Malinowski’s Perspective on Religion

The Anthropologist Bronislow Malinowski is the third of ‘three functionalist thinkers’ it’s useful to know about for A-level sociology, the others being Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

Malinowski was one of the founding fathers of anthropology, who lived as a participant-observer on the Trobriand Islands, in the South Pacific (near New Guinea) for four years between 1914 and 1918. He  developed his theory of religion based on his observations of the role of religion in this one small-scale society.

Malinowski Trobriand Islands

Religion and Life-Crises

Malinowski argued that the main function of religion was to help individuals and society deal with the emotional stresses which occur during life crises such as birth, puberty, marriage and death.

Death, for example, is socially disruptive, because it not only removes an individual member from the fabric of society, which potentially creates tension, it is also stressful for those with close emotional ties to the deceased, who may not be able to function efficiently for a period of time.

Religion deals with the problem of death through both belief and ritual: a belief in the afterlife (common in many cultures) denies the fact of death and comforts the bereaved, while the funeral ceremony offers a chance for other members of society to comfort the bereaved with their physical presence and it may also act as a form of catharsis.

The funeral is effectively an expression of social solidarity which serves to reintegrate society following the ‘stress’ caused by a loss of one its members.

Religion and control

Manlinowski argued that a second function of religion was to help people deal with situations or events which could not be fully controlled or predicted.

To illustrate this Malinowski contrasted the way in which two different types of fishing were conducted on the Trobriand Islanders (NB – it’s an Island culture, fish is a staple food): Inland Lagoon based fishing was a very different affair to deep-sea ocean fishing.

Fishing in the calm, inland waters of the lagoon was very much a day to day, relaxed affair – there was a high level of certainty that fish would be caught using the tried and tested method of poisoning. There were no religious ceremonies performed during this type of fishing activity.

However, when men went out to fish in the ocean, beyond the barrier reef, there was no certainty of getting a catch, this depended on the luck of a shoal of fish being present, and there was also the danger of death usually associated with going out to sea. During these times the Trobriand Islanders engaged in religious rituals to try to ensure a favourable outcome.

Malinowski theorised that when people are in control of the situation (or at least feel they are) and can rely on their knowledge and skill to provide predictable results, there is no need for religion.

However, when there is uncertainly and unpredictability and danger, people engage in religious rituals to try to ensure a particular outcome: these were social events which served to reduce anxiety by providing confidence and a feeling of control over the situation.

The similarities and differences between Malinowski and Durkheim….

Like Durkheim, Malinowski theorised that the key role of religion was to reinforce social norms and values and promote social solidarity.

Unlike Durkheim, Malinowski did not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor did he see religious rituals as involving the ‘worshipping of society’ – he argued that religion had a more specific function: that of reinforcing solidarity during times of emotional stress that threaten to undermine the stability of society.

 

Sources used to write this post

  • Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology: Themes and Perspective, seventh edition (unchanged in the eighth!).

 

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