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Coming to terms with inequality, hierarchy and precedence in Oceania


Serge Tcherkézoff, Thorgeir Kolshus, Denis Monnerie, Sophie Chave-Dartoen

Session presentation

As is the case with virtually all social science studies, research on Pacific societies necessarily involves attention to questions related to power and authority. In anthropological studies, this has traditionally implied an engagement with discussions about egalitarianism in Melanesian societies and hierarchy in Polynesians societies. In recent years, these gate-keeping concepts have been challenged from several angles. Some analyses tone down the political stratification aspects of hierarchy through applying Louis Dumont’s notion of hierarchy of values, which has proven analytically fruitful also in Melanesian contexts. Precedence configurations – which are widely debated by specialists of Indonesia – and their articulations with other forms of inequality, have also been useful to specialists of both Melanesia and Polynesia. More sociologically oriented approaches focus on economic inequality and emerging social classes in the wake of an encroaching capitalist logic, changing modes of production and an emphasis on formal education as a scarce resource that is more accessible to a rising urban elite.
This panel invites contributions that address the long-standing debates on hierarchy, precedence, inequality and equality from a wide range of positions. In what way do globalised values of meritocracy, democracy, good governance and human rights affect Pacific notions of justice, fairness and political legitimacy? How is the acting out of hierarchy, precedence, inequality and equality as traditions reconciled with the new modes of stratification? And does the analytic distinction between differentiation and stratification hold water under changing circumstances? The panel would bring together those varied discussions around one interrogation: how much each of those enquiries become specific once they are pursued by anthropologists working in Oceania?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

The making of High Men: Mystifying education as moral authority in north Vanuatu

Thorgeir Kolshus (Oslo Metropolitan University)

On Mota Island in northern Vanuatu, secret knowledge obtained either through gendered stratified societies or secret male cults have traditionally played a significant part in establishing an authority that is “context-transcending” (Lukes 2005), i.e can be called upon and made relevant outside its original domain. With the Anglican church offering an alternative hierarchical path for male influence, the authority of the gendered structures was limited to this organisational domain. In the present situation, significantly shaped by a population growth of 4% p.a. and a subsequent shortage of arable land and resources that are crucial for societal reproduction, the frequency and gravity of land disputes and feuds both within and between lineages. This challenges both the stability of the Mota society as well as the culturally valued modes of interaction. The absence of efficient displays of leadership in various arenas that are not hinged on kinship and family support has been a matter of explicit concern to the Motese of both sexes and (almost) all ages – a concern that manifests itself as nostalgia for abandoned structures and cooperative attitudes and as a search for the solution to what they see as a mounting challenge: how to find leaders with a legitimacy that cannot be questioned on the grounds of bias and partiality. With these calls for leadership as a background, I discuss attempts by the minority who have received secondary education to mystify its origin and outcome, creating not only knowledgeable people but people who also are morally superior, who, sometime between my first two fieldworks, started to refer to themselves, and increasingly being referred to by others, as Ira tanun we eleele, The High People.

Differenciation without stratification. Status and political contexts among the Anga of Papua New Guinea

Pierre Jean-Claude Lemonnier (Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS)

In the Anga group of Papua-New Guinea, the principal political actors are known as “big men”, whose various statuses, roles and scope of action have rightly been interpreted as non-intentional means of curtailing incipient male hierarchy. This fragmentation of power positions goes hand in hand with a specialization of forms of wealth and a partitioning of exchange contexts which, until today, have successfully limited the effects of stratification that might lead to a systematic differentiation of male political roles (and maintain a gender hierarchy between men and women).
The present paper deals with the Anga male initiations, the key moment in the reproduction of their social order and hierarchies, and shows the crucial role of materiality (gestures, objects, plants) in the fragmentation of male political positions as well as its impact on the place and time chosen for the temporary expression of rivalries.

Big Man or dictator? A Bena Bena case study

Regina Knapp (Friedrich Schiller Universitaet Jena, Germany)

"Are you strong enough to lift yourself up and face me?"
This paper investigates personal strategies of acquiring, maintaining and defending leadership in a presumably egalitarian society in Bena Bena in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. By giving insights into the turbulent life-story and the personal perspectives of a local leader who turned from a renowned Big Man into a violent dictator, this paper reveals how cultural changes are instrumentalised to exercise strength and to dominate a large community for many years. It is based on long-term fieldwork during which I followed the personal history of Tau, a charismatic Bena man who relied on his Western education as well as his save of Bena magic and warfare to become influential in his community, but who then over the years became increasingly violent against his own clansmen and reigned in his village through terror. To maintain his position he strategically merges elements from different cultures, using
high-powered guns to threaten and kill, money to create new alliances by, for example, hiring warriors from other tribes to join in his fight and by applying strong magical practices to spread fear among his allies and enemies, as well as to defend himself from enemy attacks. The presentation will be supplemented by short video sequences in which Tau himself explains his approach to power, thereby implicitly questioning the anthropological category of egalitarian Big Men societies.


Patrice Godin (Université de la Nouvelle-Calédonie)

« Exchanges are the Breath of Society », according to a kanak saying from Hyeehen, on the north-est coast of New Caledonia. The aim of this communication shall be a demonstration of this assertion. In Hyeehen, exchange of things - but also of women, children, names, lands –continue to underlie multibles levels of social organization, from the identity of persons to status system and chieftainship, thus creating a complicated hierarchy of values and an encompassing cosmic system which constitutes society as a whole. The communication will focus on the dual hierarchy of statuses and of levels in exchanges.

A bus ride in Samoa in the 1980s, while reading Louis Dumont: hierarchy, stratification and individualism

Serge Tcherkézoff (Aix Marseille Uni+CNRS+EHESS--Australian Nat Uni)

This paper is a further attempt to examine social relationships in Samoa from a holistic methodological perspective and to show how three theoretical proposals put forward by Louis Dumont in his classic study of India can be profitably used in ethnographic analysis: the notion of "hierarchy", the opposition between hierarchy and stratification, and the ability of hierarchy to accommodate individualism. The ethnographic context may seem anecdotal: public transport on a Polynesian island. But it seemed to me that the social interactions taking place on a Samoan bus, at least for lengthy trips, provide a snapshot of the whole set of social relationships characteristic of that society in the years under consideration.
My analysis of Samoan practices in the everyday context of journeys by bus will show that by avoiding the confusion of hierarchy and inequality and adding the distinction between them to the only alternative provided by Western ideology (equality/inequality), we are able to advance intercultural dialogue. The distinction enables us to understand that Samoans are shocked by a certain kind of differentiation they observe in Western countries, such as the inequality of “classes” in transport systems, and that this judgment is not in conflict with their own valorisation of inequality in the "positions" (tulaga) system in the village, the house… and on the bus. The notion of "hierarchy" explicits the non-contradictory character of these two Samoan judgments.

A pragmatic approach of hierarchical relationships: dissymmetric positions, efficacy of action and status gradation in Wallis Island.

Sophie Chave-Dartoen (Université de Bordeaux)

The interest of the hierarchical opposition (Dumont) as an analytical model and its heuristic worth have been shown for the understanding of social facts, in particular in the Pacific, where it sheds light on some aspects of the organization of status societies.
This paper aims at understanding the functioning of a Wallis hierarchical opposition from a different perspective. The issue of the organization of what Dumont called “idées-valeurs” will be set aside to give way to a more pragmatic approach of interactions, where social relationships find at once shape and signification. Thus, the study focuses on the particular position implied by “seniority” (which also means precedence). That is the setting of a dissymmetric relationship in which a “senior” entity, of superior status, has a mediating position with the other entities of the socio-cosmic world for the benefit of an entity considered as younger. This relationship is characterized in terms of efficiency and authority; its effects are tested, evaluated and validated. Thus, “seniority” is a fundamental value that organizes the society according to its ideology, and it is also the principle that generates social dynamics through the need for reiteration of the efficacy which it supposes. The manifestation and validation of this efficient relationship imply an incessant commitment of people in the socio-cosmic world, where they find their position in an ever-changing gradation of status.

Hierarchy and precedence : two forms or two interpretations of inequality in Oceania?

Denis Monnerie (Université de Strasbourg)

In Oceania the dimensions of inequality, or more precisely the asymetric articulations which mark the relations and social acts constitutive of meaningful components of the world (ie. elder/younger, arriving party/receiving party, local people/strangers, aristocrats/ commoners/ dependents, social groups, ancestors, etc.) often appear as status distinctions. Several sorts of anthropological descriptions can be applied to them. They can especially be conceptualized in terms of hierarchy or precedence. Although the Dumontian conception of hierarchy has attracted attention from several specialists of the Pacific, it seems that precedence has not been much debated among the specialists of Oceania.
In contrast, reflexions on diverse forms of asymetric relations - conceptualised as hierarchical and/or precedence configurations – have been at the heart of important debates by specialists of Indonesia (E. Douglas Lewis, J. Fox, J. Platenkamp, M. Visher, etc.). My presentation will counterpose the Dumontian form of hierarchy with proposals - those of J. Fox among others - concerning precedence. The comparison will show the respective relevance - and the inadequations - of these anthropological models for social status. As well as meaningful differences concerning the interpretive aims of these models.