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Primer: Malinowski and the Problem of Culture April 9, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Bronisław Kasper Malinowski (1884-1942) was the founder of the branch of Social Anthropology known as functionalism.  Functionalism maintains that every aspect of the culture of a people, past or present, serves a purpose for the long-term maintenance of that society.   Malinowski inaugurated a new standard for field-work, and served as an exemplar of ethnographic observation and inference for a generation of anthropologists.  As a theoretician and as a individual, opinion of Malinowski remains sharply polarized.


The British social anthropologist, Audrey I. Richards, as related in Jerry D. Moore’s Visions of Culture (2008), observed that Malinowski’s concept of culture was “one of his most stimulating contributions to the anthropological thought of his day.”  Conversely, the anthropologist Edmund Leach opposed Malinowski’s contributions to ethnographic fieldwork to his dubious theoretical formulations.  Leach noted that while Malinowski altered “the whole mode and purpose of ethnographic inquiry” he also made “numerous theoretical pronouncements of a general, abstract,sociological kind.”  Malinowski’s conception of “Culture” amounted to a “platitudinous bore.”  According to Malinowski’s former student, Raymond Firth, Malinowski the man was either loved or hated, lauded as an artist or derided as a “pretentious Messiah of the credulous.”

Malinowski’s travels extended over most of the globe, having been born in Krakow (now Poland)  and drawing his ethnographic materials from the South Seas. Malinowski first took a doctorate in physics and mathematics with a thesis entitled “On the Principle of Economy of Thought” (1908.) Malinowski then began post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics with C.G. Seligman, who had been part of the Torres Strait expedition (1898-1899).  The Torres Strait expedition saw the beginnings of a systematic fieldwork in British anthropology.   Malinowski’s doctorate, awarded in 1913, was based upon previously accumulated ethnographic data. Malinowski, now in his thirties, had yet to do fieldwork.  From September 1914 to October 1918, Malinowski made three field trips to New Guinea.  It was from this field work that his account of the Trobriand Islanders, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) resulted.

In Argonauts, Malinowski noted that it was the duty of the ethnographer to describe “the full extent of the phenomenon in each aspect of tribal culture studied, making no difference between what is commonplace, or drab, or ordinary, and what strikes him as astonishing or out of the way.”  All aspects of tribal culture must therefore “be gone over in research” (quoted in Moore, 136.)  To this end, Malinowski devised “synoptic charts,” modeled on kinship charts, to schematize practices such ritual magic, bartering, and other forms of  exchanges and interactions under the expansive rubric of “Culture.”  In Malinowski’s ethnography, as Marvin Harris in his Rise of Anthropological Theory, has observed, “everything has its place.”

During the 1930s, Malinowski defined seven physical needs “for the satisfaction of which the social organism or culture was a ‘vast instrumental reality.'”  Malinowski’s account of “instrumental needs,” formulated in 1939, was close to Durkheim’s understanding of social structures, but as Malinowski was quick to point out, in opposition to the sociology and ethnology of Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown, the “functionalist” view of the individual includes an analysis “not merely of the emotional as well as the intellectual side of the mental processes, but also insists that man in his full biological reality has to be drawn into our analysis of culture.”  Malinowski continued, “The bodily needs and environmental influences, and the cultural relation to them, have thus to be studied side by side” (quoted in Harris, 550.)

Culture was “a new, secondary, or artificial environment.  This environment, which is neither more or less than culture itself, has to be permanently produced, maintained, and managed” (quoted in Moore, 141.)  Culture, by creating new environments, was also responsible for creating new situations to which the biological subject must respond.  In this way, society, and the culture which constituted it,  was always in active response to novel conditions.   Culture becomes, as Moore notes, “an enormously complicated behavioral web responding to complex needs that can be ultimately…be traced to the individual” (Moore, 142.)

Malinowski was as concerned  with understanding and recording the “imponderabilia of actual life” rather than simply defining and analyzing abstract features of culture.   One should, as much as possible, attempt to bridge the gap between the ethnographic observer and the ethnographic subject.   Malinowski attempted to reconstruct the subjective states of his subjects using data from “ethnographic statements, characteristic narratives, typical utterances, items of folklore” among other things.

Malinowski axiomatically summarized his theory of culture thus: first,  “that every culture must satisfy the biological system of needs” and second, “that every cultural achievement that implies the use of artifacts and symbolism is an instrumental enhancement of human anatomy, and refers directly or indirectly to the satisfaction of a bodily need”  (quoted in Moore, 142.)  An explanation of a tribe or group’s culture was thus an explanation of the function of various practices, behaviors, and social structures, the root of which was to satisfy basic human physiological and emotional needs resulting from the individual’s situatedness in his environment . Primitive, savage, tribal culture in its myths, symbols, and practices, was above all rational, pragmatic, and developed towards the goal of stability, cohesion, and the physical survival of its members.

Malinowski, whose account of culture and of the interdependency of biology, practice, and utility remains influential, but was particularly ascendant in the 1960s and 1970s, was nonetheless unable to account for practices that were destructive or simply customary (without any apparent use.)  Rationality (defined as utility) was, in Malinowski’s view, a totalizing causality for the development of practice, custom, and narrative.  Irrationality was neither found in tribal life nor an analytical boundary for Malinowski.


1. Michael Robinson - April 20, 2009

Interesting post. I was reading Marianna Torgovnick’s book ‘Gone Primitive’ and she opens with a critique of Malinowski’s book ‘The Sexual Life of Savages.’ Two questions I have: did functionalism stand in opposition to structuralism or were they just seen as different approaches? How do anthropologists view functionalism today?

Christopher Donohue - April 21, 2009

It was structuralism- beginning with Levi-Strauss-which developed in opposition to functionalism. Levi-Strauss repudiated what he saw as the base empiricism of Malinowski. Instead, Levi-Strauss proposed that what was most important for the understanding of the significance of social practice was what was hidden- the universal ‘structure’- behind the empirical manifestation of the practice of a particular tribe. Most anthropologists today are structuralists or “post-structuralists” and view Malinowski and functionalism as important in the history of anthropological practice rather than theory. The connections between Enlightenment anthropology, nineteenth century ethnology, physical anthropology, functionalism, structuralism, and finally, post-structuralism and critical theory are not worked out in the literature. In future blog posts, I’m going to address these connections by focusing on the historical effort in anthropological theory to define and to address specific conceptual and philosophical problematics, e.g. culture, rationality, technology, practice, legitimacy, modernity, etc.
Thank you for the comment,

2. Michael Robinson - April 21, 2009

Chris, I look forward to reading future posts. I recently read Carl Degler’s book In Search of Human Nature which dips into some of these subjects but not very deep. Best, Michael

3. Marie Goodwin - October 22, 2009

I really appreciate your blog entry and will be passing it along to my students (historiography of mythology) to read.

That said, you spelled Edmund Leach’s name incorrectly. :-)

Will Thomas - October 22, 2009

Fixed, thanks! —ed.

4. lia - March 9, 2010

what is malinowski concept of function? I keep coming across the term not sure how it relates to whole .

5. Will Thomas - March 9, 2010

A function is essentially anything that serves a purpose. A carpenter serves the function of building things out of wood, for example. But things can serve functions without intending to: a bee serves the function of pollinating flowers. Similarly, behaviors can serve social functions: for example, calling a teacher “sir” or “ma’am”, while the teacher calls students by their first names, serves the function of maintaining the teacher’s authority in the classroom.

So, the point here is Malinkowski’s interest in understanding how all aspects of a culture serve some function, and how the sum of a culture’s functions serve to maintain the stability of a society and the lives of its members.

6. Amber Malinowski - July 4, 2010

i found this interesting, but the only reason i read it was because it said Malinowski and my last name is Malinowski. I’m just trying to find some history in my family, does anyone know where i can do this at?

7. Will Thomas - July 4, 2010

Thanks for the comment, Amber. Unfortunately we’re not genealogical specialists here. There are companies and software tools that help with that sort of thing, but I can’t recommend any particular service.

8. Miroslav Miskovic - July 27, 2010

Scientific-technological revolution and the historical consciousness.The way how the mankind developed through last 40 000 years,axpressed in terms of semiotics.

9. STEPHANIE - March 27, 2012


10. Kate - January 9, 2013

One note, Krakow has always been in Poland.

Will Thomas - January 10, 2013

But Poland has not always been! When Malinowski was born Krakow was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire as its own Grand Duchy.

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