Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski was a Polish anthropologist widely
considered to be one of the most important anthropologists of
the twentieth century because of his pioneering work on ethnographic
fieldwork, the study of reciprocity, and his detailed contribution
to the study of Melanesia.
Malinowski was born in Kraków, Poland to an upper-middle
class family. His father was a professor and his mother the daughter
of a land-owning family. As a child he was frail, often suffering
from ill-health, yet he excelled scholastically. He received a
doctorate from Jagiellonian University in 1908, where he focused
on mathematics and physical sciences.
spent the next two years at Leipzig University, where he was influenced
by Wilhelm Wundt and his theories of folk psychology. These then
led Malinowski on to develop an interest in anthropology. At the
time, James Frazer and other British authors were amongst the
best-known anthropologists, and so Malinowski traveled to England
to study at the London School of Economics in 1910.
1914 he traveled to Papua (in what would later become Papua New
Guinea) where he conducted fieldwork at Mailu and then, more famously,
in the Trobriand Islands. He made several field trips to this
area, some of which were extended to avoid the difficulties of
emigrating from an Australian colony during the First World War.
It was during this period that he conducted his fieldwork on kula.
1922 Malinowski had earned a doctorate of science in anthropology
and was teaching at the London School of Economics. In that year
his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published. The book
was universally regarded as a masterpiece and Malinowski became
one of the best known anthropologists in the world. For the next
three decades Malinowski would establish the LSE as one of Britain's
greatest centers of anthropology. He would train many students,
including students from Britain's colonies who would go on to
become important figures in their home countries.
taught intermittently in the United States, and when World War
II broke out during one of these trips he remained in the country,
taking up a position at Yale University, where he remained until
Malinowski is often remembered as the first researcher to bring
anthropology 'off the verandah'. Previous anthropologists had
conducted fieldwork through structured interviews and did not
mix with their research subjects in day-to-day life. Malinowski
emphasized the importance of detailed participant observation
and argued that anthropologists must have daily contact with their
informants if they were to adequately record the "imponderabilia
of everyday life" that were so important to understanding
a different culture.
stated that the goal of the cultural anthropologist, or ethnographer,
grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realise
his vision of his world.
However, in reference to the Kula, Malinowski also stated,in the
same edition, pp.83-84:
it must be remembered that what appears to us an extensive, complicated,
and yet well ordered institution is the outcome of so many doings
and pursuits, carried on by savages, who have no laws or aims
or charters definitively laid down. They have no knowledge of
the total outline of any of their social structure. They know
their own motives, know the purpose of individual actions and
the rules which apply to them, but how, out of these, the whole
collective institution shapes, this is beyond their mental range.
Not even the most intelligent native has any clear idea of the
Kula as a big, organised social construction, still less of its
sociological function and implications....The integration of all
the details observed, the achievement of a sociological synthesis
of all the various, relevant symptoms, is the task of the Ethnographer....the
Ethnographer has to construct the picture of the big institution,
very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the experimental
data, which always have been within reach of everybody, but needed
a consistent interpretation.
In these two passages, Malinowski anticipated the distinction
between description and analysis and between the views of actors
and analysts. This distinction continues to inform anthropological
method and theory.”
study of Kula was also vital to the development of an anthropological
theory of reciprocity, and his material from the Trobriands was
extensively discussed in Marcel Mauss's seminal essay The Gift.
Malinowski also originated the school of social anthropology known
as functionalism. In contrast to Radcliffe-Brown's structural
functionalism, Malinowski argued that culture functioned to meet
the needs of individuals rather than society as a whole. He reasoned
that when the needs of individuals are met, who comprise society,
then the needs of society are met. To Malinowski, the feelings
of people, their motives, were crucial knowledge to understand
the way their society functioned:
the firm outline of tribal constitution and crystallised cultural
items which form the skeleton, besides the data of daily life
and ordinary behaviour, which are, so to speak, its flesh and
blood, there is still to be recorded the spirit—the natives'
views and opinions and utterances.