Malinowski And Functionalism


Malinowski And Functionalism Essay, Research Paper

Malinowski studied the Trobrianders of New Guinea between

1914-1918. He rejected the idea of? remaining apart from their

daily lives, and instead chose to carry out the participant

observation method. He closely observed the activities going on

around him and listened carefully to anecdotes, local gossip etc,

so that he would be able to provide much fuller accounts of

Trobriand life than if he had relied on formal questioning. He was impressed with the fact that the customs, ideas,

artefacts and language of the islanders all served their

biological and psychological needs, and soon learned that the

seemingly useless customs and rituals (e.g. boat-building and

seafaring) did the same. His idea that aspects of culture are

functional in that they fulfil the biological and psychological

(or other) needs of human beings is known as

"Functionalism".? He argued that the existence of

customs, social institutions or social relations should be

interpreted in terms of their function: that is to say, in terms

of their contribution to the satisfaction of "needs"

(both primary physiological and emotional needs and also

secondary or social needs).

? One of the rituals performed by the Trobriands was the

"kula ring", a recurrent exchange of valuable gifts

between the different people of the various Trobriand Islands

chain. This ritual involved members of the society making

dangerous voyages across the seas in canoes in order to

frequently exchange these gifts. Although from an

outsider"s point of view this process would have seemed

pointless, Malinowski learned that it did fit into the idea of

functionalism as this ritual was considered very important,

worthwhile and sacred because it fulfilled the islanders"

social and psychological needs- it allowed them to feel a sense

of power and prestige. There were many rituals that were performed before the canoes

left the islands, and these also served to control various

emotions and psychological needs, such as anxiety, which the

islanders faced before setting off on such journeys. As the

Trobrianders were relatively behind the Western World in terms of

technology, rituals such as the ones performed before the kula

served to bring about a sense of security and power, thus helping

to overcome feelings of powerlessness and tension. Another example of functionalism in this society was the

tradition that involved the chief of the Trobrianders receiving

very large amounts of foods and other tribute from the villagers

whom lived in the area under his reign. The chief was also the

sub-owner of many of the agricultural foodstuffs that these

villagers owned, and claimed many supplies of these which he was

obliged, by custom, to re-distribute at a later stage in the form

of payments for various public services performed by the

villagers at his command. This meant that the villagers were in

fact consuming the products of their own labour, except this was

done after the wealth went through the chief and thus emphasised

and reinforced his control and made his wealth an instrument of

political power in their society.

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