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Kilborne, B. (1986). Oedipus in the Trobriands: By Melford E. Spiro. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. 200 pp.. Psychoanal Q., 55:319-323.

(1986). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 55:319-323

Oedipus in the Trobriands: By Melford E. Spiro. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. 200 pp.

Review by:
Benjamin Kilborne

In 1927 when Bronislaw Malinowski, the British social anthropologist of Polish origin, published his Sex and Repression in Savage Society, he could not have imagined the fate of his book. Although he claimed that in this work he "established that Freud's theories not only roughly correspond to human psychology, but that they follow closely the modifications in human nature brought about by the various constitutions of society" (Sex and Repression, pp. 81-82), he was read by an overwhelming majority of both anthropologists and psychoanalysts as openly hostile to psychoanalysis. Ernest Jones saw in the book a challenge, which he took up with typical zeal. What came to be known as the Malinowski-Jones debate produced invective, defensiveness, and rigidity among both anthropologists and psychoanalysts. This obscured the importance of Malinowski's attempt—the first by an anthropologist—to "test" Freud's ideas about the oedipus complex and about family dynamics in the field. Malinowski was the first major figure to tackle the fundamental issue of the universal, cultural configurations of what he understood Freud to have meant.

Sensing a need to "draw in more systematically the correlation between biological and social influences" (Sex and Repression, p. 82), Malinowski established a correlation between the basic type of social structure ("patriarchy" or "matriarchy") and family dynamics. He maintained that European (and American) patriarchal (patrilineal) social structure produced an oedipus complex of the kind Freud described, whereas the matriarchal (matrilineal) structure of Trobriand society produced another variant of the nuclear complex.

"In the Trobriands," wrote Malinowski, "there is no friction between father and son, and all the infantile craving of the child for its mother is allowed gradually to spend itself in a natural, spontaneous manner" (Sex and Repression, p. 80). Malinowski's explanation for this cultural difference between European and Trobriands societies revolved around the intensity in the latter of brother-sister


1 Malinowski, B. (1927): Sex and Repression in Savage Society. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

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