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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.

malinowski

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.” (more…)

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