Monday, 19 March 2012 08:28

Bronislaw Malinowski: Men of Ideas

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Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) is considered one of the most important anthropologists of the twentieth century. Indeed, he was part of that elect group, which included Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict that started the anthropological enterprise. His field work in what is now called Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands is considered a classic of ethnographic studies.

What is anthropology? Anthropology is the same as sociology. However, whereas sociologists tended to study what they called modern societies, anthropologists studied the same subjects studied by sociologists but this time on so-called primitive societies. In a manner of speaking, anthropology is sociology applied to so-called primitive societies. The two fields are essentially the same and it is no surprise that anthropology began in the wake of sociology.

Modern societies, such as the West, have written language and history and scholars can tell a lot about them by studying their written material.

So-called primitive societies, especially at the turn of the last century, were preliterate and lacking in written history. To understand those so-called primitive societies, anthropologists essentially studied sociology and took the sociological method to those so-called primitive societies and used them to study them.

Instead of reading about the people’s history, anthropologists inferred it from interacting with the people. Instead of reading about the peoples culture they inferred it from interacting with the people (those they called informants).

Anthropologists did field work among “primitive folk of the non-West” and returned to the “civilized folk of the West” and wrote what seemed to them the culture and everything else about those preliterate people. They told us what they believe that we ought to know about primitive people: their inferred religions, child rearing practices, attitudes towards sex and what not.

It is not what those so-called primitive people told us but what Western anthropologists told us about them that we know about them. Given the class interests of anthropologists it is hardly surprising if we are not told the truth. The primitive must remain primitive for the civilized to study them; if they were civilized then the scholars from civilized cultures would be out of work or need to find different line of work.

Malinowski called those he studied savages. How can a man who called his subjects savages be objective in studying and understanding them? It is safe to say that nothing written by Western anthropologists tell us much about their so-called primitive subjects.  It is when those so-called primitive persons write about themselves that we shall begin to understand their cultures and history. The so-called savages do not consider themselves as savages and when they write about their non-savage cultures then we are talking. Until then it may be useful to kill time at airports by reading what other people say of these people.

Apparently, Malinowski, from what was called Austro-Hungarian Empire of Central Europe, an empire at war with Western powers like Britain, was marooned on certain pacific islands due to the First World War when his Austro- Hungarian Empire could not come to his aid.  Australia, then part of the British Empire, refused to help him. Thus, he was forced to live with “savages” and study their culture. Apparently, at first he believed that the Trobrianders would eat him and avoided them but gradually let go of his fears and contacted them. He claimed that he learned their language and eventually learned something about their culture.

His living with these people as a participant in their culture and yet as an observer of their culture led to his developing the theory of participant observer, a theory that shaped anthropological field work of the last century. In 1915 and 1922 Malinowski published his findings. These books are considered masterpieces of ethnographic work.

In the books he outlined his understanding of the “savages’ culture, their religion, social organization and whatnot.

Anthropology studies primitive societies that have no written history; historians study societies with written history.

What shall we make of Malinowski’s work and finding?  We shall say that his work is the perception of a Polish man; the perception of a European of what he believes is a primitive people’s ways of life.

Until we hear from those so-called primitive people we have no way of ascertaining the veracity of what Mr. Malinowski said.


Bronislaw Malinowski. The Trobriand Islands. (1915)

---                                  Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922).

---                                  Crime and Repression in Savage Society (1926)

----                                 Myth in Primitive Society (1926)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176