Saturday, March 7, 2009

Contextual Living

Bronislaw Malinowski is not a name that brings images flooding into most people's minds, evoking memories of great moments of our youth, or of inspiring achievements that staggered and changed the world. One does not respond to the name as one might to that of Geoff Hurst or Ian Botham, Charles Darwin, Julius Caesar, Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill.

OK, the point is made, I think, but in the fields of applied linguistics and social anthropology he is acknowledged as having developed a new background against which to set research, so important as to change the nature of these fields. His great contribution was context.

Malinowski wasn't in fact a linguist, but an anthropologist. He was born in 1884 in Krakow, then still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He is said to have been inspired by Frazer's 'The Golden Bough', in which he is not alone.

He was doing field work in the Trobriand Islands when the First World War broke out and he had little option but to stay there. He was thus forced into much closer observation of and contact with the local tribes. His research covered their languages, societies and the Kula system of ceremonial exchange.

During this period he developed the concept of particpant observation, setting out in great detail the procedures he had found essential to a proper understanding of the ways in which not only language, but all forms of social interaction, including the cultural, commercial and ritual, came about and came to have specific meaning. In other words, the context.

'Argonauts of the Western Pacific' is a very fine book, not easy to make sense of but providing, if you make your way through it, a grounding which will change the way you approach the interpretation of other people's behaviour.

The real reason I mention him, however, is that his life could be made into a very decent film script, with the nucleus of the story being the years he spent in Papua. Film scripts are not really my thing, and I don't see it as a novel, so I offer the idea to anyone who wants to do something with it.

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