Bronisław Malinowski


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.

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown


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.”

Who said it? 

Read The Introduction to Malinowski’s (1932) Argonauts

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?

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  • Monica Kiser  On March 1, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    According to the quote, in my opinion, the point the author is trying to make is that the norms and values of a society are so complex and ingrained in the individual that they may not completely understand the big picture of what they are contributing too. An etic perspective is needed in order to see the big scheme of why they engage in some of their behaviors. A person that is looking in from the outside can have a fresh view and a perspective that may not have been thought of within the group. They are able to interpret why these societies function in the way they do because they have access to information that most do not. We can get caught up in our own cultures rituals and we may not understand why we do it we just do it. How the concept of the individual conflicts with the idea of the “super-organic” is because the first is about how the individual’s needs are meet and this how societies function. The “super-organic” is an idea that everything in a society is relation to one another. This is the function of the society is to build a structure together and it is a collection of organism. Its focus is on the group. It is more of collectivist idea where the other idea is individualistic.

  • Catelynn Danell  On March 1, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Malinowski is trying to say that the ethnographer’s job is to see the roles, implications, and functions of individual societies. He believes that not just anyone can reflect on their society and see the effects that individual actions play. It is the ethnographer’s job to study the actions within different societies and interpret them for everyone to understand.
    Malinowski believed that society functions as a result of individual needs. Society is shaped by the actions of individuals, which are directly effected by their biological needs. This idea clashes with “super-organic”, in that, the super-organic society exists separately from individual needs. The society is an organism that is made up of smaller organisms. These organisms, in Franz Boas’ theory, had some influence on their society. Kroeber believed that the individual played no role in the shaping of their society, and thus, the society existed on its own as a super-organism.

  • Selena  On March 2, 2015 at 11:48 am

    I feel like Malinowski is trying to say that it is difficult or impossible to see your society / culture beyond the details, that while you can be aware of the practices and reasons behind them, it is beyond your mental capacity to see larger implications and draw conclusions in a big-picture sense. Thus, it is up to the Ethnographer – an outsider observing with fresh eyes – to see the bigger picture and record these ideas. While I think Malinowski was referring mainly to “tribal” societies / small-scale cultures, I do wonder if this concept could apply to any society?
    I’m not sure if I see examples of this in daily life. I know that individuals can get “caught up” in some things and miss other details or causes (like with addictions, or depression). You may think you understand your problem, or why you are acting in certain ways, but it’s not always apparent how this could affect others, where you learned those behaviors, or how it all fits into your larger culture / society. But someone who has had different experiences or who isn’t familiar with your situation might be able to pick out those things. Would this be like what Malinowski is saying? I’m not sure.

  • Ian Whiting  On March 2, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Excellent answers everyone (who responded…) Selena, that is spot on. Malinowski believed that our own prejudices blind us from being able to see the “bigger picture” of a cultural practice. We might be able to demonstrate a particular social behavior or give a simple definition of the rules, but it is difficult to explain why this behavior exists.

  • Lennin  On March 2, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    What Malinowski is trying to say is that individuals have no in-depth or no actual perception of the social institutions that they belong to, an analogy for this would be if a cell had culture, it would not know that it was a part of a biological organism. In this case he is talking about the Argonauts of the western pacific, while being socially complex they would never understand such concepts. He states that it is the ethnographer job to make such interpretation of the culture, not for the people to understand themselves, but for others to better understand them. To do this the ethnographers must completely immerse themselves in the culture, while remaining distance for the purposes of analysis. The conflict with the theory of the “super organic” is that social institutions or the organic does not need the individual to persist. Were as Malinowski says that individuals shape their social institutions. The dualism here is what influences social institutions is it individuals with collective behaviors/thoughts, or do institutions exists outside the individuals?

  • Alfred L.  On March 2, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    I think what Malinowski is saying is that cultural phenomena are not perceived from inside the culture, and that individuals make up cultural phenomena unconsciously, pursuing their own motives. Whereas the super-organic is the idea that culture exists outside of our organic makeup and thus separate from individuals (we all, as humans, have the capacity to learn language, but the language we learn is independent from our biology: we do not genetically inherent language. Further, Spanish would still exist as a thing after every human has died), Malinowski thinks culture needs individuals in order to function. The super-organic idea treats culture as its own thing. Malinowski does not.

  • Jessica Gomez  On March 2, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Malinowski’s point is that one has to be looking at a culture/community from outside to see the intricate and complex functionality of a system. For one that is an active member or participant in the society the larger perspective cannot be seeing, it is the ethnographer’s job to get a bird’s eye view of the institution. An example of this is the tug of war game in politics. To the individual, one is just trying to do their job and serve their purpose, but from an outsider’s perspective it’s a power struggle to tip the political balance to your favor. This individual of concept clashes with the theory of “inorganic” in that it does not take into account that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Veronica Tovar  On March 2, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Malinowski suggest that an individual of anthropology needs to understand the subject and to participate with the culture they are studying in able to understand and gather proper research. Malinowski suggest that the proper use of scientific tools must all be used and shares functionalism as a synchronic theory is to focus a point- in- time, within a society. Malinowski also says that the super-organic is based on a social individual.

  • Grumpy Giraffe  On March 2, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Malinowski is suggesting that it is beyond the capacity of individuals to view the larger picture of your society. An ethnographer is needed to view it with new eyes and acknowledge the complexity on the system. His idea is in conflict with the idea of super organic societies because that idea relies on individual needs being separate from the society and having nothing to do with shaping culture. Malinowski believes that society serves a purpose and functions in response to individual needs.

  • Brionna Mendoza  On March 3, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    In this quote, Malinowski is that these people (“savages”, as he calls them) are so focused on their fulfilling their own goals that they cannot be aware of the system that is produced by a group who acts in this way. Perhaps, given his rather racist terminology, he thinks that it could have been due to lack of intellect. I see it more as an issue of bias. These people, as they act to meet their own needs, are ignorant of the group as a whole, and so cannot see the “bigger picture”. This is why the Ethnographer is so important, as Malinowski points out. The ethnographer is outside of the group process, so his perspective allows him to observe the “social constructions” formed by the individuals acting together as a large group. Malinowski’s emphasis on the individual’s motivators and goals contrasts sharply with the idea of the “super-organic”, as expounded by Kroeber. The latter suggests that culture is a process that happens outside of individual action. Rather than individuals forming culture, culture molds individuals.
    As for examples in my own life, I think it would be rather hard for me to be aware of the larger processes that my individual actions contribute to. As I said earlier, individuals are blinded by their own needs. One example could be the gift exchanges during Christmas, which are similar to the Kula Ring exchange. Gift exchanges during Christmas are crucial to maintaining relationships and demonstrate to one person how important he/she is to another. It also serves individual needs by giving an ego boost to those who give or receive particularly good gifts.

  • sunny  On March 6, 2015 at 9:11 am

    What I can comprehend from Malinowski quote is that an individual does not have the capacity to understand the society as a whole. Individuals can only accomplish and act upon what are their personal needs and being occupied with there own needs leads to lack of intellect for the individual to act upon from anyone else except themselves. Society is a complex network of interactions and an individual who may not be ethnographer, may not possess the intellect to act and able to understand society. Thus Malinowski quote is simply saying is that society has many interwening parts that work in conjunction with other any other. Among which an individual is one of the parts. However, for society all parts have work in conjunction of one another and they can not work separately.

  • Jasdeep Brar  On March 16, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    In this quote, Malinowski makes a point that the structure of our society is made up entirely of individualistic needs. Everyone has their own views and perspectives towards the world, creating different morals and motives amongst us. We fail to create an environment that is humble in that it tends to everyone’s needs as a whole. We seem to live quite selfishly. For example: Here in Fresno, everyone usually has their own way of transportation. Whether it be public or private, we all have our own independent sources. When entering a freeway you may notice the carpool lane is empty while the other lanes are full bumper to bumper. The point i’m making here is that instead of working together and forming an efficient and lest costly form of transportation, we would all rather have our own vehicles. This results in more traffic, pollution, etc. and it eventually harms our society as a whole. Having our own individual needs tends to show a lack of compromise with the rest of the world.

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