Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Mind Of Malinowski


Bronislaw Malinowski [1884-1942]; circa 1930. Michael Young writes in his article: "What did Malinowski mean by character? In a recent letter to Elsie Masson he told her why he believed keeping a diary was so ‘absolutely indispensable’ to him. It required of him a daily inspection of his conscience and his character, the better to monitor his moods and control his moral lapses: ‘I think “character” might be defined as “persistence of the same real self in one person”,’ he wrote."
Credit: London School of Economics Library

An article, by Michael Young,  in Public Domain Review examines the works of Bronislaw Malinowski, the father of modern anthropology, and famous for his field work in the Trobriand Islands of eastern New Guinea.

Young writes:
Malinowski was one of the most colourful and charismatic social scientists of the twentieth century. A founding father of British social anthropology between the two world wars, his quasi-mythical status has fascinated his disciplinary descendants who continue to measure themselves against his achievements. Marching under a self-styled theoretical banner of Functionalism, Malinowski revolutionized fieldwork methods, cultivated an innovative style of ethnographic writing, and mounted polemical assaults on a wide array of academic disputes and public issues. By the time of his death, aged 58, in the United States in 1942 he was a controversial international celebrity, a cosmopolitan humanist who dedicated his final years to the ideological battle against Nazi totalitarianism.
It is for his corpus of ethnographic writings on the Trobriand Islanders, however, that Malinowski is revered and best remembered. Most of his books remain in print and continue to be taught, critiqued, and studied as exemplars of anthropological modernism. His best ethnographic writing is a stylistic confection of vivid description, reflexive anecdote, methodological prescription and theoretical aside. Malinowski broke with convention by abandoning the positivist pretence of aloof scientific objectivity by inserting a witnessing self into his narrative. The ‘Ethnographer’ of his books is a somewhat outlandish character (‘a Savage Pole’ in one guise) who never allows his reader to forget that not only was he present at the scene as a participant observer, but that he is also the one, in a fully contextualized first-person sense, who is doing the writing. Malinowski’s ethnographic persona – curious, patient, empathetic yet ironic – was given a tentative outing in his first ethnographic report,The Natives of Mailu (1915) and reached full maturity in Baloma (1916), a monograph-length essay on Trobriand religion. The intrusion of Malinowski’s authorial self blurred the distinction between Romantic travelogue and ethnographic monograph. In Ethnography, ‘the writer is his own chronicler,’ he reminds us, and scolds those whose works offer ‘wholesale generalizations’ without informing the reader ‘by what actual experiences the writers have reached their conclusion’.
Malinowski’s first and most celebrated Trobriand monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), is a richly-illustrated account of the ceremonial exchange of manufactured shell valuables through which the Trobriands are linked to other island groups of eastern New Guinea. A colourful scientific travelogue, Argonauts takes its readers on a canoe-borne voyage around the so-called Kula Ring of islands. The author’s “Introduction” (which has been dubbed the Book of Genesis of the fieldworker’s Bible) contains twenty-five of the most influential pages in the history of social anthropology.
But it is his personal diary, the private  ruminations of his mind, that seem to interest the anthropologists of today, Young, himself an anthropologist, writes:
This diary, along with several others, was discovered in his Yale University office after his death. Written in Polish, it is clear that he had not intended it for publication. Against his daughters’ wishes, however, and to the dismay of many colleagues who had heard rumours of its controversial contents, his widow published a translation under the title A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (Routledge 1967). It would become the most infamous, most nakedly honest document in the annals of social anthropology.
Thus explains Malinowski's continuing fame and controversy; they naturally go hand in hand, especially in academia, where there will be someone who will take shots at past historical figures no longer alive to defend himself. As someone who himself has kept a diary for a number of years, I would not put too much emphasis to its contents or revelations; diaries, after all, are both honest and free ranging, airing out the mind and the heart, and contain the thoughts, sentiments and emotions of the time. These can change the next week or the next month. Such alone is sufficient reason why the authors of such thoughts would be horrified to see them published for public consumption.

For more, see [PublicDomainReview].

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