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Inderbir Bhullar

December 15th, 2022

Malinowski and colonialism

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Inderbir Bhullar

December 15th, 2022

Malinowski and colonialism

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Marking the centenary of the publication of his seminal 1922 book, LSE Library’s winter exhibition is “Culture Contact: Malinowski, LSE and Colonialism”. Curator Inderbir Bhullar shares some of the archival material used in the exhibition, focusing on Malinowski’s rise to prominence, influence, and his 1934 visit to South Africa.

One of the School’s most notable former academics is the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. His first key work, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, was released in 1922 and heralded his arrival as a new thinker in anthropology. Based heavily on years of research taken on the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, he developed a new anthropological methodology to gather information called participant observation. Essentially this meant living and interacting with the people he was studying in order to better understand them. Malinowski’s involved and serious study of these indigenous cultures bolstered the notion that anthropology could help evidence a more universal “science of society”; that these cultures could be familiarised and understood through research.

A group of sailors in boats near the Trobriand Islands. Malinowski_3_4_2. LSE
A group of sailors in boats near the Trobriand Islands. Malinowski_3_4_2. LSE

LSE Library marked the centenary of the publication of Malinowski’s Argonauts with an exhibition which is currently displaying various items from Malinowski’s archives that are held at the School. One of the items on display is a press clipping that reports a speech that Malinowski gave in 1934 from a speaking tour in South Africa. Malinowski’s profile had risen considerably in the 1920s and early 30s and people were keen to hear his thoughts on any number of different subjects, as exemplified by this array of cuttings from his archive:

Malinowski clippings
Malinowski clippings

His trip to South Africa came as a result of an invitation by the New Education Fellowship (NEF). Africa was a place that drew considerable interest from Malinowski and many of his students. Several of them came from Africa to study and learn under Malinowski. Many went to Africa to practice and develop their own fieldwork. Of course, the context as yet unmentioned is that significant parts of Malinowski’s world remained within the control of British (and European) colonial authorities, including large swathes of Africa. Malinowski was not a bystander in this process. His status and position had provided him with a certain amount of leverage which he used to make his training applicable to Britain’s colonial apparatus.

Another item featured in the exhibition is a memorandum which Malinowski wrote proposing “Practical Anthropology” ie, the idea that anthropological insights could be used to provide imperial authorities with the knowledge to more effectively govern subjugated populations. There was an opportunity to utilise the “science of anthropology” to help train the next generation of colonialists which would provide Malinowski, his students, his department, and his employer closer ties with the government’s Colonial Office and readier access to power.

Bronislaw Malinowski , c1920_IMAGELIBRARY/14. LSE
Bronislaw Malinowski , c1920_IMAGELIBRARY/14. LSE

Clearly colonialism offered opportunities for those willing to exploit them. Malinowski was invited to speak in South Africa when it was a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire. The NEF who organised the talks were keen to highlight progressive educational policies and ideas. Malinowski, for his part, mostly agreed and the headline of the press clipping summarising his talk declared “Natives Must Be Given Their Rights”. It went on to report that Malinowski lambasted the hypocrisy inherent in imposing European education on all children but when a black child excelled “he received no rights of European apprenticeships and was spoken of as an inferior”. The racism so ingrained in South African society led him to say, “If there were African lines along which the natives could be educated the anthropologist would agree to education on such lines”.  Malinowski saw this as a solution which would “not place the African on a line with the white man’s ideal…we must teach him not to be ashamed of his own culture”.

Jan Smuts, 1947
Jan Smuts, 1947. By Yousuf Karsh – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang 2.24.01.04 Bestanddeelnummer 902-2098, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37130597

Chairing the meeting was General Jan Smuts, a hugely influential military and political figure in South Africa and former prime minister. In his introduction Smuts claimed that the Eurocentric education forced on black children was responsible for “breaking down the native’s own systems and substituting nothing adequate”. Later he said, “The task of the white man was an enormous one, but he should not allow European civilisation to swamp what might be useful and serviceable in the past of the native”. For Malinowski and Smuts, anthropology helped legitimate “native” African modes and systems of learning. Yet this legitimacy could be exploited by those seeking the further separation and division of the people. Smuts’ last stint as leader of South Africa ended in 1948 when the National Party was elected and implemented the brutal apartheid which blighted the country for half a century.

Had he lived to see it implemented, Malinowski may have viewed the violent repression of apartheid as antithetical to the scientific and rational approach promised by anthropology. Yet, as Dr Isak Niehaus writes in his essay Anthropology at the Dawn of Apartheid, Malinowski’s “commitment to the preservation of cultures, aligned himself with later apologists for apartheid, and provided a language to legitimate the exclusion of Africans from centers of wealth and power.”

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About the author

Indy Bhullar

Inderbir Bhullar

Inderbir Bhullar is curator for economics and social policy in LSE Library. He joined the Library, along with The Women’s Library in 2013, where had previously worked as librarian. He puts on exhibitions, writes blogs and attempts to connect people with things they might not have expected to find in our collections.

Posted In: Academic life | Anthropology | People

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