Malinowski is considered to be one of the “fathers of anthropology” and a leading innovator in what came to be known as “functionalism.” Born in Kraków, Austro-Hungary (now in Poland,) Malinowski spend many of his early years studying theories of exchange at the London School of Economics. Because of his Austro-Hungary citizenship, he was considered an enemy agent of the British when World War I began in 1914.
Initially in British-controlled Papua New Guinea during the outbreak of the war, he was not allowed to return to London. However, Malinowski was allowed to travel to the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia, where he conducted extensive studies of indigenous customs. Malinowski’s interest in exchange theory led him to take particular interest in the Kula Ring ceremony. During a certain time of year, groups from the various islands of the “ring” would travel around and give gifts to show their wealth and strengthen alliances. These observations would later influence French Sociologist Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, which proposed that there was no such thing as a “free gift.”
During his time on the Tobriand Islands, Malinowski lived among the people he studied and took part in their daily lives. Malinowski contributed to the role of participant observation among British anthropologist the same way Franz Boas and his students did here. Malinowski was surprisingly modern in his approach to understanding his subjects, wishing: “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” His interest was in understanding the individual and his perception of his society. Malinowski combined this “data” with his own “analysis,” the outsider’s objective understanding of society as a whole. The methods of participant observation described in his introduction to Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) remain central to modern ethnographers.
Equally important was Malinowski’s contribution to the theory of functionalism. Functionalism is, by its very simplest definition, the theory that social institutions in any given culture serve some purpose for the betterment of the individual. In essence, it is the idea that everything has a purpose. In the example of the Kula Ring, Malinowski observed natives giving gifts to people on other islands. He postulated that these “presents” served to show the wealth and generosity of the giver as well as cementing bonds between the islands. The functionalist theory has been used to explain the purpose of countless religious, political and social institutions since its foundation by Malinowski.
Malinowski’s functionalism must be contrasted with his contemporary, the Englishmen Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Radcliffe-Brown is considered the father of a powerful competing theory: structural functionalism. Radcliffe-Brown, an admirer of the work of Durkheim, believed that human societies functioned as “organism” through which the individual was the “cell.” This put him at odds with Malinowski, who believed that it was through the satisfaction of individual needs that societies function. Radcliffe-Brown’s beliefs on the matter can be succinctly identified in the following quote:
“Malinowski has explained that he is the inventor of functionalism, to which he gave its name. His definition of it is clear; it is the theory or doctrine that every feature of culture of any people past or present is to be explained by reference to seven biological needs of individual human beings. I cannot speak for the other writers to whom the label functionalist is applied by the authors, though I very much doubt if Redfield or Linton accept this doctrine. As for myself I reject it entirely, regarding it as useless and worse. As a consistent opponent of Malinowski’s functionalism I may be called an anti-functionalist.”
-A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. 1949. ‘Functionalism: A Protest, American Anthropologist 51(2): 320–321.
Like his rival, Radcliffe-Brown was also instrumental in expanding our understanding of anthropological theory. However, Radcliffe-Brown was far more focused on the group than Malinowski. This interest in the “societal organism” led him to focus on patterns of kinship which may be observed cross-culturally. Radcliffe-Brown would also later come to influence Lévi-Strauss through his work in analyzing myth structurally.
Read the following quote:
“Yet it must be remembered that what appears to us an extensive, complicated, and yet well ordered institution is the outcome of so many doings and pursuits, carried on by savages, who have no laws or aims or charters definitely laid down. They have no knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure. They know their own motives, know the purpose of individual actions and the rules which apply to them, but how, out of these, the whole collective institution shapes, this is beyond their mental range. Not even the most intelligent native has any clear idea of the Kula as a big, organized social construction, still less of its sociological function and implications….The integration of all the details observed, the achievement of a sociological synthesis of all the various, relevant symptoms, is the task of the Ethnographer… the Ethnographer has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the experimental data, which always have been within reach of everybody, but needed a consistent interpretation.”
Outdated and racist terminology aside, what point is this author trying to make?
Think of instances in your own daily lives, do you ever notice examples of this?
How does this concept of the individual clash with the “super-organic” proposed by other theorists?