Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski

Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski

Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski

Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski

Excerpt

This book has been written because some of us have thought for a long while that too little attention has been paid to the work of Bronislaw Malinowski. He has been one of the outstanding influences in shaping modern British social anthropology. More than ten years have passed since his death and the time has come for a fresh estimate of his contribution. His achievement has indubitably suffered from his early death. If he had lived for another decade his dialectical skill, let alone the richness of his creative mind, would have found many answers to his critics and derived profit from their comment. Much of this comment has been justified, but by no means all, and sometimes his work has been passed over where credit was due.

Three factors in particular seem to be responsible for this. One is that the climate of opinion, particularly in British social anthropology, changed radically in the decade and a half after Malinowski left England. This was partly due to the influence of Radcliffe-Brown, and partly to the growing realization of the need for a clearer structural approach to give more precision to many anthropological generalizations. Malinowski was not a structuralist in the narrow sense, and appreciation of his work suffered by comparison. Secondly, Malinowski's analytical contributions to anthropology were much stronger than his systematic contributions. He did not develop his concept of function very far. And in his attempts to create a system which would take full account of his concept of culture he landed himself with a difficult, unwieldy and to some extent unprofitable theoretical construction. The third reason was that Malinowski's personal qualities made for him 'unfriends' as well as friends. His intolerance of what he considered sham or insincerity, his impatience with criticism that he did not think was based on loyalty, his tenderness towards personal slights and his relative insensitivity to the effects of his exuberance towards others all tended to arouse hostility. Some criticisms of Malinowski's work, however justified, could hardly be expected therefore to have been made with entire detachment.

One result was that Malinowski has become something of a legend to those who never knew him. He has continued to be a great name in anthropology. But while his reputation as a superb field-worker has been maintained, his fame as a really great teacher in the Socratic tradition has been allowed to fade, and his achievement in creating a new and enduring approach to anthropology has not been properly understood. Without him, the aridities of the Kulturkreislehre and the fantasies of pan-Egyptianism would doubtless have in due course been corrected and overcome. But for the younger generation of anthropologists in Europe, at least, he fought that battle and won it by the end of the 'twenties'. And though now this is dim history, those who were students at that time know what formidable opponents were to be encountered in Elliot Smith, Pater Schmidt, and their adherents. Yet this was merely by the way. It was incidental to the main task Malinowski had set himself -- a dynamic interpretation of human behaviour in the widest range of cultural circumstances, in terms which were at once more theoretically sophisticated, and more realistic, than any then current. At that time, the tradition was that an anthropologist was primarily either a theoretician or an ethnographer, and that the theory should be kept separate from the facts. It was part of Malinowski's contribution, not only to combine them, but to show how fact was meaningless without theory and how each could gain in significance by being consciously brought into relation.1 The main theoretical apparatus which he constructed over a decade and a half has proved unable, in the end, to bear the systematic weight he wished to put upon it. But much of it is still usable, and it has given many ideas to others, often unacknowledged by them.

The Malinowski legend sometimes takes an extreme form -- as expressed in this student's examination answer: 'Because of his views Malinowski did not make abstractions and was at best a misguided theorist.' Such a distortion of his theoretical position ignores his keen preoccupation with methodology -- and indeed his general interest in philosophical issues. Moreover it misses one important point. The great question is of course -- why, if his theory was so inadequate, was his influence upon his pupils so profound? The contributions to this book will help to show where the answers lie.

Bronislaw Kaspar Malinowski was born on April 7th, 1884, in Cracow, and died on May 16th, 1942, at Yale. The main events of his life need be recapitulated only briefly here, since they have been referred to in various notices (see Bibliography ii. at the end of this volume). . .

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