Bronislaw Malinowski: Theory of Needs

Question: Choose one of the following important thinkers and discuss how his or her contribution to anthropology continues to be relevant to today’s theoretical thinking: Bronislaw Malinowski.


Visions of Culture

An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists

Jerry D. Moore

Bronislaw Malinowski: The Functions of Culture



Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) is both a classic and controversial anthropologist. His impact on anthropology is due to both his fieldwork practices with participant observation and his theories developed during his lifetime. Although some of his publications and techniques are contentious, especially that of his fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Malinowski is regarded to have created “stimulating contributions to the anthropological thought of his day” (Audrey I. Richards).

Having grown up amongst the intellectuals of Poland, Malinowski was able to reach great academic achievements. After earning a doctorate in physics and math he published On the Principle of Economy of Thought. This course of his life obviously influenced his decisions in the anthropological field, which he diverged to after a bout of sickness. Furthermore, Malinowski studied at the London School of Economics and later became adapt to the theories of Durkheim and Freud; both whom are reflected into his own studies.

Malinowski began his study of the Australian aborigines and moved to the Western Pacific to study them further; alas, he was forced to stay for a longer period than intended due to the war in Europe. During this time he made multiple trips to Papua New Guinea where he wrote in his diaries, which were later published, and produced Argonauts of the Western Pacific.


Theory of Needs

Malinowski’s Theory of Needs to closely related to his perspective on individual functionalism. Essentially this theory proclaims that culture exists purely for biological, psychological, and/or social needs. Malinowski further defines this theory by noting the necessary hierarchy of needs and the role of symbolism within the structure.

Moreover, Malinowski outlines the variation between a process and a function; a process being the “how” and the function equating the “why.” For example, The process of breathing is how oxygen is delivered to the body, but the function or reason of breathing is for the body to have adequate materials for survival. Processes, from the emergent properties viewpoint, are a collective sum of complementary functions. In order to outline this theory in a more detailed manner, Malinowski refers to the following chart:

Basic Needs

Cultural Responses

  1. Metabolism

  2. Reproduction

  3. Bodily Comforts

  4. Safety

  5. Movement

  6. Growth

  7. Health

  1. Commissariat*

  2. Kinship

  3. Shelter

  4. Protection

  5. Activities

  6. Training

  7. Hygiene


* definition -- a supply of food and equipment


Fundamentally, the needs of survival are basic needs and the needs for adaptation are cultural responses.



Theory of Needs amongst the Azande of the Republic of Congo and Sudan, investigated by Holly Peters-Golden:

All societies must have commissariat, or adequate food supply, in order to support the basic needs of metabolism, growth, and health. The Zande people of the Republic of Congo and Sudan have developed a horticultural system of shifting cultivation in order to grow sufficient amounts of food. This style was adapted due to the inability to profit from cattle herding, which is difficult because of the tse-tse fly that feeds on/infects the cattle. The type of produce grown is also affected since the Zande have to adapt to their environment; therefore, most of the crops generally rotate between maize, millets, and gourds. With this considered, the function of shifting cultivation is derived from the necessity and processes of basic needs.


Theory of Needs amongst the Dobe Ju of the Kalahari desert, investigated by Richard B. Lee 2003:

Most societies have a system of marriage in order to support healthy kinship patterns. Within the Dobe Ju there is a naming system that outlines who one will marry due to their name and the names of those in their family. This prevents one from marrying another with the name of their mother/father/brother/sister and also prevents marriages between cousins. Within this naming system the cultural response to Kinship is outlined by clarifying those which are eligible to be married by one another and supports the basic need of reproduction. Furthermore, these marriages are often arranged for kin at a young age to promote healthy kinship relations between the families and to ensure each agent will be married and encouraged to reproduce.


Essentially, Malinowski's Theory of Needs describes both how and why certain functions are carried out within societies. The pattern also becomes clear that our basic needs are often the leading factor to our cultural responses, as presented in the examples above. Furthermore, this theory is important to understand the reasoning for these cultural responses within our cultures. In relation to TGS, the basic need of bodily comforts and safety is supported through our kinship structure. Despite travelling and in a constant state outside of normal comfort zones, our TGS kin help us feel both comfortable and safe.



For more of your Malinowski needs, check out the Malinowski Project.