Primer: Malinowski and the Problem of Culture April 9, 2009Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: Audrey Richards, Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Leech, Emile Durkheim, Jerry Moore, Marvin Harris
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.