Malinowski’s Contribution to Ethnography and Fieldwork

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Bronislaw Malinowski is arguably the most influential anthropologist in the realm of ethnography and fieldwork of the twentieth century, he holds the title for one of the original authors of contemporary social anthropology and reinvented the practice of intensive fieldwork. This was for a number of contributions to the field; although it is possible that his influence was based upon from his personality and ego.

Malinowski had a privileged background; he grew up in Cracow and was raised amongst academics. In 1908 Malinowski achieved a doctorate in physics and mathematics but due to illness turned his focus to anthropology, and in 1910 he started his postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. Over three years later by chance, Malinowski was given the opportunity of his lifetime; and was hired by R.G. Marett who was travelling to Australia.

Malinowski then went on to take three trips to New Guinea; the first trip he stayed for 6 months visiting the Mailu of Toulon, the following trips he visited the Trobriand Islanders for 11 and 12 months. Malinowski was amongst the first to conduct intensive fieldwork; ‘A typical piece of intensive work is one in which the worker lives for a year or more among a community of perhaps four or five hundred people and studies every detail of their life and culture; in which he comes to know every member of the community personally’ (Kuper, 1973).

It is clear in Malinowski’s writing that he was very systematic in his collection of data, and this is a continued theme throughout his work. Though Malinowski’s most influential contributions to anthology were his Theory of Needs and his innovative way of conducting research.

The Theory of Needs follows Malinowski’s functional approach whereby he argues that ‘culture exists to meet the universal biological, psychological and social needs of an individual’. He suggested that for every basic human need there is a cultural response and that every aspect of a culture is either a direct or indirect response to a basic need.

Malinowski wrote in 1944 ‘every culture must satisfy the biological system of need’ and ‘every cultural achievement that implies the use of artefacts and symbolism is an instrumental enhancement of human anatomy, and refers directly or indirectly to the satisfaction of bodily need’. This theory gained much praise from scholars at the time and has continued to be instrumental in social anthology today. Richards wrote in his article ‘The concept of culture in Malinowski’s work’ “Malinowski’s concept of culture […] was one of his most stimulating contributions to the anthropological thought of his day” (1957).

Malinowski’s theory of culture is not without its’ critics; for instance in the same article, Richards goes on to demonstration that Malinowski’s ‘revolutionary’ definition of culture, ‘culture, comprises inherited artefact, goods, technical process, ideas, habits and values’ (1931), is not far different from Tylor’s 1871 definition ‘culture is a complex whole which included knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and all other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. Therefore this suggests that Malinowski’s contribution to ethnography was not as innovative as it is proclaimed to be, as Tylor has already instigated the idea of culture being a ‘whole’ with many complexities.

Although, Malinowski puts more emphasis on the ‘wholeness’ of culture in his work rather than, like Tylor, who focuses more on the complexity. Additionally, it’s arguable that Malinowski extended the idea of culture to include a bigger variety of subjects that are more fitting to contemporary culture. This is demonstrated by Geertz (1973) concept of culture “the symbolic dimensions of social action – art, religion, ideology, science, law, morality, common sense’. This could be an example of how Malinowski has caused an inclusion of more essentially modern phenomenon; such as looking at material culture and reaches further than the limitation of highbrow culture.

One justified criticism of Malinowski is that he generalised his finding from the Trobriand, a small archipelago of coral atolls off the east coast of New Guinea, to all other societies and cultures. It is quite a brave assumption that aspects of culture that were revealed to Malinowski while researching such as specific indigenous group are applicable to every culture across the miscellaneous world, especially as he did not conduct any field research outside of New Guinea. This suggests that Malinowski’s theory of culture may be oversimplified and lack validity. Even though it has been suggested that Malinowski used Trobrianders as a case study while globally shared culture was an abstract general case; although it’s pointed out by Nadel (1957) that there is remarkable similarities between them.

Following on from this, one major criticism of Malinowski’s approach is that due to the nature of the theory, which relies on the audience’s ability to find a function for a behaviour, it means it is difficult to disprove; which in turn mean it unable to be validated entirely. Fortes highlighted this issue as he reminds us that Malinowski often said he would write a book on Trobriand kinship but he did not; Fortes suggested that Malinowski never wrote the book as he could not actually identify any type of ‘kinship system’.

Besides the extreme reductionist essence of the theory, it’s arguable that culture is in fact formed through the integration of beliefs and behaviours; however, it cannot be understood by merely pulling out random elements and proposing functions for them. Therefore, while he offered a new perspective on the concept of culture, Malinowski’s contribution to ethnography is limited. “His ethnographic triumph was based upon a novel perspective’ (Kuper, 1973).

Malinowski also owes his fame to the techniques he administered and advocated in his fieldwork. Malinowski formed basic rules on how to conduct fieldwork; to stay long enough, to learn the native language, to mix with the natives, to try understand the indigenous point of view, to record detailed aspects of the indigenous life and practices, to keep a field diary and to draw distinctions between direct observations and narratives provided by informants and one’s own interpretation.

Although he was applauded for his ability to live like the natives and separate himself from the outside world (Barrett, 2009); Malinowski’s Diary (1967), which was published after his death in 1942, revealed that he was not as integrated into the Trobriand as he led people to believe. In truth he had paid members of the Trobrianders to become his informants rather than building a rapport in order to gain insight into their culture, this method can result in demand characteristics as the indigenous people ‘put on a show’ for the western researchers, which can cause ‘findings’ in lack validity. Likewise, Malinowski would regularly organize his informants to meet him in his own hut rather than visiting their huts (Barrett, 2009).

Additionally, he did not invest in the Trobriand natives for human interaction or any social needs, rather he actually spent an extraordinary amount of his time with European missionaries and traders that passed through, this demonstrates a real lacking in Malinowski’s efforts into building a rapport with the natives; which is fairly contradictory to the academic work he published. Therefore, in turn, this throws a lot of his work, that replied on his fieldwork, into questions. Thornton and Skalnik (1993) have also stated that Malinowski’s theory were developed before he conducted any fieldwork, “In reading […] [his earlier work] we must keep in mind Malinowski’s dictum, repeated throughout his published work, that for social science, theory creates facts, not fact theories”.

This continues to draw scepticism towards Malinowski’s monumental concept on culture, as the widespread misconception is that his theory was conceived from his fieldwork whereas on the contrary, he used the Trobrianders as a device to validate his already established theory. Thornton and Skalnik confirmed this; “the question that defined Malinowski fieldwork emerge clearly during the period of his most intense theoretical investigations before leaving Europe”.

Although Malinowski may not have lived up to his name as the pioneer of modern intensive fieldwork, where ethnographer should make every effort to build a rapport with those they are researching, the principles he proclaimed were justified and was a useful contribution to ethnography and fieldwork.

In conclusion, Malinowski contributions to ethnography and fieldwork is somewhat skewed. In hindsight when looking in depth into Malinowski’s work while still providing an original concept of culture, that sparked the interests of many ethnographers, the foundation of this theory is partially fabricated. Similarly, the rules Malinowski proposed for fieldwork offered a progressive new way of conducting research that has been beneficial to anthropology and the social sciences; however, Malinowski himself did not fulfil the methods he urged others to use in the way he claimed to have done. Therefore, Malinowski’s lasting legacy and influence on the field of anthropology has a far more valuable contribution, in the sense of the techniques of research and proposed concepts, than the actual substance of his work.

Cite this paper

Malinowski’s Contribution to Ethnography and Fieldwork. (2020, Dec 12). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/malinowskis-contribution-to-ethnography-and-fieldwork/

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