Born in Krakow, on April 7, 1884, Bronislaw Malinowski is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of, contributors to, and perhaps even propagandist of a method of study in Anthropology known as ethnology—the idea that in order to know a people, you actually have to spend time, living, sleeping, eating, learning the language of and participating with, the people. Prior to this radically new, systematic approach of studying a people by spending time with them and taking the time to learn their language was a more laid back, and hence aptly termed ‘armchair’ approach to the study of Anthropology. These armchair anthropologists included prominent figures such as Sir James Frazer, author of the highly influential and popular book The Golden Bowl, and Edward Burnett Tylor who made a palliative effort to dress the discipline of Anthropology up in the revered and at that time highly fashionable gown of science. Frazer popularized ideas of the mysterious 'savage' and customs of other cultures, emphasizing the romantic differences, while Tylor argued that there was a progressive upward linear evolutionary development amongst the civilizations of man from ‘savage’ to ‘civilized’ (Europeans of course being the acme of the latter category). He thought of people in the same fashion that museums organize tools, an arrow head for instance, which began as crude and blunt, but continually evolved new shapes and complexities, until it reached its most ideal state of perfection, and efficiency (Tylor obviously would have been a huge fan of the video game Civilization). The theories these anthropologists developed largely stemmed from the books that provided information collected by other individuals on other cultures, and hence was incredibly inaccurate and inconsistent, but what is important to note is that this armchair approach had a particular emphasis on explanatory theories, a piecing together of man’s evolutionary history and a mythic popularization of the ‘savage’, greatly neglecting the richness of data that existed within the actual people’s culture, not found in a book, but rather within the person and his cultural context. This change is largely due to the advent of new modes of transportation and opportunities to travel abroad and see these‘savages’ with your own eyes, which became increasingly available to European citizens around the turn of the 20th century.
One citizen in particular--who idolized the British way of life and culture and aspired to one day be amongst the respected ranks of the upper class--a student at the London School of Economics, seized upon this opportunity to travel abroad, after he had been reading many texts on, what was then a hot-spot of study for Anthropology, Australian Aborigines (such as Gillen&Spencer), and thus had the urge to, as the old adage goes, see it in order to believe it. Bronislaw Malinowski’s fame however does not stem from this particular trip, but rather his long, for historical reasons (WWI breaking out), stay with the Trobrianders on their Islands, and the valuable information that he was able to attain (most notably the Kula Ring), shattering numerous previously held theories and approaches, as a direct result of his effort to, as he put it, “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world.”
Malinowski accomplished this aim by separating himself from the amenities he was accustomed to within his own culture by taking up residency--setting up his tent-poles--right smack dab in the middle of the Trobriander’s village.
This would seem like a very subtle change, but it turned out to have significant and revolutionary implications. There’s a good paragraph in the introduction to Malinowski’s book on the Trobrianders entitled The Argonauts of the Western Pacific which clearly outlines the personal change that occurs by taking up residence within the village of the people who you are trying to know.
As I went on my morning walk through the village, I could see intimate details of family life, of toilet, cooking, taking of meals; I could see the arrangements for the day’s work, people starting on their errands, or groups of men and women busy at some manufacturing tasks. Quarrels, jokes, family scenes, events usually trivial, sometimes dramatic, but always significant, formed the atmosphere of my daily life, as well as of theirs.
the paragraph continues and ends with a sentence which I found to be rather amusing:
It must be remembered that as the natives saw me constantly every day, they ceased to be interested or alarmed, or made self-conscious of my presence, and I ceased to be a disturbing element in the tribal life which I was to study, altering it by my very approach, as always happens with a new-corner to every savage community. In fact, as they knew that I would thrust my nose into everything, even where a well-mannered native would not dream of intruding, they finished by regarding me as part and parcel of their life, a necessary evil or nuisance, mitigated by donations of tobacco.
By embedding himself within a culture and spending a number of years taking part in the daily occurrences of that culture, Malinowski created a new way to collect information and build a better understanding of the particularities of that individual culture. But it is clear that Malinowski had personal reasons and ambitions towards a certain tier of social status and perhaps explains how, being the neurotic and intensely hypochondriac man that he was, he was able to endure the numerous years he spent in the isolation of another culture. He truly was a stranger in a strange land.
His personal diary clearly expresses his lamentations and the titles of the books he published clearly show his desire to be a celebrity of British culture by playing off of its moral reservations, with such books as Sex and Repression in Savage Societies and The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia.
After he returned from the
Raymond Firth, a good friend of Malinowski’s, wrote these words in a posthumous evaluation of Malinowski’s work:
To his pupils, Malinowski’s stimulus lay in a combination of many qualities: his subtle power of analysis, his sincerity in facing problems, his sense of reality, his scholarly command of the literature, his capacity for integrating detail into general ideas, his brilliance and wit in handling discussions. But it was due to something more, to his liberal interpretation of the role of teacher…He and his students did no always see eye to eye. But one felt that he had a great store of wise advice, which he expressed in his own inimitably shrewd fashion. Whether he gave it soberly or flippantly, one knew that he was sympathetic, that he felt the trouble as his own. And if a crisis arose—because one could argue fiercely with him at times—he had a most disarming way of suddenly putting aside all emotion, and spreading the whole thing out on the table, as it were, for analysis of his own motives as well as those of the other person. It was this capacity for friendship and sympathy, going beyond the relations of a teacher to pupil, that helped to strengthen his attraction.(Barth, p.29 in One Discipline Four Ways)
Malinowski clearly inspired and popularized the field of anthropology, amongst his students, and amongst the larger public, but a critique often associated with Malinowski is that despite all his enthusiasms, his contributions, theoretically, were largely ad hoc. Malinowski has a more personal approach, which he tries to distance himself from in his works, but when compared to say Meyers Fortes or A.R. Radcliffe Brown, one easily recognizes the differences in approaches. The former sought to give the native’s identity and perspective back to him, by studying the native in his own environment, but largely focused on issues popular to British pop-culture, whereas the latter established concrete and consistent systems and approaches to participant observation, that took culture, analyzed it, and attempted to understand it in all its diverse richness, colors, and manifestations, with a particular emphasis on its structural implications and functions.
To this day anthropologists doing field work and participant observation are deeply indebted to and significantly benefited by both of these approaches to studying cultures and are persistently trying to capture the native’s reality, not through preconceived theoretical impositions of explanations, but, rather, through exploratory observations.
***By the way, I just came across this BBC documentary on Bronislaw Malinowski posted on youtube and thought it was worth sharing. The pictures in the film are stunning, the music and reenactment a little over dramatic, and the final clip which takes a look at a modern application of anthropology with some lady, unknown to me, who studies the 'tribe' of horse racing, seemed to me to be a, excuse my Latin, reductio ad absurdum of what Anthropology is all about, but nevertheless the rest of the film is pretty informative, though it does mostly focus on the character of Malinowski as opposed to the contributions of Malinowski, but perhaps I should stop complaining for fear you might not be intrigued enough to click below.
Tales From The Jungle: Malinowski
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6