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His best ethnographic writing is a stylistic confection of vivid description, reflexive anecdote, methodological prescription and theoretical aside.Malinowski broke with convention by abandoning the positivist pretence of aloof scientific objectivity by inserting a witnessing self into his narrative.‘Truly I lack real character.’ [Nie jestem naprawdę prawdziwym charakterm].
Malinowski was one of the most colourful and charismatic social scientists of the twentieth century.
A founding father of British social anthropology between the two world wars, his quasi-mythical status has fascinated his disciplinary descendants who continue to measure themselves against his achievements.
Marching under a self-styled theoretical banner of Functionalism, Malinowski revolutionized fieldwork methods, cultivated an innovative style of ethnographic writing, and mounted polemical assaults on a wide array of academic disputes and public issues.
By the time of his death, aged 58, in the United States in 1942 he was a controversial international celebrity, a cosmopolitan humanist who dedicated his final years to the ideological battle against Nazi totalitarianism.
As an Enlightenment project, the Science of Man must lead to ‘tolerance and generosity, based on the understanding of other men’s point of view’.
And Malinowski famously defined the ‘final goal’ of the Ethnographer: ‘to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world’.
Malinowski’s explicit descriptions of sexual behaviour – including as depicted in folklore and fantasy – only narrowly escaped censorship, and for several years the cellophane-wrapped volume was hidden under bookshop counters. (two volumes, 1935) dealt exhaustively with horticultural practices and their ritual embellishments, with the politics and mythological basis of land tenure, and with the enchanting poetics of magic.
The second volume was an important theoretical contribution to anthropological linguistics, but it was ahead of its time and the linguistic profession in America greeted it coolly for its unfashionable concern with semantics.
The author’s “Introduction” (which has been dubbed the Book of Genesis of the fieldworker’s Bible) contains twenty-five of the most influential pages in the history of social anthropology.
Malinowski’s intention was to raise ethnographic fieldwork to a professional art.