6 jul. 2011

Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski

Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski (1884 - 1942) 
Born in 1884 in Kraków, Poland, to an upper-middle-class family, Malinowski had always a frail complexion and suffered from ill health. However, he excelled academically and received a doctorate in philosophy focusing on mathematics and physics. While recuperating from one of his illnesses, he read James Frazer's The Golden Bough. This book turned his interest to ethnology, which he pursued at the University of Leipzig. In 1910 he went to England, studying at the London School of Economics under C. G. Seligman and Edvard Westermarck.
In 1914 he traveled to Papua (in what would later become Papua New Guinea), where he conducted fieldwork at Mailu Island and then, more famously, in the Trobriand Islands. On his most famous trip to the area, he became stranded owing to the outbreak of World War I. Malinowski was not allowed to return to Europe from the British-controlled region because he was a Pole from Austria-Hungary. Australian authorities gave him two options: to be exiled to the Trobriand islands, or to face internment for the duration of the war. Malinowski chose the Trobriand islands. It was during this period that he conducted his fieldwork on the Kula ring and advanced the practice of participant observation, which remains the hallmark of ethnographic research today.
By 1922 Malinowski had earned a doctorate of science in anthropology and was teaching at the London School of Economics. That year his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published. It was widely regarded as a masterpiece, and Malinowski became one of the best-known anthropologists in the world. For the next two decades, he would establish the London School of Economics as one of Britain's greatest centers of anthropology. He became a British citizen in 1931.
Malinowski taught intermittently in the United States. When World War II broke out during one of his American visits, he stayed there. He took up a position at Yale University, where he remained until his death. In 1942 he cofounded the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America.
Malinowski died on 16 May 1942, just after his 58th birthday, of a heart attack while preparing to conduct summer fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut.

His ideas
Malinowski is renowned as one of anthropology's most skilled ethnographers. He is often referred to as the first researcher to bring anthropology "off the verandah", that is, experiencing the everyday life of his subjects along with them. Malinowski emphasised the importance of detailed participant observation and argued that anthropologists must have daily contact with their informants if they are to adequately record the "imponderabilia of everyday life" that are so important to understanding a different culture.
He stated that the goal of the anthropologist, or ethnographer, is "to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world" (Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Dutton 1961 edition, p. 25.)
However, in reference to the Kula ring, Malinowski also stated, in the same edition, pp. 83–84:
Yet 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 definitely 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.
His study of the Kula ring 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 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, who comprise society, are met, then the needs of society are met. To Malinowski, the feelings of people and their motives were crucial knowledge to understand the way their society functioned:
Besides 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. — Argonauts, p. 22.
Apart from fieldwork, Malinowski also challenged common western views such as Freud's Oedipus complex and their claim for universality. He initiated a cross-cultural approach in Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927) where he demonstrated that specific psychological complexes are not universal.
Malinowski likewise influenced the course of African history, serving as an academic mentor to Jomo Kenyatta, the father and first president of modern-day Kenya. Malinowski also wrote the introduction to Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta's ethnographic study of the Gikuyu tribe.

Read Argonauts of the Western Pacific at: http://www.archive.org/details/argonautsofthewe032976mbp

© Text and photo: Wikipedia

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