Instinct and the Unconscious

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In Eddystone Island, . . . and the same holds true for Melanesia in general, there is no tribunal for the administration of justice, or for the punishment of offenses against other individuals or against the community as a whole, but the administration of justice has a spontaneous character which is wholly foreign to our point of view. . . . So far as one could tell the only grave offenses formerly recognized were incest and murder, meaning by the latter term killing of a person by a member of his own community. For both incest and murder, and especially the former, the punishment was death. I was unable to discover that the infliction of this punishment took place as the result of any formal decision by chiefs, elders, council, or meeting of the community in general. To my informants it seemed obvious that one who had committed incest would be killed, and that any kind of machinery for the determination of guilt or for reaching a decision concerning punishment was quite unnecessary. The punishment followed automatically the discovery of the crime, and it seemed that the relatives (or taviti) of the offender took the leading part in the infliction of the punishment.

For offenses of lesser magnitude the punishment was ostracism, of which I will give an example from my own observation. In Eddystone Island it is a rule that a man may only take a second wife if he is a chief, or has taken ten heads in warfare. During our visit to the island a man who had neither of these qualifications took a second wife and was consequently ostracized or boycotted by the rest of the island. He took the opportunity to spend his time with us, and occupied himself in making a model canoe, which is now in our museum; but after about ten days he became tired of his isolation, gave up his second wife and returned to his village, to carry for the rest of his life, so far as we could tell, a social stigma for having tried unsuccessfully to regard himself as superior to the traditions of the community. I could not discover that there had been any formal condemnation in this case. The man had committed an offense against the community, and the community had, intuitively, it would seem, decided to have no more social dealings with the offender till the offense was purged. . . .

We may be enabled the better to understand the spontaneous, or as it might be called, the intuitive mode of inflicting punishment by such knowledge as we possess concerning the deliberations of councils or less formal bodies in such regions as Melanesia. In these councils there are none of the formal means of reaching decisions by voting or other means which are customary among ourselves. At a certain stage of the discussion it seems to be recognized by some kind of common sense, which I have elsewhere regarded as a part of a gregarious instinct, that the group has reached agreement.1 The conclusion which has been reached is intuitively known to all, and the meeting passes on to the next business. A friend who has had the opportunity of observing the social activity of the Russian peasants tells me that the same complete absence of governorship and apparently unregulated reaching of conclusions is characteristic of their assemblies.2

1 [Rivers here refers to his volume , where he assumes a gregarious instinct in man (pp. 94–96). But the so-called gregariousness of herds and flocks is a specialized form of unlearned behavior, whereas the behavior described by Rivers above is learned through association and communication.]

2 Rivers, W. H. R., Social Organization, 167–169 (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. By permission).

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Chicago: Instinct and the Unconscious in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Instinct and the Unconscious, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Instinct and the Unconscious. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from