Crime and Custom in Savage Society ¡V Bronislav Malinowski


In these extracts from Crime and Custom in Savage Society (first published in 1926 in London by Routledge) it is interesting to see Malinowski struggle to do two things. Firstly, he appears to be attempting to establish anthropology as a serious subject, which clearly implies that, even less than one hundred years ago this area of knowledge was not considered a respectable science. Secondly, it also becomes quickly apparent that he is trying to establish an equivalence between the savage ¡¥primitive¡¦ and ¡¥civilized man¡¦, a connection that, even as recently as the start of the 20th Century would hardly have occurred to any but the tiniest minority.


It is also interesting to see how even such an open-minded and experienced thinker still refers to people from less developed countries as savages and natives and how he also refers, without any moral qualms, to the way in which Western powers might use the knowledge provided by anthropologists to more successfully exploit ¡¥the native¡¦.


Similarly, we can see the views of other anthropologists reflected in Malinowski¡¦s work and it appears that many of them seem to equate savagery with a kind of Communism. Although I have no hard evidence for this it certainly seems plausible to argue that Western thinkers, frightened by the threat of Communism in East, might associate it with a descent into savagery and so look for indications of communism among savage tribes.


In this way not only do the extracts below help to shed light on the similarities between indigenous knowledge systems and other knowledge systems ¡K but they also reveal how an area of knowledge can change and develop over time, how it can grow or diminish in credibility and how its concerns and focus can shift and evolve.


1.       ¡¥Savagery is still synonymous with absurd, cruel and eccentric customs, with quaint superstitions and revolting practices. Sexual license, infanticide, head-hunting, couvade, cannibalism and what not, have made anthropology attractive reading to many, a subject of curiosity rather than of serious scholarship to others ¡K [However,]  a fuller knowledge of the so-called savages has revealed ¡¥ye heathen¡¦ [to be, just as we are,] a product of firm law and of strict tradition, due to the biological, mental and social needs to of human nature rather than as the outcome of unbridled passion and unfettered excess. [As in the civilized world,] law and order pervade the tribal usages of primitive races, they govern all the hum drum course of daily existence, as well as the leading acts of public life.¡¦ (pp. 1-2)



2.       ¡¥Anthropology is still to most laymen and to many specialists mainly an object of antiquarian interest ¡K There are, however, certain aspects of anthropology which are of a genuine scientific character in that they do not lead us beyond empirical fact into the realms of uncontrollable conjecture, in that they widen our knowledge of human nature, and are capable of direct practical application. I mean such a subject, for example, as primitive economics, important for our knowledge of man¡¦s economic disposition and of value to those who wish to develop the resources of tropical countries, employ indigenous labour and trade with the natives. Or again, a subject such as the comparative study of he mental processes of savages, a line of research which has already proved fertile to psychology and might be made useful to those engaged in educating or morally improving the native. Last, but not least, there is the subject of primitive law, the study of the various forces that make for order, uniformity and cohesion in a savage tribe.  The knowledge of these forces should have formed the foundation of anthropological theories of primitive organization and should have yielded the guiding principles of Colonial legislation and administration.¡¦ (pp. 1-2)



3.       ¡¥The early German students of savage law were all and one committed to the hypothesis of ¡¥primitive promiscuity¡¦ and ¡¥group marriage¡¦ ¡K [and this myth of group marriage cast such a shadow on all their arguments that their theories were infected by the concepts of] ¡¥group-responsibility¡¦, ¡¥group-justice¡¦, ¡¥group property¡¦ and ¡¥communism¡¦ in short, with the dogma of the absence of individual rights and liabilities among savages.


Underlying all those ideas was the assumption that in primitive societies the individual is completely dominated by the group ¡V the horde, the clan or the tribe ¡V that he obeys the commands of his community its traditions, its public opinion, its decrees, with a slavish, fascinated, passive obedience. This assumption, which gives the leading tone to certain modern discussions upon the mentality and sociality of savages still survives [in some places].


Thus handicapped by insufficient material and baseless assumptions, the early school of anthropological jurisprudence was driven into an impasse of artificial and sterile constructions.  In consequence, it proved to incapable of real vitality, and the whole interest in the subject heavily slumped.¡¦ (pp. 3-4)



4.       ¡¥When we come to inquire why rules of conduct, however hard, irksome, or unwelcome are obeyed; what ,makes private life, economic cooperation, public events run so smoothly; of what, in short, consist the forces of law and order in savagery ¡V the answer is not easy to give, and what anthropology had to say about it is far from satisfactory. So long as it could be maintained that the ¡¥savage¡¦ is really savage, that he follows what little law he has but fitfully and loosely, the problem did not exist. When the question became actually, when it became plain that hypertrophy of rules rather than lawlessness is characteristic of primitive life, scientific opinion veered round to the opposite point: the savage was made not only into a model of the law-abiding citizen, but it became an axiom that in submitting to all his tribal rules and fetters, he follows the natural trend of his spontaneous impulses; that in this way he glides, so to speak, along the line of least resistance.


The savage, so runs today¡¦s verdict of competent anthropologists, has a deep reverence for tradition and custom, an automatic submission to their biddings. He obeys them ¡¥slavishly¡¦, ¡¥unwittingly¡¦, ¡¥spontaneously¡¦, through ¡¥mental inertia¡¦, combined with the fear of public opinion or of supernatural punishment; or again through a ¡¥pervading group sentiment if not group instinct¡¦. Thus we find the following in a recent book: ¡¥The savage is far from being the free and unfettered creature of Rousseau¡¦s imagination. On the contrary, he is hemmed in on every side by the customs of his people, he is bound in he chains of immemorial tradition not merely in his social relations but in his religion, his medicine, in his industry and his art: in short every aspect of his life¡¦ (E. Sidney Hartland in Primitive Law p. 138). With all this we might agree, but when we are told that ¡¥these fetters are accepted by him as a matter of course; he never seeks to break forth¡¦ we must enter a protest. Is it not contrary to human nature to accept any constraint as a matter of course, and does man, whether civilized or savage, ever carry out unpleasant, burdensome, cruel regulations and taboos without being compelled to? And compelled by some force or motive which he cannot resist?


Yet this automatic acquiescence, this instinctive submission of every member of the tribe to its laws, is the fundamental axiom laid at the basis of the inquiry into primitive order and adherence to rule. Thus another foremost authority on the subject, the late Dr. Rivers, speaks in the book already mentioned of an ¡¥unwitting or intuitive method of regulating social life¡¦ which is, according to him ¡¥closely connected with primitive communism¡¦ And he proceeds to tell us: ¡¥Among such people as the Melanesians there is a group sentiment which makes unnecessary any definite social machinery for the exertion of authority, in just the same manner as it makes possible the harmonious working of communal ownership, and insures the peaceful character of a communistic system of sexual relations¡¦ (Social Organisation p.169)


Thus here again we are assured that ¡¥unwitting¡¦ or ¡¥intuitive methods¡¦, ¡¥instinctive submission¡¦ and some mysterious ¡¥group sentiment¡¦ account for law, order, communism, and sexual promiscuity alike! This sounds altogether like a Bolshevik paradise, but is certainly not correct in reference to the Melanesian societies which I know at first hand.


¡K It would be easy to multiply statements and to show that the dogma of the automatic submission to custom dominates the whole inquiry into primitive law. ¡K The extreme difficulty of the problem lies, I think, in the very diffuse and complex nature of the forces which constitute primitive law. Accustomed as we are to look for a definite machinery for the enforcement of law (e.g. a police force or court system) we cast round for something analogous in a savage community and, failing to find there any similar arrangements, conclude that all law is obeyed by this mysterious propensity of the savages to obey it. By defining the forces of law in terms of central authority, codes, courts and constables, we must come to the conclusion that law needs no enforcement in a primitive community and that it is followed spontaneously.


[However, based on my observations, it has become clear to me that even when the savage does follow the law his behavior, like ours,] is at best partial, conditional, and subject to evasions; that it is not enforced by any wholesale motive like fear of punishment or a general submission to all tradition but [again like us] by a very complex network of psychological and social inducements.


All of this is a state of affairs which modern anthropology has overlooked but in the following account I shall try to establish it for one ethnographic province: North-West Melanesia, and I shall show reasons why observations of similar nature to those carried out by myself should be extended to all other societies in order to give us some idea about their legal conditions.¡¦ (pp. 9-15)



5.       ¡¥If we designate the sum total of rules, conventions and patterns of behavior as the body of custom, there is no doubt that the native feels a strong respect for all of them, has a tendency to do what others do, what everyone approves of, and, if not drawn or drive in another direction by his appetites or interests, will follow the bidding of custom rather than any other force The force of habit, the awe of traditional command and a sentimental attachment to it, the desire to satisfy public opinion ¡V all combine to make custom be obeyed for its own sake. In this the ¡¥savages¡¦ do not differ from the members of any self-contained community with a limited horizon, whether tis be an Eastern European ghetto, an Oxford college or a Fundamentalist Mid-West community. But love of tradition, conformism and the sway of custom account only to a very [limited] extent for obedience to rules among savages, just as they account for a limited amount of rule following among peasants, Oxford dons or Junkers.


[For example,] there are among the Trobrianders [the island race studied by Malinowski] a number of traditional rules instructing the craftsman how to ply his trade. The inert and uncritical way in which these rules are obeyed [is less to do with conformism than] because their practical utility is recognized by reason and testified by experience. Again, other injunctions of how to behave in associating with your friends, superiors, equals and so on, are obeyed because any deviation from them makes a man feel and look, in the eyes of others, ridiculous, clumsy or socially uncouth. [In this way it can be seen that the savage follows rules for very similar reasons to the civilized man].¡¦ (pp. 51 ¡V 52)



6.       ¡¥The rules of law stand out from the rest in that they are felt and regarded as the obligations of one person and the rightful claims of another. They are sanctioned not by a mere psychological motive, but by a definite social machinery of binding force, based, [as in the West], upon mutual dependence and realized in the equivalent arrangement of reciprocal services. The ceremonial manner in which most transactions are carried out, which entails public control and criticism, adds still more to their binding force.


We may therefore finally dismiss the view that ¡¥group sentiment¡¦ or ¡¥collective responsibility¡¦ is the only or even the main force which ensures adhesion to custom and which makes it binding and legal. Esprit de corps, solidarity, pride in one¡¦s community and clan exist undoubtedly among the Melanesians ¡V no social order could be maintained without them in any culture high or low ¡V [but it would be ridiculous] to make this unselfish, impersonal, unlimited group loyalty the corner stone of all social order in primitive cultures. The savage is neither an extreme ¡¥collectivist¡¦ or an intransigent ¡¥individualist¡¦ ¡V he is, like man in general, a mixture of both.¡¦ (pp. 55¡V56)



7.       ¡¥[As with civilized man, civil law for the savage] is extremely well developed and is clearly distinguished by the native from other types of norm, whether morals or manners, rules of art or commands of religion. The rules of their law, far from being rigid, absolute or issued in the Divine Name are [like ours] maintained by social forces, understood as rational and necessary, elastic and capable of adjustment.¡¦ (p. 74)