Start reading through
Key points
An account
By Malinowski
Short bibliography




by Adrian Worsfold

Key points:



An Account of Malinowski's Work

Emile Durkheim's sociology stated that society is an entity in itself that needs maintenance. The functionalism of Malinowski is certainly Durkheimian in origin but there is a crucial difference in method. As an anthropologist, Malinowski goes from the bottom up, and from psyche to culture, whereas for Durkheim causality is top down or the social first (collective conscience) and the psychological aspects are effects more than cause, and basically details of social facts (see Rapport, Overing, 2000, 396).

Malinowski was important to anthropology is raising the status of the every day. For many concerned with structure and function, the grand scheme of things rose above the every day humdrum of life. But for Malinowski description took place around the humdrum, building up a greater picture of life from it. Furthermore, people mix the humdrum, their beliefs and their aesthetics together, to create an everyday reality from the application of myth and one's own story within it to the humdrum. So it becomes important to capture this in any anthropological account.

To write from this perspective was quite a break from the evolutionary basis of anthropology up to his time. This was a sort of Social Darwinian and liberal-Protestant-Western ethnocentric stance, where societies would find their peak in Western societies of the day. This assumption, a reflection ofimperialism and Eurocentrism, led to the assumption that tribal societies were expected to become quite complex and modern through development. There is a parallel issue of social and ideological evolution through religion (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 322-323) - for example, from magic, to polytheistic religion, to Catholicism, Monotheism and Liberal Protestantism, and their connections to social and economic development.

In the years 1915 to 1916 and 1917 to 1918 Malinowski did pioneering work studying theTrobriand Islanders of the South Pacific. Malinowski's work was the break from evolutionary approaches best found in sociology (society goes through stages of development drawing on an internal logic) and historical diffusionist approaches best found in ethnography (development moved geographically outwards from more developed centres). Malinowski wrote about the here and now through description, and how it worked as a whole. It's not as though he imposed the new perspective but the competing perspectives were already giving way to field research and description (Kuper, 1983, 5).

Functionalism is that perspective which sees the activities of society working for one given reason according to those involved, but the activity has a sociological impact in particular in making the society work as a whole. Cultures are wholes, according to Malinowski. They are working units. The structuralist takes this further, that the whole follows certain strong patterns in all societies which only have particular differences. Functionalism does not go this far, it only states what there is and postures functional purposes. Malinowski did this analysis through connections, and for him connections constituted a system, whereas other analysts are more demanding and abstracting. He avoided technical jargon, for example in relation to kinship in the Trobriand Islands, which was more descriptive than systematic (Malinowski beame more theoretical after the Trobriand monographs). He was trying to connect one activity and its meaning to another. It produced rich data. This richness was assisted by asking always the simplest of questions. Why this, and then why that? The questions of a good participant observer, when doing a spot of questioning (interviewing or questionnaire) should probe into the detail, even if the people being studied think this irritating (as they did with Malinowski, see Kuper, 1983, 18).

Culture should be understood not in the abstract but in context and the rules of the culture should always be checked against what is actually done. Culture is an entity in itself and it is not necessary for the anthropologist to have to use cross-cultural comparisons (though functionalists may do this for sources of dysfunction and change). The main thing is that cultures should work or hang together (Kuper, 1983, 26), which is functionalism! Nevertheless, against what might be regarded as an essential of functionalism, that is consistency, Malinowski argued that ordinary people in both primitive and advanced cultures can hold contradictory views at the same time (this being consistent with his cognitive view that all apparent levels of people share the same type of thinking). This point has still somewhat been lost within anthropology (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 81).

Until Malinowski, evolutionary theories found little point in rituals (compare with how Protestantism, a built in reference point of so many writers, became ritual-restricted!) except as seeing them as echoes of a more primitive past. By his method Malinowski stripped away the imposed historical-future perspective and took the society and culture as found, although through the fiction of excluding those who were outside his frame of reference, and showed that rituals whilst they may not have overtly had a purpose of the maintenance of society, had this essential function in the present. They were a focus by which people interacted and made connections, and created an optimistic basis for proceeding.

Writing in the 1920's, Malinowski showed the functional view that beliefs may appear magical, but they had a more practical purpose and indeed were self serving. They were not symbolists, as we might be in religion. This was a basis of co-operating, just as modern humankind co-operates. There is the potential to develop transactional analysis within primitive society, there is certainly the principle of reciprocity (bonding through giving and taking) within these societies.

He described how magic was used where uncertainty was the greatest and reason had little to contribute. Within the inner lagoon, the islanders were safe, and fish were caught. Beyond, in the rough seas, where there was danger and unpredictability, fishing needed magic to subdue the islanders' fears and therefore give suggestion of control of the environment and reduce fear, thus facilitating the fishing.

This ritual magic was, in a sense, logical, though, and not restricted to some mythic state of a different social development, because it showed the same thought process as with modern people but applied within their cultural and social setting (similar with Evans-Pritchard where reasoning takes place but not beyond the belief system). In other words, Malinowski's approach implied a cognitive theory of the mind that is the same for all people and demonstrated a shared reasonableness between the so called savage and modern (Kuper, 1983, 25) humankind. The primitive joined our practical application of problems to their spiritual understanding. Malinowski assumed this common cognition (whereas Levy-Bruhl did not and saw our pragmatism as a development waiting to happen).

Between 1922 and 1935 he published seven monographs on Trobriand Islands and these were the basis of his lectures in London. Each one had one main focus, and covered the subjects of trading, family life and procreation, myth, enforcing norms and gardening. So there was not a co-ordinated holistic view and no system despite his own stress on interconnections (Kuper, 1983, 24). This was something he regretted.

Anthropology is not simply behaviourist, or writing about external appearances, but it intends to go deeper. He determined rules to include feelings, instincts and their metaphysics. This meant doing notes and more notes, and writing up afterwards in situ. Those who were descriptive in method before him tended to be interested in subjects like migration, culture and classifying people and their objects; others who were more concerned with social instutions were more theoretical in approach (Kuper, 1983, 2). Malinowski combined the ethnologists' method with the functionalism found in sociology.

He wrote down and charted customs around activities described to him and observed, and the data made connections between them (that is, what people should do). This was like the book of rules. Then a diary of the work described activities in the manner they were carried out because those rules are not always followed (what they do do to their advantage). A third data is an account of the richness of stories, rituals and talk that show the mentality of people (what they think). Social data is always multi-layered and complex (Kuper, 1983, 15-17).

Malinowski himself questioned his method and validity of data - he was always trying to find ways to collect and categorise material, documents and objects as well as notes from participant-observations. This reminds me of my own PhD. work. On the one hand the evangelical religious youths operated in the institutions of the church with customs that were promoting a pure sexual morality, until one discovered the pregnancies and the ordinary sexual-talk and encounters outside, and relationships, and the fact that beyond observing a social difference of "respectability" in an area next to a large council estate, these were very ordinary teenagers in terms of their mentality. Without getting in amongst their ordinary everyday beliefs and actions the researcher would be misled (My interest, though, became what kind of theology was "acceptable" in these areas, where obviously a liberal one might be more appropriate an evangelical version had official approval). (Worsfold, 1989)

What Malinowski showed was how rich material can be from participant observation. I know that I could have written several research papers with different focii. The material, taken over a long enough period, and sufficient recording depth according to a qualititative strategy, brings rich results.

Customs are always being modified in practice, according to Malinowski (Kuper, 1983, 17), however immovable they seem. Again this reminds me of how (especially Anglican) church people respond and reuse the creeds to such an extent that they fail to mean anything much what they once meant, despite their immovability.

The diaries (published after his death) show the more personal side of Malinowski than the field notes. They are as such personal anthropological studies in themselves!

Every social anthropologist should keep a diary, that is both a source of extra matarial and an escape of true feelings. Which raises an interesting point, about how much an "official" account is kept of field work for possible public consumption, and where the reality of one's own account is located.

This raises another point, siezed on by postmodernists. Basically, accounts of reality are reduced, made coherent, acquire a life of their own, and treat the studied as an object against them.

This is an important point about the social anthropological method. At some point, despite the richness of material, there has to be reduction. Malinowski changed anthropology not just to the richness of material, and functionalism, but a reduction of the culture into a sort of naturalistic and realist story.

The richness of the ethnographic method as some point has to boil down to a story or an account. It is at this point a reduction takes place, and a narrative is imposed, and this is exactly the problem. And in the course of this, a perspective is imposed, and this is a problem too - because as soon as a largely functionalist account is given (ahistorical, sees less conflict, power issues avoided, systematic change avoided) then a hypothesis is being demonstrated within the narrative of the writing. It becomes possible to say, if the narrative was changed, that the hypothesis could be changed.

In other words, the act of writing an account is an act of fictionalising, or factionalising perhaps. It is not just selective but in the act of making sense it creates its own internal world.

My approach in the sociology of religion was to show one theological stance winning over the other in an institutional setting, a sort of conflict stance of sorts. It was about leadership, the interested and disinterested an=mongst the led, the overt and concealed motivations of leaders and led, and continuance of the institution, with the dominance of one kind of popularly interpreted theology and the silence of others (which may have been more appropriate to their lives, arguably, though that is not strictly the point - this was the study of an institution, the Church, as manifested at this level). My account was also extracted and created, and it may well not have been recognised by the people themselves as being their own activity. They had other narratives (the leaders also had narratives put to me about what they were doing which were "official", whereas they had more manipulative intentions in mind).

This research to account approach is a form of modernism, in that it seeks to show an objective account of reality. The criticism is postmodern, because it exposes the method as creating a world of meaning via reduction and narrative. It sees powerplays and assumptions imposed in the writing. It criticises objectifying others. It is this kind of criticism that has led social anthropology towards a literary turn, where it has has gained a strong self-critical stance regarding its own concepts and presumptions. It focusses on its own language, narrative and authorship and so itself becomes postmodern (thus is critical of assumptions behind, say, Malinowski's work, because it sees his naturalism as creating an "other" which classifies, distances and is its own form of imperialism).

The more mundane questioning remains about functionalism that it ignores a dynamic of often radical change. It, as with Durkheim's approach, tends to the static. It is ahistorical. It also does, despite analysis regarding motives, hint that people do things for other reasons than the direct one. This is the question about self-knowledge regarding one's own motives - how much are we aware of what are those other perhaps functional (or power) motives? Malinowski sees to suggest that the islanders were aware of other motives in that they showed enlightened self-interest. It is important to raise questions of overt and covert motives. Others looking at Malinowski's work doubtthat the islanders did ritual magic for anything other than the ritual magic's purpose itself. Furthermore, functionalism fails to see people acting together inside impacting layered systems (from the international down) and then producing change, under the larger system's influence, from within. Change is not simply the interaction of cultures as Malinowski discussed in later work. This was a criticism laid by Radcliffe-Brown (Kuper, 1983, 33) and indeed Malinowski later saw the errors of his ways regarding sources of change.




(Kuper, 1983, 10-13, 19-22)



By Bronislaw Malinowski

(1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
(1926) Myth in Primitive Psychology, reprinted in (1948).
(1930) Man, 30, 9-29.
(1939) 'The Group and the Individual in Functional Analysis' in American Journal of Sociology, 44, 938-964
(1948), Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays, Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press.
(1989) A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.



Short Bibliography

Kuper, A. (1983), Anthropology And Anthropologists, London: Routledge And Kegan Paul.

Rapport, N., Overing, J. (2000), Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge.

Worsfold, A. J. (1989), New Denominationalism: Tendencies Towards a New Reformation of English Christianity, Unpublished PhD. thesis, University of Hull.