Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Notes on Malinowski's contributions in anthropological thinking

Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands 
by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

Bronisław Malinowski, widely regarded as one of the greatest anthropologists of the 20th century, and one of the founding fathers of the ethnographic tradition. His ethnographies, set in Papua New Guinea during World War I, are classics because they are remarkably detailed and comprehensive, setting the standard for anthropologists. Although he is closely associated with the functionalism school of British anthropology which he founded, I can see many ways to relate his work to various schools of thought such as psychological anthropology and neoevolutionism.

Psychological anthropology is an attempt to weave together ‘self’ and ‘culture’, which was previously the exclusive projects of psychology (ala Freud) and anthropology (ala Boas) respectively. Its early exponents were students of Franz Boas: Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir. One early idea was that culture was ‘personality writ large’ and that cultures can have distinct personalities, and modal personalities do exist for particular cultures. Mead’s contribution was that childhood development was a crucial aspect of personality, and therefore is an important stage where culture is inscribed.

I can think of three contributions of Malinowski to this effort. First, methodologically, he calls for ethnography not just to focus on the ‘organization of the tribe’ and the ‘imponderabilia of actual life’ but also the ‘typical utterances, items of folklore and magical formulae’ as ‘documents of native mentality', a nod to the importance of psychology in anthropology. James Frazer, in his preface to Argonauts, recognized the significance of this methodological turn:
He [Malinowski] has wisely refused to limit himself to a mere description of the processes of the [kula] exchange, and has set himself to penetrate the motives which underlie it and the feelings which it excites in the minds of the natives. It appears to be sometimes held that pure sociology should confine itself to the description of acts and should leave the problems of motives and feeling to psychology. Doubtless, it is true that the analysis of motives and feelings is logically distinguishable from the description of acts, and that it falls, strictly speaking, within the sphere of psychology; but in practice an act has no meaning for an observer unless he knows or infers the thoughts and emotiions of the agent; hence to describe a series of acts, without any reference to the state of mind of the agent, would not answer the purpose of sociology, the aim of which is not merely to register but to understand the actions of men in society. Thus sociology cannot fulfil its task without calling in at every turn the aid of psychology. 

Second, he paid attention to the childhood and adolescence of the islanders, foreshadowing Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. From this work on young people, he gives his third contribution, which is to debunk the universality of the Oedipus complex. In Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927), he presents an entirely different kinship system - matriarchal uncles as "father figures" for boys - as the context in which psychosexual development is different; boys do not develop sexual jealousy for their fathers.

In searching for a number of rationales – from the material to the symbolic - that underline the Kula system, he also foreshadowed the interest of neoevolutionists and cultural ecologists in looking at materialist explanations for social phenonenoma. Moreover, as Moore says in Visions of Culture (p. 144):
Malinowski has been very influential, particularly on lines of anthropological theory emphasizing the adapative significance of culture. The ecological anthropology of the 1960s and 1970s took Malinowski’s basic insights, recast them as hypothesis, and tested them with quantitative data…
Moreover, Malinowski’s functionalist perspective was adopted by Leslie White, with the key difference of looking at the needs of the species instead of the needs of the individual.

Truly Malinowski’s influence is significant and can be seen across various subfields and schools of thought in anthropology.


Malinowski, B., & Frazer, J. G. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific, an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, by Bronislaw Malinowski,... With a Preface by Sir James George Frazer,... G. Routledge and sons.

Moore, J. D. (2000). Visions of culture: an introduction to anthropological theories and theorists. AltaMira Press

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