When Argonauts Roamed the Earth

This is a post on and in anthropology. Very different, then, from what I normally post on this blog, but perhaps my readers will nevertheless find it interesting.


I should probably be more than a bit embarrassed to admit that even after doing social anthropology for the past 10 years or so (counting from the beginning of my undergraduate studies) I’ve never really read Malinowski. I mean, of course I skimmed through long bits of his writing, but mostly just to tick the boxes on various required reading lists. And while I’ve also enjoyed lengthy excerpts from his diaries revealing his conflicted inner-workings and problematic attitude toward his hosts and informants, I just never truly read his stuff. Never truly engaged with it, never truly studied it.

I suppose it was from this rather ignorant position that I always thought of Malinowski as a somewhat dull writer; a forefather whose historical significance should certainly not be downplayed, but an otherwise outdated and irrelevant thinker.

And to be perfectly honest, I’m not that much into the old classics of anthropology anyway. Unlike some people (of whom I am jealous), I’ve always opted to read something from the most recent edition of American Anthropologist, for example, rather than poring over a seminal work by Frazer or Evans-Pritchard. Just the look of that old formatting style on unsearchable and unhighlightable pdfs (not to mention actual printed paper) makes me cringe.

And since I got away with it during my bachelor’s studies (where I honestly wasn’t required to read much of anything), the necessity never presented itself in any immediate way, and so I was satisfied with having read the absolute minimum. I always seemed to be just well-read enough to avoid making a fool of myself in anthropology conference lunches (only to then boastfully expose my ignorance following the downing of several pints at the pub).

But this stance changed recently when giving myself a crash course in economic anthropology for an upcoming project. A few relevant syllabi I found online recommended starting with Malinowski. Fair enough, I thought. I’ve obviously delayed my proper initiation into the discipline for long enough. Seeing as I’ve decidedly put myself in a position of undergrad again, why not do it properly this time around? Yes, I thought enthusiastically – if slightly hesitantly – why not start in the very beginning, and head right back to good old Bronislaw Kasper?

And I’m glad I did, because what an amazing anthropologist I found this bold pole to have been.

I will mention that even after a very enjoyable reading of two articles (working up towards a proper celebratory reading of Argonauts) his significance is still mostly historical in my eyes. Very little of it was a completely new taste for me in the sense of a new type of argument or theoretical approach or conceptualisation. This makes perfect sense of course, as so many of my teachers and colleagues have been cooking with his recipes for over 9 decades. But what nevertheless struck me by surprise was how absolutely clear, precise and relevant so many of his claims still remain. So it’s not only in the sense of knowing one’s history, but it’s also in the sense of knowing one’s purpose and articulating one’s goals as an anthropologist that Malinowski proves to be still extremely valuable.

A small point before I proceed: of course, Malinowski, as so many of his contemporaries, could never hold up to our discipline’s current ethical and political standards, for numerous reasons. But I personally don’t think this should prevent us from returning to his ideas, albeit with some necessary caveats in mind. I do, however, understand this move might be resisted by some, and for justifiable reasons.

So, if you don’t mind going through the trouble of revisiting some decontextualized quotes from Malinowski’s 1921 article “The Primitive Economics of the Trobriand Islanders” published in The Economic Journal, I’ll show you what I mean.

“A student of economics”, Bronislaw writes,

in possession of a systematic theory, might be naturally tempted to inquire how far, if at all, his conclusions can be applied to a type of society entirely different from our own. He would attempt in vain, however, to answer this question on the basis of the ethnological data extant, or, if he did, his results could not be correct. (p. 1)

So right on the outset Malinowski is making a plea for a broad view of human societies as necessarily varied and heterogeneous, and argues that assumptions about the nature of human behaviours are wholly invalid if not supported by evidence. And while for social anthropologists this claim is more or less obvious, it is not the case for most other people. I recall so many arguments with friends and acquaintances where they casually made the following (il)logical move: “the people I know about,” (usually one’s own society and maybe another one he or she is familiar with) “behave in a certain manner, and therefore, all societies must be behaving in an essentially similar manner”. And Malinowski is saying well, no, that is an incorrect assumption. Do not, he says, assume to know anything about any society until you, or someone else, had studied it thoroughly. And more often than not, you will be surprised by what you find. The fact that he is making this claim here about economics is so entirely appropriate, as economists, it seems to me – alongside psychologists – are quite often the culprits in this sort of fallacy. So already, go Bronek.

Moving on to Page 3, where he writes:

When I began to inquire into this subject [of land tenure], I first received from my native informant a series of general statements, such as that the chief is the owner of all land, or that each garden plot has its owner, or that all the men of a village community own the land jointly. Then I tried to answer the question by the method of concrete investigation: taking a definite plot, I inquired successively, from several independent informants, who was the owner of it. In some cases I had mentioned to me successively as many as five different ‘owners’ to one plot – each answer, as I found out later on, containing part of the truth, but none being correct by itself.

Here’s a bit of wisdom that we all need to keep in mind, and even we who speak Soc-Anth as a first second language often tend to lose sight of in periods of absent-mindedness. Variation exists not only between different societies, but within each society as well. And what follows from this is that firstly, one answer from an interlocutor, intelligent and informed as she may well be, should always be complemented with those of further interlocutors. And secondly, seeing as this is the case, the role of the anthropologist is not – cannot – be merely that of collector of ethnographic data, because fitting different views into anything that resembles a coherent account requires intellectual work. It is precisely because our informants are seldom able – or at all willing – to square the different and even contradictory beliefs that exist within and among them, that anthropologists could play a valuable part in explicating their practices, systems and institutions.

So then he immediately goes on to state:

The main difficulty in this, as in ever so many similar questions, lies in our giving our own meaning of ‘ownership’ to the corresponding native word. In doing this we overlook the fact that to the natives the word ‘ownership’ not only has a different significance, but that they use one word to denote several legal and economic relationships, between which it is absolutely necessary for us to distinguish.

I’m surprisingly mind-blown by this observation. One of the first things I was taught as an anthropology student, after all, is that “our” (whoever “we” may be) concepts and systems of classification may not be appropriate when studying societies different from our own. I guess I just never expected to see it articulated so plainly and straightforwardly in such an old text – especially since this kind of centrism is still such a common fallacy (yes psychologists, I might be talking to some of you still). What we take ownership to mean – or scratch that; our very assumption that the concept of single ownership must even exist – is culturally specific, and anything but natural or inevitable. And so we need to always consider the possibility of alternatives.

Finally, in the very last paragraph of his article Malinowski writes:

Economic elements enter into tribal life in all its aspects – social, customary, legal and magico-religious – and are in turn controlled by these. It is not for the observer in the field to answer or to contemplate the metaphysical question as to what is the cause and effect – the economic or the other aspects. To study their interplay and correlation is, however, his duty.

It is not for the observer to answer – or even contemplate – questions of cause and effect with regards to the relation between culture and economy. I find myself admiring the sheer gutsiness in this purposeful delineation of the boundaries of our discipline, that just seems to undermine perhaps the most basic instinct of the scholarly mind: determining what causes what. But Malinowski doesn’t only defenestrate this burning, perhaps, but ultimately unproductive question, he offers a valuable alternative: study the interplay between the different aspects of native life (where native, at least in our modern usage, can mean any social life at all). We study interplay, not causality. If I would have to offer the most succinct way to differentiate social anthropology from other social sciences, this would be it.

And if that set of bold requisitions isn’t enough, Malinowski offers his reader this final piece of wisdom, just before signing off: “For to overlook the relation between two or several aspects of native life is as much an error of omission as to overlook any one aspect”. Relation as the space where the meaningfulness of social action can be attended. What else needs to be said?

So to sum up, I suppose I’m just humbled to learn that certainly not my generation, but neither did the previous one or even two, had conceived of all those understandings and principles that have become the benchmark of (good) social anthropology, still today. I’m not sure if this strengthens the claim that the importance of Malinowski (as it is evaluated by this one article, obviously a very far from exhaustive account) is more than just historical. It’s not like I wasn’t aware until now of cultural relativism, human heterogeneity or the multiplicity of views within a specific group. But I guess what my emerging realisation – namely that such pieces of wisdom have been in existence for nearly a century – did for me was shine a light on the fact that such views don’t exist in a vacuum, but are always and necessarily (among other things) a response to claims to the contrary. And as such, seeing as claims to the contrary are as popular now as they’ve ever been, Malinowski’s articulateness, straightforwardness and concreteness are still an extremely valuable resource. There’s power in traditions, and there’s authority that comes with repetition, and for me, at least, comes a certain confidence with the knowledge that our very basic epistemological assumptions have a specific and traceable source. And to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth – and in this particular horse’s clear and unapologetic style – just makes it all the more appealing.