Bronislaw Kaspar Malinowski

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Bronislaw Kaspar Malinowski, a British anthropologist, was born on April 7, 1884, in Krakow, Poland, and died on May 16, 1942, in New Haven, Connecticut. The only son of a Slavic professor of philology, Malinowski completed a doctorate in the philosophy of science at the University of Krakow in 1908. After reading the work of James G. Frazer, he turned to anthropology. In 1910 he settled in Great Britain, where he studied with Charles G. Seligman and Edvard Westermarck at the London School of Economics.

During the First World War, although the Australian authorities considered him an enemy alien, he was still allowed to conduct ethnographic research and worked for a period of twenty months in the Trobriand Islands (Melanesia, to the east of New Guinea). At Seligman's request, he studied the Oedipus complex and other manifestations of the unconscious in a community based on maternal law.

In a series of articles, some of which appeared in Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1951) and The Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia (1962), he claimed that for the Trobriand people, "sex, in and of itself, was not subject to any form of restriction." There was no period of what Freud referred to as pregenital or anal-erotic interest. "Any idea of consanguinity or paternal parenthood, conceived as a physical relation between father and child, is completely foreign to the indigenous mind." "The desire is to marry the sister and kill the maternal uncle." On the basis of these findings, Malinowski contested the universal validity of Freudian claims and denounced "the failure, even the explicit aversion, of psychoanalysts to seriously consider social organization."

As Ernest Jones and Géza Róheim were quick to point out, Malinowski's claims were not supported by a close examination of his own ethnographic data: A number of taboos, especially that of speech, influenced the sexuality of the Trobriand Islanders. Several convergent indices led to the conclusion that they understood physiological parenthood. A conventional Oedipal triangle seemed to be present: the son was the first to be suspected of killing the father through witchcraft. Malinowski himself acknowledged that he was unfamiliar with the psychoanalysis he relativized and criticized. He was unaware of the distinction between the latent and the manifest, and directly questioned the native population about the incestuous content of their dreams. Moreover, his writing can be questioned in terms of his peculiar mental equations, which the posthumous publication of his Diary in the strict sense of the term (1967) allows us partially to reconstruct.

The head of the so-called functionalist school, Malinowski benefited from his considerable fame: He held the first chair of anthropology at the University of London, which was created for him in 1927. Even in the early twenty-first century, his Trobriand Island work is presented by anthropologists as a key moment in intensive ethnography (prolonged residence, knowledge of the language). His theoretical perspectives have largely been abandoned, but a number of anthropologists continue to refer to his work to refute the universality of the Oedipus complex and the ability of psychoanalysis to account for the workings of the psyche in variable social contexts.

Bertrand Pulman

See also: Ethnopsychoanalysis.


Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1951). Sex and repression in savage society. New York: Humanities Press. (Original work published 1927)

. (1962). The sexual life of savages in northwestern Melanesia: An ethnographic account of courtship, marriage, and family life among the natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. (Original work published 1929)

. (1967). A diary in the strict sense of the term. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Pulman, Bertrand. (1991). Psychanalyse et anthropologie. Revue internationale d'histoire de la psychanalyse, 4, 425-521.

Spiro, Melford. (1982). Oedipus in the Trobriands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Malinowski, Bronislaw Kaspar (1884–1942) A Polish anthropologist, born in Cracow, where he completed a doctorate in physics and mathematics. A chance reading of Frazer's The Golden Bough attracted him to social anthropology. Subsequently, in London, he completed a thesis on the Australian Aborigines. Between 1915 and 1918 he conducted fieldwork for periods amounting to nearly two years in the Trobriand Islands, New Guinea. Here he developed the now classical methods of intensive fieldwork, pitching his tent in the villages. He stressed the importance of learning the people's language and acquiring the ‘native’ point of view. In 1927 he was appointed to the first chair in social anthropology at the London School of Economics, where his seminars attracted and he supervised many now celebrated anthropologists.

Malinowski came to be identified with the theory of functionalism. All human culture could eventually be reduced to the satisfaction of basic needs. Rituals, kinship patterns, economic exchanges (including the famous kula ring), were not to be explained in terms of their origins, but their current use. Previous theories which attempted to explain all customs and practices in terms of ‘survivals’ from some distant era were discredited. Malinowski's emphasis on the current significance alone of institutions meant the neglect of any historical context. He idealized the harmonious equilibrium of a given society. This ahistorical approach gave the impression that the Trobrianders were still locked in the Stone Age and without underlying conflicts which might generate change. The emphasis on intensive fieldwork with the indigenous people, ideally by-passing the secondary sources of colonial administrators, missionaries, and traders, carried the risk of ignoring the powerful interventions of external and colonial forces. Even the self-contained description of the Trobriand political structure neglected recent changes. Malinowski's posthumously published diary reveals the very visible presence of powerful White outsiders, whom he tried to eliminate both from his participant fieldwork, and from his final texts. His functionalist methodology brought lasting implications–despite the theory's flaws. Anthropologists were encouraged to examine a society holistically. Beliefs, rituals, kinship, political organization, and economic practices could no longer be studied each in isolation, but in terms of their interrelation.

Malinowski published several key monographs exploring different aspects of the Trobriands. Of these, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Crime and Custom in Savage Society (1926), Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927), The Sexual Life of Savages (1929), and Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935, 1948) are now classics of the discipline. His international fame brought visits and appointments in Africa and the United States. He was encouraged to pronounce on colonial policies, often in areas where he had no ethnographic knowledge. His functionalism did not foresee self-determination by the colonized. His A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (1967), often to the consternation of some of his early disciples, has been recognized as an important text for understanding the cross-cultural encounter between the anthropologist and others.