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Dr Katharine Fletcher

June 13th, 2017

Bronislaw Malinowski – LSE pioneer of social anthropology

13 comments | 29 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Dr Katharine Fletcher

June 13th, 2017

Bronislaw Malinowski – LSE pioneer of social anthropology

13 comments | 29 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

2017 saw the 90th anniversary of the establishment of a Chair in Social Anthropology at LSE. The Department of Anthropology’s Katharine Fletcher looks back at its first occupant, pioneering social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski was born in Poland and spent much of the First World War conducting fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands, bringing the findings of his work to LSE in the 1920s.

On 1 August 1927, Bronislaw Malinowski took up the Chair in Social Anthropology at LSE,[1] the first of its kind in London. He was three years into his fourteen-year career at LSE, over which time he established the School as a key centre in Europe of the study of what were then referred to as “primitive peoples”.

Bronislaw Malinowski, c1930. IMAGELIBRARY/721. LSE
Bronislaw Malinowski, c1930. IMAGELIBRARY/721. LSE

Malinowski came to LSE from Poland via Leipzig in 1910, taking up postgraduate studies in ethnology. He soon graduated from student to fieldworker and teacher, beginning lecturing in 1913, before setting off for research in the South Seas in 1914.[2] Officially designated an “enemy alien”, he was not to return to Europe until after the war. He spent almost two years in the Trobriand Islands off the east coast of New Guinea, doing the long-term fieldwork that was to revolutionise anthropological research methods.

Malinowski’s study of a system of exchange of shell jewellery around a circuit of far-flung islands, known as the “kula ring”, formed the basis of his best-known work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). Argonauts showed how the exchange of objects without any apparent use value was a way of facilitating trade, negotiating status and extending relationships. The exchange functioned, Malinowski suggested, as a surrogate for warfare.

Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders, 1918
Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders, 1918. LSE

Returning to the LSE’s tiny Department of Ethnology (headed by C G Seligman) in the early 1920s, Malinowski brought with him fieldnotes on exchange, magic, technical arts, sexual mores, and food cultivation. Accompanying these were his energetic spirits of teaching and enterprise.

He introduced several new courses, among them “Systems of Kinship in Primitive Societies” and “Primitive Culture and Mythology”, and increased lecture hours from an average of below 40 per year to 120.[3] Soon, the weekly seminar he convened – which still runs today – became a draw. The seminars were “held in a small room with… a fire blazing in the grate”, with Malinowski seated “in a large basket chair” bequeathed to him by sociologist Edward Westermarck.[4] One student remembered “how the high windows of the room faced onto Charles Dickens’s original ‘Old Curiosity Shop'”.[5]

Leading the rigorous seminar, Malinowski’s ‘constant question was: “Where does the real problem lie?”’. Then-student Raymond Firth remarked that Malinowski saw the major questions “not in terms of fine-spun academic theories, but arising out of the behaviour of ordinary human beings.”[6] Among those attending the seminar in the 1930s were UN diplomat Ralph Bunche, Jomo Kenyatta, several African-American political radicals, and Jack Simons of the South African Communist Party, whom Professor Michael Cox quotes as saying: “I combined Malinowski with Lenin, and it was a perfect combination”.[7]

Malinowski was appointed to an LSE Readership in 1924, just as social anthropology was establishing itself in Britain, in London at LSE and UCL (whose rivalry kept pace with those departments’ parallel expansions), and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. UCL was a centre for “diffusionism”, the idea that cultures spread through contact, while LSE was dominated by social evolutionists.[8] Malinowski entered this world with his own approach of functionalism, which proposed that one must search for the use of a custom in the present; its function within the context of the whole society. This, he argued, would provide the most empirically grounded explanation for a practice’s existence.

In the 1920s, substantial funding from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund enabled the LSE to undergo sustained expansion, prompting the quip that it was an institution “on which the concrete never sets”. The 1927 Anthropology Chair was one outcome of Rockefeller largesse towards LSE social sciences.[9] Malinowski was no passive beneficiary, however: Cox has observed that he was “an extraordinary entrepreneur”, bringing influential people to the School, making contacts with the Colonial Office, and generally propagating, in LSE’s pragmatic idiom, the practical uses of anthropological research. As Cox has quipped, “in an age of impact, Malinowski would have been loved by university administrations”.[10]

Malinowski was an intense personality, with a buoyant ego and a capacity for strong feeling. Professor Adam Kuper has called him a “charismatic leader surrounded by quarrelling acolytes”,[11] and his ascendancy nurtured a formidable generation of British social anthropologists, among them Raymond Firth, Audrey Richards, Meyer Fortes and Edward Evans-Pritchard, who shaped the discipline in its “golden era”.[12]

Malinowski remained at LSE anthropology’s helm until 1938, when, four years before his death, he left for the US on sabbatical leave. There, he lectured widely against Nazi totalitarianism, urging Americans to abandon their neutrality. His legacy in social anthropology has been profound. Best known for his innovation in fieldwork method, his detailed and evocative ethnographic works are classics familiar to any anthropology undergraduate. As Professor Maurice Bloch has remarked, his reputation as a theorist is also steadily growing.[13]

Professor Adam Kuper at Malinowski's grave in New Haven, Connecticut
Professor Adam Kuper at Malinowski’s grave in New Haven, Connecticut

Anthropology at LSE has come a long way since its imperialist framing in the 1905 School Catalogue, which noted the subject’s usefulness for “civil servants destined for tropical portions of the Empire”.[14] Ninety years after Malinowski took up his Chair, the vision of today’s anthropology department is, necessarily, very different. But anthropology’s guiding spirit remains: in Malinowski’s own words, “the final goal…is to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world”.[15]

Read more

Read an excerpt from the forthcoming second volume of the biography of Malinowski by Michael Young.

Listen to presentations about LSE Anthropology, in Malinowski’s time and beyond, from the Department’s commemoration of the School’s 120-year anniversary in December 2015.

Visit this new project to make available online Malinowski’s fieldnotes, along with those of other eminent anthropologists, including Victor Turner, Ruth Benedict, Raymond Firth and Max Gluckman.

Browse more LSE History Blog posts from the Anthropology collection


[1] Michael Young, “Entr’acte”, p2, in: “Malinowski” (Volume II), unpublished ms.

[2] Raymond Firth, in Firth (ed), 2002 [1957]. Man and culture: An evaluation of the work of Bronislaw Malinowski. Abingdon: Routledge, p3.

[3] Young, “Teaching at the LSE: Michaelmas 1924”, p5, in: “Malinowski” (Volume II), unpublished ms.

[4] Ibid, p12.

[5] Ibid, p10.

[6] Raymond Firth, in Firth (ed), 2002 [1957]. Man and culture. Abingdon: Routledge, p8.

[7] Michael Cox, “The place of anthropology in the LSE, c. 1930-1950”. Presentation to: “Celebrating LSE’s 120th anniversary in the Department of Anthropology”, December 2015.

[8] Adam Kuper, “Commentary” on Young, “Teaching at the LSE: Michaelmas 1924”. Presentation to: “Celebrating LSE’s 120th anniversary in the Department of Anthropology”, December 2015.

[9] Young, “Teaching at the LSE: Michaelmas 1924”, pp2, 3; Young, “Entr’acte”, p1.

[10] Cox, “The place of anthropology in the LSE, c 1930-1950”.

[11] Kuper, “Commentary” on Young, “Teaching at the LSE: Michaelmas 1924”.

[12] Young, “Teaching at the LSE: Michaelmas 1924”, p13.

[13] Maurice Bloch, “On the department in more recent times”. Presentation to: “Celebrating LSE’s 120th anniversary in the Department of Anthropology”, December 2015.

[14] Cox, “The place of anthropology in the LSE, c1930-1950”.

[15] Bronislaw Malinowski, 2005 [1922], Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Taylor & Francis. p19.

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About the author

Pencils on a yellow background. Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Dr Katharine Fletcher

Dr Katharine Fletcher is a Visiting Fellow in LSE's Department of Anthropology. Katharine is a social anthropologist with research interests in Christianity, ritual and aesthetics, and communitarianism.

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