The balanced society versus the good society

As part of his holistic approach, Malinowski discusses social phenomena such as for example magic or property relations in the context of structures such as the family or kinship groups, or in context of concrete societies - or groups as he preferred to understand them. What distinguishes him from modern functionalists, as for example Parsons, is that in his anthropological work he rarely discusses anything in terms of an abstract system perspective. This difference between Parsons and Malinowski is interesting in its implications concerning the idea of equilibrium. When Parsons describes his early interest in functional analysis and Laurence Henderson as a source of inspiration at Harvard, Parsons then discusses an analogy with biology. This analogy is skin as the borderline of the body and the equilibrium mechanism maintaining an even body temperature. This means that Parsons from the outset is interested in boundary maintenance and the mechanism working towards equilibrium. This is paradoxically in contrast with Parsons’ way of discussing systems where he does this in an analytic sense and where the boundaries seldom are clear. If systems are analytic constructions, it is hard to identify clear borders. Borders in their turn are a reasonable pre-condition for discussing in terms of equilibrium. As Malinowski seldom reasons in terms of an abstract system, the idea of equilibrium is not of particular interest for him.

The usual framework for Malinowski’s descriptive work is to use specific concrete sub-parts of the culture; but this is done in a concrete, limited setting. This is furthermore done with the general ontological assumption that all sub-elements are related to the totality. This assumption is, however, not enough as the main methodological strategy is to charter the substantial, intermediate interrelations. That the different structures and institutions are interrelated in the totality does not imply that these interrelations are harmonious. It is quite the contrary to regard culture as a totality where it is necessary to try to balance individual interests and social control.25 This kind of possible balance is, however, not an abstract equilibrium.

When discussing “the whole” or “the totality” in a discourse on functionalism, it is generally assumed that this totality should be seen in a harmonious consensus perspective. This understanding is misleading. Malinowski’s ontological claims regarding the totality have to do with interrelatedness, not necessarily the positive quality of these interrelations. The cultural totality in Malinowski’s perspective includes several dimensions of stratification characterised by conflicts and power relations.26 That the cultural system is regulated and ordered does not exclude the existence of conflicts. Nor is the legal system a harmonious unity, but a consequence of existing conflicts. A more realistic idea than the stable and harmonious society is the understanding that conflicts generate rules and laws.27

The assessment of possible unity and consensus becomes complicated in Malinowski’s case as he works with a more complex totality than for example Radcliffe-Brown. In Malinowski’s case we have a variety of theoretical substructures and a stratified social structure including a variety of possible tensions and conflicts, not in line with a common view of functionalism seeing society as a harmonious and organic unit.28 To further emphasise this point, it should be noted that one of the instrumental prerequisites Malinowski identifies - political organisation - is by definition based on power (see, for example, Malinowski, 1976, p. 100).

Another argument by Malinowski is similar to an argument later proposed by Goffman.29 In this argument Malinowski distances himself from the cliché of a stable and harmonious society. This is his notion of a persistent discrepancy between the ideal rules and the actual behaviour of the actors in social settings - a discrepancy leading to tensions and conflicts:

The actual state of affairs, fully seen and thoroughly understood, is very complex, full of apparent as well as of real contradictions and of conflicts due to the play of the Ideal and its actualization, to the imperfect adjustment between the spontaneous human tendencies and rigid law.

(ibid., p. 119)

It is clear that order and stability are not postulated by Malinowski as qualities of concrete societies. He is, however, interested in the conditions and prerequisites for some kind of sustainable order to exist. The integrative and stable state of society is rather a Utopia:

While therefore humanity is still divided by national barriers which, if separated from political instrumentalities, would do no harm to anyone, it is united in its fundamental interests of common security, prosperity, hygiene and the prevention of crime and disease, and in the spread of scientific knowledge, and of elementary legal and ethical principles.

(Malinowski [1947a] 2015, p. 274)

From Malinowski’s strong stance in the early 1940s against fascism in Europe, most systematically formulated in Freedom and Civilization, it is obvious that the idea of a universal striving to a societal or system integration is not his.

A totalitarian system in balance is certainly not considered a good state of affairs.

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