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Bronisław Kasper Malinowski (April 7, 1884May 16, 1942) was a Polish anthropologist widely considered to be one of the most important anthropologists of the twentieth century because of his pioneering work on ethnographic fieldwork, the study of reciprocity, and his detailed contribution to the study of Melanesia.


Malinowski was born in Kraków, Poland to an upper-middle class family. His father was a professor and his mother the daughter of a land-owning family. As a child he was frail, often suffering from ill-health, yet he excelled scholastically. He received a doctorate from Jagiellonian University in 1908, where he focused on mathematics and physical sciences. He spent the next two years at Leipzig University, where he was influenced by Wilhelm Wundt and his theories of folk psychology. These then led Malinowski on to develop an interest in anthropology. At the time, James Frazer and other British authors were amongst the best-known anthropologists, and so Malinowski traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics in 1910.

In 1914 he traveled to Papua (in what would later become Papua New Guinea) where he conducted fieldwork at Mailu and then, more famously, in the Trobriand Islands. He made several field trips to this area, some of which were extended to avoid the difficulties of emigrating from an Australian colony during the First World War. It was during this period that he conducted his fieldwork on Kula.

By 1922 Malinowski had earned a doctorate of science in anthropology and was teaching at the London School of Economics. In that year his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published. The book was universally regarded as a masterpiece and Malinowski became one of the best known anthropologists in the world. For the next three decades Malinowski would establish the LSE as one of Britain's greatest centers of anthropology. He would train many students, including students from Britain's colonies who would go on to become important figures in their home countries.

Malinowski taught intermittently in the United States, and when World War II broke out during one of these trips he remained in the country, taking up a position at Yale University, where he remained until his death.

Ideas and achievements

Malinowski is often remembered as the first researcher to bring anthropology 'Off The Verandah'. Previous anthropologists had conducted fieldwork through structured interviews and did not mix with their research subjects in day-to-day life. Malinowski emphasized the importance of detailed participant observation and argued that anthropologists must have daily contact with their informants if they were to adequately record the "imponderabilia of everyday life" that were so important to understanding a different culture.

He stated that the goal of the cultural anthropologist, or ethnographer, is:

to grasp the native's point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world. [Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Dutton 1961 edition, p. 25.]

However, in reference to the Kula, Malinowski also stated,in the same edition, pp.83-84:

Yet it must be remembered that what appears to us an extensive, complicated, and yet well ordered institution is the outcome of so many doings and pursuits, carried on by savages, who have no laws or aims or charters definitively laid down. They have no knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure. They know their own motives, know the purpose of individual actions and the rules which apply to them, but how, out of these, the whole collective institution shapes, this is beyond their mental range. Not even the most intelligent native has any clear idea of the Kula as a big, organised social construction, still less of its sociological function and implications....The integration of all the details observed, the achievement of a sociological synthesis of all the various, relevant symptoms, is the task of the Ethnographer....the Ethnographer has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the experimental data, which always have been within reach of everybody, but needed a consistent interpretation.

In these two passages, Malinowski anticipated the distinction between description and analysis and between the views of actors and analysts. This distinction continues to inform anthropological method and theory.

His study of Kula was also vital to the development of an anthropological theory of reciprocity, and his material from the Trobriands was extensively discussed in Marcel Mauss's seminal essay The Gift. Malinowski also originated the school of social anthropology known as functionalism. In contrast to Radcliffe-Brown's structural functionalism, Malinowski argued that culture functioned to meet the needs of individuals rather than society as a whole. He reasoned that when the needs of individuals are met, who comprise society, then the needs of society are met. To Malinowski, the feelings of people, their motives, were crucial knowledge to understand the way their society functioned:

Besides the firm outline of tribal constitution and crystallised cultural items which form the skeleton, besides the data of daily life and ordinary behaviour, which are, so to speak, its flesh and blood, there is still to be recorded the spirit—the natives' views and opinions and utterances. [Argonauts, p. 25.]

University positions


  • The Trobriand Islands (1915)
  • Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922)
  • The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929)
  • Coral Gardens and Their Magic: A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands (1935)
  • The Scientific Theory of Culture (1944)
  • Magic, Science, and Religion (1948)
  • The Dynamics of Culture Change (1945)
  • A Diary In the Strict Sense of the Term(1967)

Sources and further reading

  • Malinowski : Odyssey of an Anthropologist, 1884-1920. By Michael Young. Yale University Press, 2004.

External links

  • Malinowski; Archive (Real audio stream) of BBC Radio 4 edition of 'Thinking allowed' on Malinowski

See also

  • Maria Czaplicka
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