How the virtual prisoner of the Great War found new directions in anthropology.
Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.
Malinowski is best known for his influential book Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). This lyrically titled volume presented serious scholarship and influenced generations of scientists.
Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) is among luminaries of 20th century anthropology. He obtained his PhD in science, specialising in mathematics. Then he developed an interest in psychology under the influence of Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig. The spell of anthropology brought him to the British Museum and the London School of Economics, where he was motivated by the pantheon of professors, including Westermarck, Seligman, Frazer, Rivers and Haddon.
His plans for fieldwork in New Guinea were profoundly altered with the outbreak of war in 1914. A Polish man in every sense, Malinowski was technically a German citizen. He luckily avoided internment – fate foisted upon Germans in the region - but he could not go to Australia, let alone back to the United Kingdom.
So, stranded on the Trobriand Islands for a few years, Malinowski conducted an extensive fieldwork while living with the villagers he studied and attempted to understand. A gifted linguist, he learned the native Motuan and Kilivila (Trobriand). Linguistic insight and prolonged close observation resulted in methodological breakthrough. His studies published since the early 1920s heralded new approaches to anthropology.
Malinowski developed his own form of functionalism, which, in essence, views culture as a vehicle for achieving human needs, not decorum. He used ‘institution’ as a highly effective analytical concept which indicated vital structures, such as family, in social organisation and human actions. He made anthropology more scientific.
Subsequently he conducted tirelessly his research in America, Africa and Australia in a quest to understand humankind and his work and writings influenced numerous scholars in his own discipline and a broader field of social and behavioural sciences.
In addition to classical Greek and Latin, Malinowski had a good command of English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish.