Bronislaw Malinowski Research Paper

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A Polish-born anthropologist, Malinowski had a profound influence on the development of British social anthropology between the wars. Under the banner of Functionalism he revolutionized fieldwork methods, contributed to a wide range of academic and public issues, and trained a cosmopolitan cohort of pupils which spread his teachings throughout the world. A passionate, volatile and sometimes abrasive personality, Malinowski provoked controversy throughout his career; but his intellectual integrity was absolute. He promoted the humanitarian uses of anthropology with entrepreneurial flair, attracting Rockefeller funding to his cause. In addition to his ancestral status as a founder of a cohesive academic discipline, Malinowski’s historical legacy in Britain and the Commonwealth was an expanded institutional base for its teaching and practice. In Ernest Gellner’s ennobling epithet, Malinowski was ‘Anthropologist Laureate of the British Empire.’

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1. A Polish Anglophile

Bronislaw Malinowski was born on April 7, 1884, of noble (szlachta) stock in Cracow, capital of the semiautonomous province of Galicia in the AustroHungarian Empire. As a child he lived for several years among local peasantry and, with his mother, took lengthy trips abroad for the sake of his delicate health. To these early experiences of cultural difference Malinowski attributed his vocation to anthropology. He was also inspired by reading James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

During Malinowski’s youth, Cracow was a vibrant intellectual and artistic center, home of the Modernist movement called Young Poland. His most important early friendship was with the surrealist artist, novelist and dramatist, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Unable to match his friend’s artistic genius, Malinowski resolved to excel in the sciences. At the Jagiellonian University he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy. His brilliant doctoral thesis, ‘On the Principle of Economy of Thought’ (1906), was a critique of the positivist epistemology of Ernst Mach; it contained the seeds of Malinowski’s later thinking about functionalism (Thornton and Skalnik 1993).

In 1908–09, during three semesters at the University of Leipzig, Malinowski turned to the study of Volkerpsychologie under Wilhelm Wundt and economic history under Karl Buecher. Possessed by ‘a highly developed Anglomania,’ in 1910 Malinowski crossed the English Channel to enrol as a graduate student in ethnology at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the University of London. The crossing was his Rubicon, and although not granted British nationality until 1931, he was to spend his most productive years in England.

Under the supervision of Edward Westermarck, Malinowski completed his first English book, The Family Among the Australian Aborigines (1913), an evaluation of Aboriginal ethnography and a rigorous critique of evolutionist theories. He presented a signed copy to his Polish compatriot, Joseph Conrad, whom he deeply admired.

2. The Cult of Fieldwork

The dominant paradigm of late-nineteenth century anthropology (or ethnology) was evolutionism, based on the premise that mankind had passed through universal stages of development on the journey from savagery to civilization. A division of labor existed in imperial Britain between armchair theorists (like Frazer) and amateur ethnographers (explorers, missionaries, and colonial officers) who reported from outposts of the Empire.

The professionalization of anthropology began following the Cambridge University Expedition to the Torres Strait of 1898–99, led by the zoologist-turnedanthropologist A. C. Haddon. By 1910 anthropology was being taught at Cambridge, Oxford, and London. It was due to Haddon and his disciples W. H. R. Rivers and C. G. Seligman that Malinowski found an almost messianic cult of fieldwork in Britain. In Seligman’s words, ‘field research in anthropology is what the blood of martyrs is to the Church.’ By the time Malinowski embarked on his own fieldwork, at least a dozen students of Haddon and his colleagues had preceded him.

World War One broke out just as Malinowski arrived in Australia. Although cut off from his English funds and under suspicion as an ‘enemy alien,’ he was permitted entry to Papua (ex-British New Guinea) to conduct his research. His apprentice fieldwork was among the Mailu of the south coast, whence Seligman had directed him to fill a gap left by his own ethnographic survey of Papua a decade earlier. After five busy months, Malinowski returned to Australia where he dashed off The Nati es of Mailu, a conventional ethnographic report (Young 1988). In June 1915 he returned to eastern Papua with Australian funding for a second spell of fieldwork. Supposedly en route to another field site, Malinowski visited Kiriwina, the largest of the Trobriand Islands, about which Seligman had already reported comprehensively in The Melanesians of British New Guinea (1910). For various reasons Malinowski’s visit to Kiriwina evolved into a sojourn of 10 consecutive months, followed by a second period of 10 months in 1917–18. Although his movements were restricted by the colonial authorities, Malinowski was not, as his popular legend had it, ‘interned’ in the Trobriands.

He had learned in Mailu that the richness of his data was a function of the time he had spent living in the village, shunning the company of fellow Europeans and observing everyday life at first hand. It was also imperative to master the local language well enough to have unmediated access to one’s subjects. Under the rubric ‘the intensive study of limited areas,’ such precepts of method had been advocated by Haddon and Rivers during the previous decade, but they had not been put into proper practice until Malinowski’s work in Kiriwina.

Thus, the innovative breakthrough his fieldwork effected was based on the simple expedient of living in the same location for many months and probing for information in the vernacular. This method of ‘total immersion’ encouraged a more intimately interactive style of ethnography, permitting an empathetic understanding which went beyond mere recording. The fieldworker could begin to know another culture from within: ‘the final goal’ of the ethnographer is ‘to grasp the native’s point of view … to realize his vision of his world’ (Malinowski 1922, p. 25). ‘Participant observation’ was to become the catch-cry of his pupils’ generation. It still remains the hallmark of anthropological fieldwork. Professionally, it was prolonged and intensive fieldwork, with its loneliness and hardship, that stamped the new breed of anthropologist (Stocking 1995, Chap. 6).

3. Trobriand Man as Exemplar

Malinowski was criticized for making his Trobrianders the measure of mankind, but he did so persuasively as Trobriand Man was introduced into the controversies of the day. On close inspection, this exemplar of the Savage was not so very different from Civilized Man. He was demonstrably rational and technologically competent, morally and aesthetically sensitive: an equal, therefore, and not (as imperialists and evolutionists would have it) a benighted inferior. He believed in magic, certainly, but he used it only in situations where technology could not guarantee an outcome. ‘Magic helps those who help themselves.’ Magic was a tool to which men resorted when the desired end of any enterprise was in doubt. This instrumental, pragmatic view of magic was typical of Malinowski’s functionalism.

In 1922 Malinowski published his first Trobriand classic, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which set British anthropology firmly on a new course (Malinowski 1922). It was a richly textured study of kula, the circuitous ceremonial exchange of shell valuables which linked the Trobriands to neighboring archipelagoes. Malinowski’s combination of ethnographic observation, methodological prescription, and literary romanticism was vivid and compelling. An enthusiastic preface by Sir James Frazer ensured Argonauts’ successful launch.

With Crime and Custom in Sa age Society (1926), a little book on ‘the seamy side’ of Trobriand law, Malinowski pioneered the study of political and legal anthropology. The following year, Sex and Repression in Sa age Society set a cat among the Freudian pigeons by contesting the claim that the Oedipal Complex was universal (Malinowski 1927). Malinowski argued that in the matrilineal Trobriands it was the mother’s brother, not the father, who was the hated authority figure; likewise, it was the sister, not the mother, who was the main object of a boy’s incestuous desire. The debate continues.

The Sexual Life of Sa ages (Malinowski 1929) was a detailed study of Trobriand courtship, marriage, and domestic life; it was also a covert attack on sexual prudery and hypocrisy, and in the changing mores of the period it had a liberating appeal.

Malinowski’s last Trobriand ethnography, Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935), dealt exhaustively with horticultural practices and their ritual accompaniments, with land tenure and its politics, and with the language of magic. The two-volume work was a triumph of thick description and a baroque monument to its author’s functional method.

Malinowski fancied that his monographs did for anthropology what Joseph Conrad’s novels had done for English literature. It is true that through these and many other writings, Malinowski’s Trobrianders came to be known as one of the best-documented ‘primitive’ peoples in the world. Subsequent generations of anthropologists have reinterpreted his material in the light of different theories—the most flattering compliment posterity can pay to any ethnographer.

4. Functionalism

The paradigmatic theory that informed Malinowski’s Trobriand monographs was functionalism. As an heuristic method which guided fieldwork, functionalism was an appeal for contextualized empirical data purified of historical speculations. Malinowski urged ethnographers to look for the use of a custom (or institution) in the present, so as to determine the part it played in the integral working of a society or culture. This would give the clue to its meaning and the explanation for its existence, one that (in contrast to the speculative explanations of ‘antiquarian’ anthropologists) was concretely based on empirical observation. Although functionalism was demonstrably deficient when applied to societies undergoing rapid social change, as a ‘clinical’ method it was immensely influential during the interwar years. The promise it offered ‘practical’ or applied anthropology in African colonies enabled Malinowski to secure, through the sponsorship of the International African Institute, Rockefeller funding for his students’ fieldwork.

His theory of language was based on the premise that function determined form. ‘Primitive’ language was ‘a mode of action’ rather than a ‘countersign of thought.’ Much speech is ‘phatic’ (agreeable social noises such as ‘How are you?’) or instrumentally pragmatic, meaningful only in its ‘context of situation.’ Malinowski foreshadowed Ludwig Wittgenstein’s axiom ‘do not ask the meaning but the use.’

As grand theory, Malinowski’s functional view of culture as an apparatus for the satisfaction of human needs was born out of Machian empiricism, confirmed by Jamesian pragmatism, and blessed by the Durkheimian tenet that culture was sui generis. Malinowski’s ‘scientific theory of culture’ (1944a) was built on the premise that man’s biological heritage provided the ground plan for all cultures; basic (or primary) needs such as reproduction and derived (or secondary) needs such as education yielded similar cultural solutions, the universal form of which was the family. In a nutshell, he argued (a) that function determines the form of cultural entities; (b) that the essential element of the science of culture is the institution; and (c) that institutions must ultimately be defined in relation to the biological needs they satisfy. As formal theory, then, functionalism explained culture in an instrumental and reductionist fashion. The schematic, utilitarian form in which he presented this theory gained few adherents and it was soon forgotten.

5. Teacher, Pundit, and Propagandist

Malinowski’s rise to eminence at the LSE had been rapid: from Lecturer in 1923, Reader in 1924, to foundation Professor of Social Anthropology in 1927. The mode of teaching he favored was the seminar. In Socratic fashion, he deployed wit, erudition, and ‘intellectual shock tactics’ to provoke thoughtful argument. His electrifying seminar became a legend during the 1930s, engaging his brightest pupils and attracting from every continent students of cognate disciplines. The multiethnic roll-call of his pupils would fill a page, but among the most eminent were Raymond Firth, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Ashley Montagu, Isaac Schapera, Audrey Richards, Camilla Wedgwood, Meyer Fortes, Paul Robeson, Siegfried Nadel, Lucy Mair, Reo Fortune, Ralph Bunche, Ian Hogbin, Jomo Kenyatta, Talcott Parsons, Gregory Bateson, Edmund Leach, and Phyllis Kaberry.

Despite his fragile health, Malinowski was a ferociously hard worker who mustered others to his aid. He employed servants at home, dictated most of his writings to stenographers, and employed pupils as long-suffering research assistants. Until she was tragically incapacitated by multiple sclerosis, Elsie, his Australian-born wife, served him as a loving critic and secretary. Together with their three daughters they spent summers at the family villa in the South Tyrol, where pupils often visited to walk and talk (Wayne 1995).

In tandem with his academic activities, Malinowski performed the role of public intellectual, disseminating progressive views on marriage, the family, and sex education. He lectured missionaries and colonial officers; he gave BBC talks on religion; he actively supported the British Social Hygiene Council and Mass Observation. More importantly, he served on the board of the International African Institute for which he devised a field training program. In 1934 he visited several of his pupils in South and East Africa before conducting some fieldwork of his own in Tanganyika.

Malinowski had lectured widely in the United States in 1926, 1933, and 1936, and he returned for a sabbatical year in October 1938. When war broke out in Europe he was advised to remain in America for the duration. He taught at various universities, anxious to secure a permanent position. As ‘war work’ he embarked on a lecturing and writing campaign of propaganda (his own term) to convince Americans of the need to fight Hitler. Of all the honors he received he valued most the distinction the Nazis conferred upon him by burning his books. His opposition to totalitarianism was categorical and he wrote passionately against it in Freedom and Ci ilization (Malinowski 1944b).

During the summers of 1940 and 1941 Malinowski conducted fieldwork in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico with his new wife and a Mexican assistant. This fieldwork did not match the exacting standards he had set in the Trobriands. Just before his sudden death of a heart attack on May 16, 1942 in New Haven, CT, Malinowski was appointed to a permanent professorship at Yale University and elected President of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in New York.

6. Malinowski’s Legacy

Malinowski bequeathed a controversial legacy. He did more than anyone else of his time to establish a cohesive (even ‘clannish’) school of anthropology with a unique academic profile. But the year he left for America was the year A. R. Radcliffe-Brown returned to England to create a rival school at Oxford. The latter’s more Durkheimian and sociologically austere version of functionalism (known as structural functionalism) attracted many of Malinowski’s erstwhile disciples. Radcliffe-Brown dominated British social anthropology during the following decade.

In 1957, a dozen of Malinowski’s pupils published a Festschrift which critically evaluated his contribution to different subfields. While conceding that he was an incomparable ethnographer, the majority verdict was that Malinowski was a flawed and inconsistent thinker who had failed to grasp the analytical priority of ‘systems’ and ‘structures.’ It thus became a cliche of disciplinary folk history that Malinowski was a brilliant ethnographer but a mediocre theoretician.

This view justified neglect of his work until the late 1960s, when, abetted by Raymond Firth, Malinowski’s successor at LSE, the pendulum swung from a theoretical preoccupation with structure to the analysis of process and event. Malinowskian ‘methodo logical individualism’ became respectable again through decision-making analysis and transactional anthropology. Meanwhile there was a rapprochement between British social and American cultural anthropology as their research agendas converged. American anthropologists had always been receptive to Malinowski’s field methods, and eventually the kind of fieldwork they conducted became indistinguishable from that of their British and Commonwealth colleagues.

In 1967, Malinowski’s widow published his personal field diaries. They were an embarrassment to many of his pupils and Raymond Firth’s preface to the book is an exercise in damage control. Malinowski’s agonized musings on the alienation he experienced in the field put the lie to the effortless rapport he was believed to have enjoyed with Trobrianders. His diaries exacerbated, if not precipitated, a moral and epistemological crisis of anthropology during the 1970s, when global decolonization was turning attention to the exploitative aspects of the discipline and its dubious historical role as a handmaid of Imperialism.

The occasion of Malinowski’s centenary celebrations in 1984 produced another round of evaluations, the most notable being a collection of essays by Polish scholars. They not only rehabilitated Malinowski’s reputation in his homeland, but painstakingly examined his theories in the light of his Polish roots. He was declared a scientific humanist and rationalist, a romantic positivist and political liberal who belonged in the mainstream of modernist European thought (Ellen et al. 1988).

In America the diaries stimulated fresh debates on the assumptions underlying Malinowskian fieldwork and ethnographic representation. Postmodernists appropriated Malinowski for their own rhetorical ends in deconstructing ethnographic authority. To an ironic degree, however, he had pre-empted some of their concerns by the humanistic strain in his work and, except when promoting his ‘science’ for institutional support on behalf of ‘practical anthropology,’ he was by no means a naive positivist. Nor was he a ‘romantic primitivist’ as some critics have charged, despite the Frazerian echoes in his earliest monographs. Fully 50 years before postmodernists deconstructed exoticism, Malinowski had come to the view that anthropology romantically ‘over-sensationalized’ differences between cultures, and he questioned its fascination with ‘freakish’ customs such as polyandry, widow burning, and headhunting.

Despite the fragmentation of socio-cultural anthropology at the millennium, Malinowski’s fruitful concepts can be detected in almost every subfield, and his legacy persists wherever ethnography is practiced. His name is indelibly linked with Melanesia, but it appears too in anthropological writings from countries as farflung as Mexico and China, Italy and New Zealand, and India and Ireland. A protean, cosmopolitan ancestral figure, then, Malinowski continues to fascinate his intellectual descendants.


  1. Ellen R, Gellner E, Kubica G, Mucha J (eds.) 1988 Malinowski Between Two Worlds: The Polish Roots of an Anthropological Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  2. Firth R W (ed.) 1957 Man and Culture: An E aluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  3. Malinowski B 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  4. Malinowski B 1926 Crime and Custom in Sa age Society. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  5. Malinowski B 1927 Sex and Repression in Sa age Society. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  6. Malinowski B 1929 The Sexual Life of Sa ages. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  7. Malinowski B 1935 Coral Gardens and their Magic (2 vols.). Allen & Unwin, London
  8. Malinowski B 1944a A Scientific Theory of Culture. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, NC
  9. Malinowski B 1944b Freedom and Ci ilization. Roy, New York
  10. Malinowski B 1967 A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Routledge, London
  11. Stocking G W 1995 After Tylor. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI
  12. Thornton R J, Skalnik P (eds.) 1993 The Early Writings of Bronislaw Malinowski. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  13. Wayne H (ed.) 1995 The Story of a Marriage: The Letters of Bronislaw Malinowski and Elsie Masson (2 vols.). Routledge, London
  14. Young M W (ed.) 1988 Malinowski Among the Magi: ‘The Nati es of Mailu’. Routledge, London
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