“I know of Malinowski’s despotism”: Mauss to Radcliffe-Brown

The people who fill our theory readers are real people who lived vibrant, quirky lives.  It is easy to reduce them to a set of ideas or to a stereotyped, essentialized colonizer. But in fact their ideas — and their colonialism! — were flesh and blood and richly particular.

And they all knew each other.

Consider Mauss’s correspondence with Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheimians both, their theoretical interests allied them against Malinowski. Mauss’s withering, gallic trashing of Malinowski may have more to do with placating Radcliffe-Brown than it does genuine animus. But it also reflects so much else that academia still has: A concern with funding, grudging respect for publication history, trash-talking about a rival’s advising style. It’s all there.

I know of Malinowski’s despotism. Rockefeller’s weakness with regard to him is probably the cause of his success. The weakness, due to the age and the elegance of the other English, those in London as well as those of Cambridge and Oxford, leave the field in England free for him; but you may be sure, even the young whom he protects know how to judge him. There are dynasties that do not last. His big work on magic and agriculture will surely be a very good exposition of the facts. This is what he excels at. And the subventions from Rockefeller for a whole army of stooges which he has had at his disposal will certainly have allowed him to have done something definitive. Only, alongside it there will be a very poor theory of the magical nature of this essential thing. At last he is going to write a great book on his functionalist theory of society and family organization. Here his theoretical weakness and his total lack of learning will make itself still more obvious.

This little glimpse into history is just one of the many open access publications on the history of our discipline that are out there. In addition to the newly-revived History of Anthropology Newsletter there are also the many excerpts and memorial over at the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Thanks to them for making this small, wonderful, slightly terribly little bit of historical kvetching accessible to all!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

2 thoughts on ““I know of Malinowski’s despotism”: Mauss to Radcliffe-Brown

  1. “The people who fill our theory readers are real people who lived vibrant, quirky lives. It is easy to reduce them to a set of ideas or to a stereotyped, essentialized colonizer. But in fact their ideas — and their colonialism! — were flesh and blood and richly particular.
    “And they all knew each other.”

    Agreed. Thanks Rex. I’ve long felt that this is one of the best (and most easy to miss) parts of aiming for a deeper understanding of “theory.” For more of these sorts of intriguing nuggets, check out Jane Guyer’s great new (Hau) translation of “The Gift” complete with its original journal context…Mauss has some great book/article reviews at the end of that seminal first-post-WWII issue.

    http://haubooks.org/viewbook/the-gift/13_bm01

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