Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski was born in Krakow in what is now Poland in 1884. His father was a linguist and professor of philology who pioneered the study of the Polish language and folk dialects, and Malinowski had a privileged and intellectual upbringing. He enrolled in Jagellonian University in 1902; at first he studied physics and mathematics, but he soon became interested in philosophy. His thesis, submitted in 1908, was entitled "On the principle of the economy of thought", whatever that means. He then went to Liepzig University, where he studied experimental psychology and economic history; here he undertook his first anthropological study, of Australian aboriginal family organization. (Early anthropology was much taken up with the study of kinship.) In 1910 Malinowski moved to the London School of Economics, where he continued this study, publishing The Family Among the Austrailan Aborigines in 1913, for which LSE awarded him a doctorate. In 1914 he set off to accompany a study mission to Australia, but en route war broke out, and Malinowski, an Austrian, was technically an enemy alien and subject to internment. However, he was allowed to remain at liberty and given the opportunity to engage in ethnographic study. And thus Malinowski, the pioneer of intensive fieldwork, was born.
Malinowski spent two years - 1915-16 and 1917-18 - in the Trobriand Islands, a small grouping of islands off the coast of New Guinea peopled by "primitive" hunter-gatherers. Here he developed, single-handedly, the participant observation method of modern fieldwork: intensive daily interaction with the people under study; communication in the vernacular, thus dispensing with interpreters; and observance of all aspects of their life. As he struggled to make sense of the huge mass of material he recorded, he came to believe that there were three "levels" of data to be studied: what people say about what they do, what people actually do, and what they think. The first could be obtained by talking with people; the second could be gained by observing their actions; and the third could be gleaned from a compendium of folklore and received ideas. So an ethnographer must not simply take people's word for what they do, but must also observe them in action, for they often bend the rules to gain advantage if they can. And the ethnographer must try as best s/he can to "get inside people's heads", to understand their culture on its own terms, to see their vision of their world as they see it. This is, in a nutshell, the ethnographic method, and Malinowski poineered it.
Malinowski took copious and meticulous notes on everything he observed; these would form the basis of several books he would publish on the Trobriand Islanders. At the same time, he kept field diaries which acted as a safety valve, giving him a safe place to vent his feelings of loneliness, boredom, frustration, anxiety, and irritation. Published posthumously, the diaries give a picture of a real man at work in difficult conditions, and though some decried this public airing of dirty laundry, others applaud the revelation of Malinowski's humanity and fallibility.
Malinowski's theoretical perspective was functionalism, which unlike earlier and contemporary theorization in anthropology was not interested in evolutionary development. Rather, functionalism seeks to understand a culture synchronically, as it exists at that point in time. It posits that each culture is a finely tuned mechanism which works to satisfy people's needs, which range from basic needs - food, water, shelter, and so on - to derived needs - social coordination such as the organization of work, defense, social control - and integrative needs - psychological security, social harmony, and so on. Malinowski tried to understand what function beliefs and practices served; he did not view magic, for example, as irrational and superstitious, but rather saw it as serving a need. In the case of the Trobriand Islanders, who practiced magic and ritual before embarking on dangerous deep sea fishing, but not before safe lagoon fishing, he postulated magic functioned to reduce anxiety and tension. Functionalism, though persuasive, has some flaws, however: it cannot explain why every culture deals with human needs in different ways, nor can it account for dysfunctional or destructive elements of a culture.
In 1918 Malinowski married an Australian, so he did not return to LSE until 1920, where he took up a teaching post at the University of London; in 1927 he became the first Chair in Anthropology there. He wrote seven monographs on the Trobriand Islands, published between 1922 and 1935, and these books formed the basis of his lectures. Each had a single institution focus - trade, sex and family, myth, the enforcement of norms, gardening - and though he moved out from the focus in each case to show the many ramifications of each activity, ironically the great functionalist could not articulate this, or any, culture as a systemic whole.
As a teacher, Malinowski was a fatherly figure to his students, and they were by all accounts devoted to him. They included some of the great cultural anthropologists of the '40s and '50s, such as Edmund Leach, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and Raymond Firth. However, he demanded of his students and his friends complete loyalty to him and to his pet theory, functionalism, and like many who fancy themselves revolutionary thinkers, he belittled those who held ideas contrary to his own. He proclaimed himself the father of modern anthropology and championed his ideas as overcoming problems in a way that no other theory could. Accordingly, he was loved by some, hated by others. And although he truly did revolutionize the anthropological method, his theoretical contribution was much less profound.
In 1938 Malinowski took a sabbatical to the United States, where he was again stranded by war. He taught at Yale, did fieldwork on peasants in Mexico with a Mexican scholar, and died in New Haven in 1942.
Malinowski's major works on the Trobriands:
The works published after his death include:
Most of the biographical information above was gleaned from Anthropology and Anthropologists by Adam Kuper.