Bronisław Malinowski – Anthropologist in the Field
portrait, Bronisław Malinowski, photo: Wikimedia Commons , center, bronislawmalinowski.jpg
World-famous social anthropologist, traveller, ethnologist, religion scholar, sociologist and writer. He is the creator of the school of functionalism, advocate for intense fieldwork, and a forerunner of new methods in social theory.
Malinowski starts university in his hometown, Kraków, at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University. His PhD thesis is entitled About the Economy of Thinking. He continues his education at the London School of Economics. Malinowski spends most of his professional life in Great Britain, the US, and the islands of Melanesia.
In 1914 he manages to gain funds for research in the Trobriand Islands. In the first stage of the journey he is accompanied by the famous Polish writer and painter, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy). However, Malinowski’s friend decides to return to Poland after hearing the news about the outbreak of World War I.
Malinowski continues his fieldwork during subsequent travels to Australia and Oceania. In 1916, he gains his PhD at the University of London. He marries Elsie Masson, the daughter of Sir David Masson who is a chemistry professor at Melbourne University. They have three daughters: Józefa, Wanda and Helena. Malinowski spends a lot of time with his family at their home in Bolzano, Italy.
In 1927 he becomes professor and chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of London. Two years later he publishes a monograph, The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. He continues on conducting his research in South and East Africa. In 1935 his wife dies.
Malinowski is distinguished with an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and becomes a professor at Yale University. He remarries, and the painter Valetta Swann becomes his second wife. Malinowski dies in 1942 of a cardiac attack in New Haven, US.
In his biography, Odyssey of an Anthropologist, Michael Young writes that Malinowski’s ability for meticulous observation conjoined with his writing skills serve as proof of both his great originality and his passion for explaining his own actions to himself.
Malinowski is an active hunter: he spends his time among the local people at different times of the day and night. He tries to see as much as possible, participate in everyday life but also in ceremonies and rites. He writes everything down.
Based on his fieldwork in Australia and Oceania he states that people are motivated by two types of needs: primary, stemming from their biology, and secondary, emerging because of their social nature and co-existence with others in a local community.
He defines culture as a system that serves to fulfil human needs. According to him, humans have needs that do not differ from those of animals, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, sex, movement and having a safe shelter, and needs that are purely human: for example love and intimacy.
Up until Malinowski’s time, most anthropologists worked at the desk, reading and analysing texts, rarely conducting any fieldwork. They focused on shocking and sensational matters, especially those that seemed particularly alien to Western norms. Malinowski, basing on his own two-year experience of research on the Trobriand, formulates postulates and rules that every anthropologist doing fieldwork should follow.
According to him, a good researcher focuses on trying to see the world with the eyes of the local people and permeate through his thinking and feeling up until understanding these processes. An anthropologist should also establish what is a norm, custom, or a rule in a given community.
A researcher should also speak the local language. Usually it is possible to learn it only after arrival. Constructing a methodology is also crucial.
An anthropologist does not prepare any concept for the research and should not listen to any suggestions of other observers, as these are mostly burdened with stereotypes. It is a researcher’s duty to respect the laws, customs and rules of the community. It is also required to have an ability to sense which behaviours are wrong and right in each culture.
Impeding the life of the community is ruled out. Only the acceptance of the perceived habits can lead to valuable observations, as otherwise the local people will not behave in a natural way.
The revolutionary methods of Bronisław Malinowski result in many theoretical works, including Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the famous The Sexual Life of Savages, and Crime and Custom in Savage Society. The latter work transformed the standards of sociology and legal anthropology.
Translated by Natalia Sajewicz