—then you must give Soulava necklaces and receive Mwali armbands. If you travel the other way—from Kiriwina to Dobu—then you give Mwali and receive Soulava. This rule is ironclad.
Oh, and the force that dictates whether or not you will have a successful Kula outing? Magic. “Success in Kula,” wrote Malinowski, “is ascribed to special, personal power, due mainly to magic, and men are very proud of it. Again, the whole community glories in a specially fine Kula trophy, obtained by one of its members.”
The Kula, no doubt, is a complicated business, the produce of a field with cultura.
If the evidence of cultura in this event is not immediately obvious, imagine that the tables are turned. It is no longer you who has to decipher the Kiriwinian tradition of the Kula. Instead, you must explain to a Trobriander one of our culture’s most venerated cultural ceremonies: The Super Bowl.
Here is another exchange whose outcome is ascribable to special, personal power, of which men are very proud, and the whole community glories in an especially fine trophy obtained by one of its members. There was, you see, a great man of football long ago whose teams were bigger, stronger, and on the whole better than anyone else’s. His name was Vince Lombardi. Every year in America each major city sends a delegation—though their delegation need not consist of denizens of that city—to compete for the Lombardi Trophy in an event called the Super Bowl. Whichever of the American teams wins the Super Bowl (note that doing so requires tremendous fortitude and cunning) is crowned football champion of the world, and brings immense honor to the delegation’s community. What does one do with the Super Bowl once one has obtained it, you ask? It is designed mostly just to sit there. One cannot, for the record, use it to hold one’s soup. (Nor for that matter can you drink from the World Cup, but that’s another story.) At any rate, the whole quest begins anew after several months respite, at which point the Super Bowl is back up for grabs.
The point is that there is no way that you could look at the Kula and conclude that it comes from a society without complex cultural practices. So why is that what Hobbes and Tylor said? This is where the data come in. Obviously, Hobbes and Tylor didn’t have the same data that Malinowski did. In short, Malinowski went there and saw the Kula first hand. Malinowski’s process, crucially, was a process of perspective-getting. He went there and asked them, “So, how does this work?”
Hobbes’s and Tylor’s, on the other hand, were processes of perspective-taking. To better understand “primitive” cultures—that is, people from other factions—they prospected the rivers of their own minds, sifting for insights there. They asked questions of no one but themselves. The reason they came to the wrong conclusion is simply that they weren’t looking at the right data. They used introspection by other means as data. Instead of introspecting into their own minds, they introspected into the minds of others. And if introspection doesn’t lead to insights about your own mind, as Wundt’s legacy attests, why should it work any better on someone else’s?
The reason that Malinowski’s fieldwork revolutionized anthropology was that it moved the discipline beyond introspection. Before Malinowski, the only data that people considered when thinking about other cultures was in their own mind. Hobbes, for his part, was back in his office, feet up on the desk, shooting wads of papers into his wastebasket, asking himself, “Now, if I were a savage and lived in a primitive village, what would life be like?” He had never actually been to a primitive village or talked with a savage. If he had, then he would realize they weren’t so primitive or savage at all. Instead, his only knowledge came from putting himself in their shoes.
The problem with perspective-taking is that it is built on argument, not on evidence. And Hobbes’s argument, especially with the information available at the time, was pretty solid. It is not obvious where he goes wrong in his reasoning about the natural state of humanity. That’s why perspective-taking doesn’t get us to where we need to go. It allows us to follow reasoning based on our preconceptions without being exposed to anything that will give us the opportunity to change our minds. Unlike Hobbes, Malinowski actually went to the village. He went out there to actually see what was happening. Malinowski circumvented the need for convoluted reasoning. He went straight to perspective-getting.
So the difference between Malinowski and Hobbes was that Hobbes was doing anthropology via introspection, whereas Malinowski went out and got better data. But what’s the difference between Malinowski and Tylor? After all, Tylor went to Mexico. He wasn’t necessarily sitting on his ass back at home like Hobbes was. Tylor also understood that in order to really be an anthropologist, you have to go out there and experience other cultures. But a stamp on a passport does not an anthropologist make. What Tylor didn’t understand was what exactly he was supposed to do once he was in the foreign country. Wundt, is not the Malinowski of psychology because he is the Tylor of psychology. Sure, he may have been the first in his field to come up with the general idea of how to do things. But he completely messed up the details.
Both Tylor and Wundt had an inkling about what their disciplines needed to advance. For Tylor it was that anthropologists need to go somewhere. For Wundt it was that psychologists need to do experiments. But they both faltered on the specifics of what that should look like. In Silicon Valley they call this the "innovator’s dilemma"—when you’re the first one to try something you might get the big picture right, but you’ll probably fail to nail down all the critical details. Neither Tylor nor Wundt got the methodology right. Wundt based his experiments on introspection, which limited him to a bevy of experiments that accorded with his preconceptions. The same thing happened with Tylor. His investigation confirmed what he already thought, instead of teaching him something new. Both Tylor and Wundt are father figures for their disciplines, but the kind of fathers that you succeed in spite of not because of. Perspective-taking, like introspection, cannot teach you something you don’t already know.
The anthropologist Anthony Forge claims Malinowski made two innovations that revolutionized anthropological fieldwork. They are (1) the tent, and (2) learning the local language. Malinowski may not have himself invented the tent, but he was the first anthropologist to use one. Malinowski didn’t stay in the next village over in cushy accommodations with the other Europeans, like his colleagues on Mailu or the Trobriand missionary. He set down right in the middle of the Kiriwinian village and was a part of village life on back-to-back shifts, dawn-til-dusk and dusk-til-dawn.
The second innovation was learning the local language. “Before Malinowski,” writes Forge, “anthropologists rarely knew the language of those they studied, relying not only on interpreters but also on resident Europeans, missionaries, traders, and government officers.” This seems like it should be obvious. How are you supposed to understand someone if you can’t even talk to them? However, it’s easier for humans to make judgments about others than it is for them to learn an entirely new language. So anthropologists often found themselves doing the one without the other. Malinowski was the first one to take this problem seriously.
The good news, I suppose, is that anthropology isn’t rocket science. The only real supplies you need can be obtained on a trip to REI and a brief period of intense application on Rosetta Stone. The interesting thing is that, while simple, these innovations were important. In fact they were crucial. They were what allowed Malinowski to transcend perspective-taking. They were innovations in perspective-getting.
And if our goal is to better understand people from other factions, we need to develop some perspective-getting technology of our own. This need not be an invention of material technology. Rather, we need a better answer to the question of what it takes to understand a person from a different faction than the second-order introspection of perspective-taking. In order to do that, I want to take a closer look at just what kind of thing a perspective is. It is a problem of representation. If you actually had a real one in front of you, what would it look like? And to answer this question, we need to go back to New Years Day 1863 to attend as onlookers a gathering of some eminence in Boston, Massachusetts.