Symbolism and Functionalism

I come from a background in cultural anthropology and it was interesting how Wong’s article connects to one of the disciplines most important ethnographies, Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific. His work advanced functional anthropology, which focuses on the practical side of cultural customs. Through his research on the Kula Ring of the Trobriand Island he worked towards an explanation of universal gift giving (prestacion) as a way of cementing social bonds. Mwali (white shell arm bands) were traded for soulava (red ring necklaces) in kula ceremonies between different Trobriand groups, establishing power dynamics between them. The aesthetic quality of the gift they were giving directly correlated to the amount of authority they could exert over their group. This is a distinctly human skill, an animal would not be able to understand the difference between a poorly made mwali and an expertly made one, they would only recognize that it is a hard physical object.

We now see that the giving of different colored perforated shells stretches back to 75,000 years ago, and if we reframe Malinowski’s work in the context of symbolic behavior it greater illustrates the competitive nature of creating meaning (Wong, 3). This trade was occurring between a few small islands and so the gifts would cycle through communities, but if the population had been larger, it’s possible that more advanced techniques would have been used in the creation of these tokens (Wong, 9). The use of these shells inhibited Trobriand islanders to think hierarchically towards one another; a way of thinking previously inaccessible. The concept of the kula ring could also be applied to justify Renfrew’s hypotheses, which adds external symbolic culture to Donald’s system of cognitive phases. That being said, Renfrew might not appreciate being compared with a cultural anthropologist as he extols cognitive processual archaeology as more scientific and objective (Renfrew, 2-4).

One of my questions from last week was also answered in greater detail in the Barrett reading. I wrote about a metaphor I had learned in a previous class about the brain as software, and the body as hardware, and how it reflects Cartesian duality. Barrett systematically dismantles this argument and also made me think about the brains cognitive function in ways I had not before. We think of the brain and our mind as linked, but we don’t think of the body as linked to the mind. Yet our brain only functions as a part of our body, so to accept the mind as only a function of the brain then becomes unacceptable (unless you’re in Death Cab for Cutie) (Barrett, 5). However, I started to lose the grasp of his summary when he started using “homunculus” as a substitute for the mind, as well as his idea that our mind has to decide what is represented, but this interpretation itself is a representation.


Barrett, J. (2013). Archaeology of the Mind. Retrieved from

Donald, M. (2007). Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. Retrieved September 14, 2016, from           &usp=embed_facebook

Malinowski, B.(1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Retrieved from

Wong, K. (2005). Retrieved September 14, 2016, from