Anthropology Bronisław Malinowski
Chris Holdsworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0096


Bronisław Malinowski (b. 1884–d. 1942) is arguably the most influential anthropologist of the 20th century, certainly for British social anthropology. The list of his students is a who’s who of the most important British anthropologists of the 1930s through to the 1970s and includes, among others, Raymond Firth, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Audrey Richards, Edmund Leach, Ashley Montagu, Meyer Fortes, and Isaac Schapera. Malinowski saw himself as effecting a revolution in anthropology by rejecting the evolutionary paradigm of his predecessors and introducing functionalism, whereby institutions satisfied human biological needs, as the way to understand other cultures. His lasting legacy, however, is methodological rather than theoretical. It was by exhorting anthropologists to give up their comfortable position on the veranda of the missionary compound or government station and to go and live and work with the people they studied that he effected his real innovation: fieldwork. Although not the first to conduct fieldwork, his lengthy stay among the Trobriand Islanders during World War I established, as Edmund Leach (in Singer 2011, cited under Documentaries) has remarked, how to “do” anthropology. Living with the people he studied, getting to know them personally, participating in their activities, and conducting his research in the vernacular has since become known as participant observation. His collection of monographs and numerous articles on the Trobriand Islanders is perhaps the most extensive ethnography of any people written to date. His magnum opus, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, published in 1922, in which he describes the Kula ring (a complex interisland exchange of arm shell bracelets and necklaces), is one of the first modern ethnographies. Unlike earlier monographs, which were dry catalogues of facts, Malinowski’s ethnographies painted a romantic picture of native life, had an institutional focus, and provided a vivid narrative where the ethnographer is seen to interact with real people. A prolific writer, Malinowski tackled some of the most important and controversial topics of his day: economics, religion, family, sex, psychology, colonialism, and war. He insisted that a proper understanding of culture required viewing these various aspects in context. Malinowski was instrumental in transforming British social anthropology from an ethnocentric discipline concerned with historical origins and based on the writings of travelers, missionaries, and colonial administrators to one concerned with understanding the interconnections between various institutions and based on fieldwork, where the goal was to “grasp the native’s point of view” (Malinowski 1984, p. 25, cited under Fieldwork and Ethnography).

Biographies and Bibliographies

Born in Kraków, Poland, to an aristocratic family, Malinowski attended Jagiellonian University, receiving a PhD in philosophy, mathematics, and physics in 1908. In 1910 he pursued an interest in anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE) under the guidance of Charles Seligman and Edward Westermarck. In 1914, while attending anthropological meetings in Australia, World War I broke out and, although technically an enemy alien and under some restrictions, he received financial assistance from the Australian government to conduct research among the people of Mailu, a small island off the southeast coast of New Guinea. Through this early work he realized his inability to speak their language and failure to live among them limited his understanding of their culture, and so, in June 1915 he made a new beginning in the Trobriand Islands off the northeast coast of New Guinea. During an eighteenth-month hiatus in Australia, he met his future wife, Elsie Masson. Malinowski left the field in 1918. After lecturing in ethnology at the LSE between 1921 and 1923 he was appointed to a readership in 1924, and in 1927 to the Chair of Social Anthropology, a position he held until 1942. In 1934 he conducted research on change in cultures under colonialism and visited several of his students in South and East Africa. In September 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland, he was a visiting professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he was advised by the director of the LSE to stay in the United States, continuing as a lecturer and conducting fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico. He had accepted a permanent post at Yale for the fall of 1942, when he died suddenly of a heart attack, on 16 May 1942. The best biography is Young 2004, although it ends in 1920. A more complete yet far less detailed biography is Urry 2004. Murdock 1943 is a good obituary by a contemporary. Discussion of his early influences and life by Polish scholars can be found in Thornton and Skalník 1993 and Ellen, et al. 1988. Assessments of his intellectual development and contributions to anthropology are Stocking 1995, which focuses on his Trobriand Island experiences and the development of functionalism; Kuper 2015, which assess Malinowski’s position in British social anthropology; and Firth 1957, a compilation of essays each assessing his contribution in different areas of anthropology. Bibliographies can be found in Murdock 1943; Firth 1957; and Ellen, et al. 1988.

  • Ellen, Roy, Ernest Gellner, Grażyna Kubica, and Janusz Mucha. 1988. Malinowski between two worlds: The Polish roots of an anthropological tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A collection of eight papers (originally published in Polish) by Polish and English authors presented at Jagiellonian University in 1984 to celebrate the centenary of Malinowski’s birth. The papers focus on the Polish roots of his personal and intellectual development and his impact on modern anthropology. Also contains the most comprehensive bibliography of Malinowski’s works to date.

  • Firth, Raymond, ed. 1957. Man and culture: An evaluation of the work of Bronisław Malinowski. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    A book of essays by former students and colleagues of Malinowski evaluating his contributions to functionalist theory, fieldwork methods, religion, and economic anthropology. Contains an extensive bibliography, including works published posthumously and about Malinowski. Essential for those interested in Malinowski.

  • Kuper, Adam. 2015. Malinowski. In Anthropology and anthropologists: The British school in the twentieth century. 4th ed. By Adam Kuper, 1–24. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    The first chapter of this revised fourth edition is an accessible introduction to Malinowski’s role in the development of British social anthropology.

  • Murdock, George Peter. 1943. Bronisław Malinowski. American Anthropologist 45.3: 441–451.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1943.45.3.02a00090

    One of the better obituaries of Malinowski outlining his contribution to anthropology. Contains a bibliography of his writings.

  • Stocking, George W., Jr. 1995. From fieldwork to functionalism: Malinowski and the emergence of British social anthropology. In After Tylor: British social anthropology 1888–1951. By George W. Stocking Jr., 233–297. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    Chapter 6 follows Malinowski’s intellectual development from his early years in England and the influence of Émile Durkheim, through his fieldwork experience in the Trobriands and the development of the functionalist school of British social anthropology at LSE. The chapter contextualizes Malinowski’s more important writings.

  • Thornton, Robert J., and Peter Skalník, eds. 1993. The early writings of Bronisław Malinowski. Translated by Ludwik Krzyzanowski. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511598364

    An essential text for Malinowski scholars, the book contains translations from the Polish and German of Malinowski’s writings, both published and unpublished, prior to 1915. It includes a translation of his doctoral thesis.

  • Urry, James. 2004. Malinowski, Bronisław Kasper (1884–1942), anthropologist. In Oxford dictionary of national biography. Vol. 36. Edited by Henry C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A concise biography outlining Malinowski’s career, his concept of culture, and the personal influences on the development of his ideas. Available online by subscription.

  • Young, Michael W. 2004. Malinowski: Odyssey of an anthropologist, 1884–1920. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    At nearly seven hundred pages, Young’s book is a richly detailed biography of Malinowski’s early life until his departure from Australia in 1920. Based on personal diaries, correspondence, field notes, and unpublished manuscripts, it is not so much an intellectual account of Malinowski’s life as a recounting of his personal journey—the odyssey—of why and how he became an anthropologist.

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