Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1884-1942) British social anthropologist instrumental in the development of functionalist theory.

Malinowski is renowned for his meticulously detailed and sympathetic descriptions of Trobriand Island life, although his reputation was diminished somewhat by the unauthorized publication of his personal diary in 1967. His diary contained what many considered to be unflattering racial slurs against native peoples. Nevertheless, Malinowski is still highly regarded as a fieldwork researcher and was among the first to incorporate ethnographic descriptions that included native commentaries concerning their likes and dislikes, daily routines, actions, and beliefs. He was also a preeminent theorist of his day. His ideas concerning functionalism differ somewhat from those of his contemporary A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Although Radcliffe-Brown used the term function in a strictly biological sense, Malinowski used the term with reference to "purposes" and/or societal goals.

Malinowski's most important theoretical contribution to the study of religion is his 1925 essay Magic, Science and Religion . Magic, for Malinowski, is always utilitarian, whereas religion lacks all utility. Religion, he contends, must be seen as an end in-and-of-itself. Another distinguishing factor is that while magic can be amoral, religion is essentially moral. Although Malinowski's specific ethnographic examples have been criticized, he was effective in demonstrating that ritual activities are most often performed whenever the outcome of a human undertaking is uncertain. All rituals are performed in times of emotional distress, but—unlike magical rites—religious rituals are not expected to bring about clearly definable or direct results. He cites the example of death rituals, which do not bring about immortality but serve mainly to comfort the bereaved.

Stephen D. Glazier


B. Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954 [1925])

B. Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term (New York: Harcourt, 1967).

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