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Malinowski: the Creator of
Fieldwork and the
Society, Social Organization
and the Individual
Background of Malinowski
Degrees in philosophy from Poland where
he became interested in Durkheim’s work.
Travelled to Australia to study societies of
New Guinea
Became stranded in Australia during WWI
and used the time to carry out two-years of
fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands
Became convinced that learning the local
language was necessary in order to
present material ‘from an indigenous point
of view.’
Organization and Method
Collected three types of information
during this fieldwork period:
Customs associated with different activities, e.g. fishing,
trade and sharing of food, childrearing, marriage.
Creation of charts of activities and the normative customs
associated with them.
People’s actual behaviour in relation to the customs.
People’s beliefs associated with the customs, e.g. fables,
parables, religious beliefs.
This led Malinowski to divide societies into three
The individual and his or her behaviour
The realm of social organization defined by customs
The realm of cultural beliefs, i.e. the subjective values
that people held.
» All three were interlinked through socialization, but
they did not always correspond, Malinowski saw a
lot of flexibility in Trobriand society; individuals
could try to manipulate ‘customs’ in order to
achieve their own goals.
Malinowski stressed the integrative feature of social
organization; all customs existed in order to link the
various institutions into a harmonious whole.
The Individual, Society and the
Function of institutions
The goal of social analysis was to find the PURPOSE of customs and
institutions that might seem initially unfamiliar.
All institutions fulfilled basic ‘functions’
Met basic needs of individuals: biological, but depend on the group.
These include: nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, movement,
growth, health.
To each of these needs there corresponds an institution. These institutions
will vary from society to society, but all societies must fulfill these functions.
To the need of nutrition was the commissariat, reproductive needs were
fulfilled by kinship institutions, bodily comfort needs were met by forms of
shelter, safety needs were met by political institutions, movement needs by
cultural activities, growth needs by training and education considered in its
broadest sense, and health needs by forms of healing.
Secondary or derived needs were created by the fulfillment of basic needs
and evolve from them:
These included meaning, a sense of security, psychological belonging to a
To these corresponded magic, religion, and kinship descent.
General Axioms of Functionalism
(a la Malinowski):
1. Culture is an instrumental apparatus by which
man is put in a position the better to cope with
specific problems that face him in his environment
in the course of the satisfaction of his needs.
2. It is a system of objects, activities and attitudes
in which every part exists as a means to an end.
3. All the component parts are interdependent.
4. Activities and attitudes are organized around
important and vital tasks into institutions such as
the family, the clan, the local community, the tribe,
and organized groups of economic cooperation,
political, legal and educational activity.
Universality of Functions
All societies possessed comparable institutions that met
basic needs and provided for biological and psychological
Hence, a person could apply a functional analysis of magic
not only to fishing in the Trobriands, but also to
contemporary professional baseball players; both sought to
control the insecurity of their activities through ritualistic and
magical activities.
Even if societies ‘lacked’ an institution, e.g. courts and/or a
formal legal system, the functional analysis directed them to
look for correlative customs and institutions.
Very often, anthropologists found these functions fulfilled by
kinship institutions, e.g. a group of elders of a clan might
judge cases of social conflict between individuals and groups
and provide culturally appropriate punishment or restitution.
These would be equivalent to a formal legal system.
Functional analyses are therefore closely tied to the values
of cultural relativism.