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Bronislaw Malinowski: A Pioneer in Social Anthropology

Bronisław Malinowski was a pioneer in the field of social anthropology, the study of culture and society. He was born in Krakńw in 1884 into an upper middle class family. His father was a professor of literature and linguist at the Jagiellonian University. The younger Malinowski also attended the university where he received a Ph.D. in philosophy, physics and mathematics. In 1908 he worked at the University of Leipzig where he became interested in anthropology. In 1910 he went to the London School of Economics and eventually joined its faculty and received a degree in anthropology.

Bronislaw MalinowskiFrom 1915-18 Malinowski conducted a groundbreaking field study of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea in the southwestern Pacific and published his findings in a series of books and papers. He founded the school of thought known as Functionalism, that all aspects of a society work together to create a whole. Among Malinowski's innovations were the ideas that an anthropologist must spend a long time and remain in close contact with the people he is studying, and that he must use their language. He was fluent in several European and tribal languages.

Malinowski's theories regarding magic, religion, kinship and sex among primitive peoples drew wide attention and by the early 1920s he was the world's most famous anthropologist. He also did field work in Central Africa and Mexico. He had a vibrant, magnetic personality and his students respected and thoroughly enjoyed his teaching. He influenced many of them to pursue careers in anthropology.

Strangely enough, Malinowski's work did not gain much attention in Poland. In the interwar years, it was because Polish sociologists had a lack of interest in primitive societies. They focused on nationalism. After the war, the communists prohibited the study of sociology, considering it to be bourgeois. It was not until the 1980s that he was rediscovered in his native country.

Malinowski himself visited Poland only three times after his move to London and eventually became a British citizen. London, not Krakow, was the center of anthropological study. He did not practice Polish traditions nor speak the language at home (his wife was British), but his Polishness never really left him.

In letters to his wife he sometimes nostalgically recalled the places and activities from his youth. While considering himself a citizen of the world, he once wrote, "I am a Western Slav with Teutonic culture. I am a Polish national." He even once thought about joining Haller's Army and he held a Polish passport until he became a British citizen in 1931. Polish immigrants and students were always welcome in his London home and he showed an interest in promoting the social studies in Poland and in aiding young Poles to carry out studies abroad.

In late 1938 Malinowski came to Yale University as a visiting professor. He was still there in 1939 when war broke out in Europe, and was very distressed at Poland's situation. He decided to stay in the U.S., and after a couple of years even considered becoming an American citizen. Malinowski was a co-founder of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America. He became its first president, taking office with an inaugural speech on May 13, 1942. The next day he died at his home in New Haven, Connecticut of a heart attack at the young age of 58.

Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal

Recommended reading(s):

ArgonautusArgonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski

Magic, Science and ReligionMagic, Science and Religion and Other Essays by Bronislaw Malinowski

 

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