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Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski is both an significant figure in the development of anthropology in the twentieth century and, in the standard narrative of undergraduate anthro lectures, a anthropologist's culture hero who, like Prometheus, created anthropology as we know it. He invented “fieldwork” as a method. That is, teachers of anthropology often credit him with being the first to use long term residence in one community and immersion in its culture and language as a means to construct an ethnographic portrait of a people. In doing so he not only created something new, but also broke decisively with the past model of anthropological research and its theories.


Prior to Malinowski's first field research, anthropologists mostly worked on the model of researchers in natural history, and considered themselves to be pursuing similar kinds of problems. Accounts of different forms of culture and types of society were phrased, for the most part, in terms of how a particular system developed. Many people argued for a diffusion of cultural forms and social institutions. Ideas were invented in one place and then transmitted across space over time and often mixing with other ideas from elsewhere. An anthropologist's job was to survey many different cultures and look for evidence of lines of development or lines of diffusion.

In 1914, University of Cambridge anthropologists W. H. R. Rivers and A. C. Haddon planned an expedition to the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, and took with them several students of anthropology, including the former psychology student from Poland, Malinowski. By the time they reached Australia by boat, war had broken out in Europe, and Malinowski was, technically at least, an enemy alien in the territory of a British ally. Given the choice of internment in Australia or restricting his movement to the Australian territory of Papua in New Guinea, he fatefully chose to leave the expedition and travel to the Australian colony. There he eventually settled on the island of Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands. With no option to survey a wide region and test Rivers's diffusionist theories, he then decided to learn about a culture in a different way. He lived in his own residence in the village of Omarakana, learned the language of Kiriwina, and talked with people on their own terms, rather than interviewing them from a fixed questionnaire, as Rivers did. As he would later write (1932 [1922]: 20-22), he wanted to record through observation the way people lived, talked and thought in the context of everyday, practical activity.

While there is no doubt that Malinowski was a very original and inventive researcher, and that he accomplished a lot, his mythic status masks the crucial influence of Rivers, who was himself discovering the limits of expeditionary research (Song 1999). Indeed, Malinowski's myth was mostly due to his talent for recognizing his innovation and trumpeting it in his later writings.

And if that wasn't enough to secure him a place in history, a fictional Malinowski also gave career advice to Young Indiana Jones in the TV show The Young Indiana Jones.

The Argonauts

The main and perhaps best-known result of this form of research was Malinowski's book, The Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1932 [1922]), which described Kiriwina as a distinct system whose rules and institutions, though apparently exotic, satisfied basic human wants and needs. In this book, he also presents the first full description of Kula, a system of ceremonial exchange of shell valuables which linked island societies into a ring of partnerships.


Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1932 [1922]. Argonauts of The Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd. http://archive.org/details/argonautsofthewe032976mbp.

mdimov. 2012. “Indiana Jones Meets Malinowski.” The Core Blog, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences, November 26. http://blogs.bu.edu/core/2012/11/26/indiana-jones-meets-malinowski/.

Song, Priscilla. 1999. “Malinowski’s New Home: Malinowski and the Development of Fieldwork Methods.” The Malinowski Project. http://classes.yale.edu/02-03/anth500a/projects/project_sites/99_Song/default.htm.

bronislaw_malinowski.txt · Last modified: 2014/07/28 18:16 by ryans