Off the Verandah

Adam Kuper

  • Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist 1884-1920 by Michael Young
    Yale, 690 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 300 10294 1

Michael Young’s biography takes Bronislaw Malinowski to the age of 36, when the brilliant Polish anthropologist completed his field study of the Trobriand Islands, married, and prepared to make his career back in Europe. Young is a Melanesian ethnographer himself, and the book comes into its own when Malinowski arrives in Australia, on the eve of the Great War, and begins the expeditions to Papua that effectively marked the beginning of modern anthropology.

Malinowski revolutionised field methods. Asked once whether he had met any savages, J.G. Frazer was horrified: ‘But heaven forbid!’ His method was to despatch book-length questionnaires to ‘men in the field’, usually missionaries and colonial officials. They would then summon native experts to their verandahs and take them through a check-list of queries about food taboos, ghosts and witches, funeral customs, or ideas about conception, as required. Unlike Frazer, who was a classicist, Malinowski was a trained scientist, as were the new generation of English specialists on the peoples of Oceania: A.C. Haddon, W.H.R. Rivers and ‘Sligs’ Seligman. They went into the field themselves, although they seldom spent more than a few days or weeks in any one place, and for most of their information still relied on native experts, whom they questioned with the help of translators.

Malinowski had no faith in this. Getting the rules from some expert did not tell you how the game was played. Witch doctors disagreed among themselves, like medical doctors. And people tend to say one thing but do another: ‘Whenever the native can evade his obligations without the loss of prestige, or without the prospective loss of gain, he does so, exactly as a civilised businessman would do.’ To understand what was really going on, the ethnographer ‘must relinquish his comfortable position on the verandah’. He should pitch his tent in the village, cultivate a garden, exchange gifts, listen in to conversations, flirt, argue and generally hang about. Intimate personal histories, neighbourhood feuds, the tug of a man’s emotional loyalties against his legal obligations, all this was accessible only to an observer who immersed himself in the everyday life of the village. In a letter to his fiancée, Elsie Masson, Malinowski described his delight at going fishing with ‘real Naturmenschen’ and remarked:

It was another cardinal error in my previous work that I talked too much in proportion to what I saw. This one expedition . . . has given me a better idea of Kiriwinian fishing than all the talk I heard about it before. It was also a more fascinating though not necessarily an easier method of working. But, it is the method.

Lévi-Strauss has described this immersion in the field as a technique for deracination. The ethnographer is a displaced person, a professional émigré – a role to which Malinowski was born. He once wrote that his family belonged ‘to the dispossessed, impoverished small Polish nobility, shading into the inteligencja’. He grew up in Kraków, the capital of a cosmopolitan province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and studied at the Jagiellonian University in the city, where his father was professor of philology. He won the Imperial Prize for his doctoral thesis, and like his father went on to the University of Leipzig. But educated Poles were at best ambivalent in their attitudes to Vienna and to German culture. Their allegiance was to a vanishing Poland, and they imagined that its authentic spirit might still be captured in isolated villages. The intellectuals of Kraków spent long summer holidays in the mountain resort of Zakopane, where they admired and imitated local crafts; Malinowski’s father collected folk-tales; some artists and writers married peasant women. As a sickly child, Malinowski was packed off to live with peasants in a reputedly healthy but remote Carpathian village.

By the time I was eight I had lived in two fully distinct cultural worlds, speaking two languages, eating two different kinds of food, using two sets of table manners, observing two sets of reticencies and delicacies, enjoying two sets of amusements. I also learned two sets of religious views, beliefs and practices, and was exposed to two sets of morality and sexual mores.

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