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Monday, October 15, 2007

Malinowski: a forgotten proponent of biological anthropology?

I've been taking an anthropological theory class this quarter, and with all the instrumental and influential theorists we've looked at so far, I was amazed by one theorist' take on human society and wondered why I didn't hear about this stuff in the undergrad theory classes.
He is a strong proponent of the idea of man as an individual and biological creature, and promotes the idea that culture is a construct defined by his biological needs, and in turn man can only be shaped to a certain degree by his culture. This was a a somewhat left-field stance for his time, and it would be considered practically sacreligious to the same cultural anthropologists who swear by his methods (or at least the ones I'm being instructed by this quarter) The theorist: Bronislaw Malinowski.
I was assigned Malinowski as my theorist to present on for the class. He is well known as a landmark ethnographer, and for advocating participant research. He is also considered a leading founder, if not the founder, of functionalism and cultural determinism theories.
Functionalism is pretty much how it sounds: the idea that culture is a social system developed to fill in the biological needs of the individual (these days it refers more to social constructs that fill social needs).
Cultural determinism, however, has come to stand for the "nature" half of the, at least in my opinion, ridiculous argument of nature vs. nurture; the idea that culture solely defines who one is.
Malinowski, however, if you actually read his work, does not go to this extreme. He definitely believes that culture shapes a human, and if you take someone out of their culture they will flounder (Malinowski, 1943:649). But he did not believe that humans were empty jars that culture simply filled up.
“Culture, however, primitive and developed alike, is subject to the laws of physics since human bodies are first and foremost lumps of matter. Hence culture is also largely determined by the biological process within the human body and by the organic needs of man.” (Malinowski 1942:1293)
"We see, thus, that the actual concrete organization of human activities does not follow slavishly or exclusively the functional principles of type activities." (Malinowski, 1939:946-947).
I think this aspect of Malinowski's theories has been lost over time, and it is something which should be recognized. Yes, his main point in all of his papers and books and monographs and reviews was that culture shapes humans. Absolutely. But he also acknowledged that humans are humans and will act on their own accord with their own biological will, and even chided Durkheim for recording humans as automatons (Malinowski 1926:4), and Freud for thinking that humans are purely influenced by their culture (Malinowski, 1927:viii).
Hopefully this will make it into my official essay, but if not I at least felt it should get out there.

B. Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society, Rowman & Littlefield, London (1926).
B. Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Routledge, London (1927).
B. Malinowski, "The Group and the Individual in Functional Analysis," The American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 44, No. 6 p. 938 (May, 1939).
Bronislaw Malinowski, "A New Instrument for the Interpretation of Law. Especially Primitive," The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 51, No. 8, p. 1237 (Jun., 1942).
B. Malinowski, "The Pan-African Problem of Culture Contact," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 649 (1943).

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