[Elisabeth Golub] Bronislaw Malinowski

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Sent: Sunday, October 17, 2004 6:22 PM
Subject: Malinowski crib sheet

Bronislaw Malinowski: Crib Sheet

Malinowski’s Theory of Culture

Malinowski formed part of the British functionalist school in anthropology. Drawing from Spencer’s concept of “the social organism,” the functionalists sought to identify social institutions (the different “organs of society”) and explain their social function (how these institutions met the needs of individuals and groups while maintaining social stability). Malinowski was a psychological functionalist—he was specifically interested in how social institutions met the psychical and psychological needs of society.

Malinowski defined culture as “a vast instrumental reality—the body of implements and commodities, charters of social organization, ideas and customs, beliefs and values” (Bohannon and Glazer 1988: 281). He believed culture exists in order to satisfy seven basic human needs: nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement and growth.

Central to Malinowski’s notion of culture is the relationship between the individual and the group. Though culture is necessarily social, he believed that “the individual, with his physiological needs and psychological processes, is the ultimate source and aim of all tradition, activities and organized behavior (Bohannon and Glazer 1988:291). Thus, anthropology must always consider culture from the perspective of both the individual and the group. In his discussion of the role of the group in culture, Malinowski introduced the concept of the institution, which he used to describe a group of people united or organized for a particular purpose.

While Malinowski thought culture functioned to meet specific psychological and physiological needs, he was not a biological determinist. He believed that all people exhibit these seven needs, yet he also believed culture determines the way in which they attempt to satisfy these needs, both individually and collectively. In other words, while all individuals may be physiologically driven to reproduce, their culture will shape how this reproduction will take place, for example by setting standards of beauty and appropriate courtship.

Furthermore, Malinowski stressed that the link between the seven basic needs and the cultural apparatus that serves to satisfy them is far from simple. Cultural responses to these needs created institutions with their own “derived” needs. For instance, humans’ need for nutrition may lead a group of individuals to come together in an agricultural collective. In order to produce food this collective will need tools, transportation, etc. The agricultural collective can meet these “instrumental” needs by developing an economic system. However, they will also need to develop a symbolic system that will allow subsequent generations to reproduce this economic system. In this way, what Malinowski calls the “basic” or “individual” needs engender a complex, integrated cultural system (Bohannon and Glazer 1988:277). The purpose of functionalism is to elucidate this process, and Malinowski defined functionalism as “the theory of transformation of organic—that is, individual—needs into derived cultural necessities and imperatives” (Bohannon and Glazer 1988:291)

Malinowski’s Approach to Fieldwork

Malinowski is perhaps best remembered for his pioneering approach to fieldwork. He believed anthropologists should actually live in the societies they were studying, immersing themselves in the language and culture. Only in doing so could they hope to get at the “native” perspective.

Malinowski identified three main principles to the ethnographic method. First, he believed that the ethnographer “must possess real scientific aims, and know the values and criteria of modern ethnography” (Malinowski 1984:6). Malinowski was careful to stress that ethnography was a science. While he advocated inductive reasoning and cautioned the ethnographer against imposing their own cultural beliefs on their culture of study, he saw a background in ethnographic theory and practice as key.

Second, Malinowski contended that the ethnographer must “put himself in good conditions of work.” This meant “cutting oneself off from the company of other white men, and remaining in as close contact with the natives as possible” (Malinowski 1984: 6). In turn, this entailed learning the native language and incorporating oneself into daily life. Malinowski stressed the importance of participant observation for writing an effective ethnography. While “survey work” can provide a reader with an informative overview of a culture, participant observation allows the anthropologist to include rich cultural description of “the intimate touches of native life,” which Malinowski called the “flesh and blood” of an ethnography (Malinowski 1984:17).

Third, Malinowski argued that the ethnographer must “apply a number of methods of collecting, manipulating and fixing his evidence” (Malinowski 1984:6). By this, Malinowski meant to suggest the importance of including “the natives’ views and opinions and utterances” in the cultural description (Malinowski 1984:22). Thus, the anthropologist must try to find out how individuals interpret their own culture, not idiosyncratically but as a collective. To this end, the anthropologist should record their native informants verbatim, and seek to discover native systems of classification (à la ethnographic interviewing!).

More generally, Malinowski was also one of the first anthropologists to stress the importance of methodological description in ethnography. By including a methodological description, the anthropologist can allow their readers to judge for themselves the reliability of an ethnographic description.


• Raymond Firth describes how Malinowski’s critics have targeted the “inadequacies” of his theories. Firth’s own response to these critics is that Malinowski’s “major contribution lies not in his specific theories but in his insistence on the need for theory” (Silverman 2004:91). In what ways might Malinowski’s theories be judged inadequate, by either Boasian anthropologists or more contemporary anthropologists? Is this need for theory that Firth mentions salient in the articles we’ve read for today? How does Malinowski’s understanding of the role of theory in anthropological research differ from other theorists we’ve read, such as the Boasians?
• Is Malinowski’s ethnographic style reflexive?
• How does a functionalist approach culture regard individual agency? How does it theorize cultural change?



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