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A formidable personality in life, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) is still a somewhat controversial figure, long after his death. Born in Poland, he was educated there through the PhD level, receiving his degree in 1908. Subsequently, he travelled to Leipzig to study with Wilhelm Wundt, notable both as a pioneering experimental psychologist and as a student of Volkerpsychologie, and Karl Bucher, an economist with special interest in primitive societies, and then won a Polish fellowship for prospective university teachers which took him to Britain in 1910 to study anthropology with Edward Westermarck and C.G. Seligman at the London School of Economics. He received his D.Sc. in 1916 on the basis of a library study published in 1913, The Family Among the Australian Aborigines, as well a report on his first fieldwork published in 1915, The .Natives of Mailu. He spent most of his career at the LSE, where he first lectured in 1913, became reader in social anthropology in 1923 and professor in 1927 — the only one in the subject at a major British university at the time. He was a founder of the functionalist school of social anthropology, and its undisputed leader in Britain until 1937, when A.R. Radcliffe-Brown became professor at Oxford after years in academic exile. His training program revolved around his famously lively seminars, which attracted many who were not formally his students. Most of the leaders of British social anthropology in the post-World War II era were his disciplinary progeny (a number were to adopt Radcliffe-Brown as their intellectual mentor, however); and these were the first generation of anthropologists able to be professionals – who enjoyed careers in academe and wrote largely for other social scientists rather than amateur enthusiasts – in no small part because Malinowski’s promotional efforts encouraged proliferation of academic positions. And Malinowski’s influence was global, for he attracted many foreign students, and many recipients of PhD degrees from LSE found employment outside Britain. In 1939 he secured an appointment at Yale University, determined to remain outside Europe for the duration of World War II; he died in New Haven (see Firth 1957; Thornton and Skalnik 1993).
Bulletins from the field
There has never been any doubt about Malinowski’s role as a pioneer of fieldwork. He came to the LSE just as British anthropology was in the process of repudiating so-called armchair research, the scholarly synthesis of data gathered in the field by disparate amateurs. Anthropology’s methodological revolution had been heralded by the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, of which Malinowski’s teacher Seligman was a member. Represented as natural science, joining direct observation and theoretical generalization, the expedition did not do fieldwork as it came to be understood, however; its seven members were in the field a scant seven months, and they acted as a survey team, each performing a portion of the collective project. But from the expedition’s experience derived a new field method, defined by another of its members, W.H.R. Rivers: a lone anthropologist should live for ‘a year or more’ in a ‘community of perhaps four or five hundred people’, mastering the vernacular and developing a personal relationship with every inhabitant, gaining access to ‘every feature of life and custom in concrete detail’ (Rivers in Freire-Marreco and Myres 1912: 143).
Malinowski was not the first of the Expedition’s progeny dispatched to work in the new mode: Rivers’s student Radcliffe-Brown went to the Andamans in 1906. But Malinowski was the first to realize Rivers’s injunctions, and, indeed, corresponded with Rivers while he was in the field. As has been common among anthropologists (as well as practitioners of other field sciences), his long-sustained fieldwork was undertaken at the beginning of his career: his research in an area of Papua of special interest to Seligman, among the Mailu of Toulon Island, from September of 1914 to March of 1915; and his two stints in the Trobriand Islands, a site Seligman did not approve, between June of 1915 and May of 1916, and between October of 1917 and October of 1918 — on which his major monographs were based. Perhaps he would not have remained in the field so long, with intermittent breaks in Australia, had he not been a virtual prisoner in the region; World War I had broken out while he was en route to the field, rendering him an enemy alien unable to move freely for the duration. Later, he would visit briefly among peoples in Africa and in the American Southwest, and at the end of his life he was preparing to undertake research in Mexico; but he did no more prolonged fieldwork.
Certainly, Malinowski’s actual field experience differed from the heroic ideal in a number of respects. He began his research among the Mailu living as a paying guest in the home of a missionary, W.J. Saville, daily venturing from it into the village (guarded in at least one instance by a native policeman). In the Trobriands he was never very far from European pearl traders, with whom he consorted when he found unbearable the company of the islanders — frequently described in his diary as ‘niggers’, as his professional descendants were horrified to learn when it was published in 1967. And he occasionally behaved imperiously, availing himself of colonialists’ prerogatives. Nevertheless, during his first bout of fieldwork he removed himself from Saville’s home to live ‘quite alone among the natives’, determining that he was thereby able to do ‘incomparably more intensive’ work. And though while working in the Trobriands he confided to his diary his ‘feeling of ownership’ as ‘master of this village with my boys’, he demonstrably succeeded in fulfilling his declared intention to take the ‘native’s point of view’. He identified sufficiently with his subjects to assume a protective attitude toward them, in opposition to the colonial officials, missionaries, and commercial agents who were determined to eradicate their way of life, and frequently bent on ruthless exploitation – an attitude he would sustain throughout his career (see Stocking 1991: 37-47).
Malinowski produced ethnographic accounts populated by sympathetic figures, described in a deliberately vivid literary style (see Stocking 1983). And he was contemptuous of those who would eliminate from anthropology descriptions of recognizable human beings. Against those who would represent kinship in ‘formulae, symbols, perhaps equations’, for example, he observed that ‘kinship is a matter of flesh and blood, the result of sexual passion and maternal affection, of long intimate daily life, and of a host of personal intimate interests’ (1930b: 19). Functionalist man in his Malinowskian guise was not the automaton who has been so often identified in critical analyses of functionalist writing, a person incapable of imagining – let alone pursuing – action contrary to his normative socialization; rather, Malinowskian man’s conformity to societal expectations was ‘partial, conditional, and subject to evasions’, tempered by his individual purposes (Malinowski 1926: 15).
Among Malinowski’s talents was self-promotion of a high order. He was wont to speak of his aristocratic ancestry, even including in his Who’s Who entry the boast that his ‘parentage on both sides’ was of the ‘landed gentry and nobility’ — although his paternal grandfather had lost the family lands, and his childhood was spent in impoverished circumstances. By fawning shamelessly upon that archetypal armchair anthropologist J.G. Frazer, he gained a powerful champion — whose work he had criticized severely in essays written prior to his emigration. He claimed a scientific background which enabled him to cast his anthropological generalizations in a form more rigorous than his predecessors’; but though his studies prior to his emigration included mathematics and physics, his Polish PhD dissertation was in truth an exercise in the philosophy of science with special reference to psychology (1993 ). His propensities served him well, however, advancing functionalist anthropology.
Because functionalists made fieldwork indispensable for every professional, their research program was expensive. At the very beginning of his career, Malinowski received an object lesson in scientific finance: Seligman would have preferred to send him to the Sudan to do his first fieldwork, but only appealed successfully to patrons prepared to support research in the Antipodes. And when Malinowski was stranded there during World War I, he himself had to find the funds to carry on, provided by Australia’s Department of External Affairs. He learned from this experience that anthropologists could appeal to potential patrons by advertising the utility of their knowledge, which almost invariably meant claiming that their work would serve the practical needs of colonialists.
He acted on this knowledge after the war. Describing functionalist anthropology as the study of ‘the actual way in which primitive politics are worked’ — and thus the only sort of anthropology that could serve as the theoretical basis of colonial management — he commended himself to the alliance of colonial officials, missionaries, and philanthropists who founded the International African Institute (IAI) in 1926. The American Rockefeller Foundation, by far the most generous patron of the IAI (and accustomed to supporting scholars associated with the LSE because it was an institution in which ‘the academic and the actual come together’), changed its policies so that Malinowski’s students would be eligible for IAI fellowships, responding to Malinowski’s claim that the application of anthropology as ‘social engineering’ in areas ‘into which Western capitalism is pressing’ could ‘prevent untold waste and suffering’. Because the Institute provided the bulk of research funds available for fieldwork in the interwar period, most of Malinowski’s students became Africanists. And, not the least because they enjoyed the status that inheres in prosperity, they became the leaders of British social anthropology. Malinowski was hardly an apologist for colonial rule, however. Echoing statements he had made while in the Trobriands, he proclaimed that the colonial situation was founded on antagonism: all parties to the colonial situation had ‘deeply rooted personal interests at stake’ that created ‘irreconcilable differences’ among them. And, in fact, his students’ work proved unappealing to British colonial administrators, whose notion of useful anthropology was a highly stylized evolutionist scheme contrived by generations of officials themselves which rationalized modification of indigenous polities to suit the system of indirect rule – which ostensibly (but hardly actually) preserved traditional order so that it might serve as the willing instrument of colonial power (see Kuklick 1992: 182-241).
Of theories and legacies
After Malinowski’s death, Radcliffe-Brown established his theoretical distance from Malinowski: unable to articulate theory that might be tested by a community of researchers, Malinowski acted as an individualist rather than a scientist; and his theory was not functionalism but ‘Malinowskianism’ because he derived social processes from ‘biological needs of individual human beings’, rather than recognizing that social life was constituted of ‘interactions and joint actions of persons who are brought into relation by the [social] structure’ (Radcliffe-Brown 1949: 49, 51). These accusations were not unfounded. Malinowski did judge that all societies had to develop institutions that served the basic biological needs of self-preservation (Malinowski 1930a); and he did find ‘innate emotional attitudes’ grounded in physiology antecedent to social forms (Malinowski 1930b: 28).
Taken up initially by those whose resentment of Malinowski’s professional power derived from personal contact with him, Radcliffe-Brown’s accusations became received opinion among many sociocultural anthropologists in the post-World War II decades. Granting that Radcliffe-Brown was ‘incomparably the poorer fieldworker’, they judged him ‘the more powerful theorist’; his model represented ‘a comparative anatomy of societies’, lending itself to ‘systematic comparison’ of populations, in contradistinction to Malinowski’s scheme — which admitted only of universal generalization (see Wolf 1964: 5). As functionalism came under attack in the 1960s, however, the differences between the two men began to seem relatively unimportant; perhaps they emphasized different social institutions, but both fostered analysis that documented the fundamental functionalist problem — the coherence of any given society’s parts into a whole. And Malinowski’s evocative ethnographies, inviting the reader to contemplate the satisfactions of exotic ways of life, may prove more enduring than Radcliffe-Brown’s schematic formulations.
- Firth, R. (1957) ‘Introduction: Malinowski as Scientist and Man’, in R. Firth (ed.) Man and Culture, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Freire-Marreco, B. and J.L. Myres (eds) (1912) Notes and Queries on Anthropology, London: The Royal Anthropological Institute.
- Kuklick, H. (1992) The Savage Within, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Malinowski, B. (1926) Crime and Custom in Savage Society, London: Kegan Paul.
- Malinowski, B. (1930a) ‘Parenthood: The Basis of Social Structure’, in V.F. Calverton and S.D. Schmalhausen (eds) The New Generation, New York: Macaulay.
- Malinowski, B. (1930b) ‘Must Kinship Studies Be Dehumanised by Mock Algebra?’, Man 30: 19–29.
- Malinowski, B. (1993 ) ‘On the Principle of the Economy of Thought’, trans. L. Krzyzanowski (PhD dissertation, Jagiellonian University), in R. Thornton and P. Skalník (eds) The Early Writings of Bronislaw Malinowski, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1949) ‘Functionalism: A Protest’, American Anthropologist 51: 320–23.
- Stocking, G.W. Jr (1983) ‘The Ethnographer’s Magic’, in G.W. Stocking Jr (ed.) Observers Observed, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Stocking, G.W. Jr (1991) ‘Maclay, Kubary, Malinowski’, in G.W. Stocking (ed.) Colonial Situations, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Thornton, R. and P. Skalník (1993) ‘Introduction: Malinowski’s Reading, Writing, 1904–1914’, in R. Thornton and P. Skalník (eds) The Early Writings of Bronislaw Malinowski, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Wolf, E.R. (1964) Anthropology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Young, M.W. (2004) Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist, 1884–1920, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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