Marilyn Strathern

2018 Balzan Prize for Social Anthropology

For the profoundly innovative character of her contributions to social and cultural anthropology, and especially for her critique of Western understandings of gender and equality, and her associated explorations of how familiar concepts work differently in different contexts.

Marilyn Strathern’s anthropology centres on the representations typical of the societies that she studied (the Melanesian islands of Papua New Guinea), in a comprehensive perspective that aims at explication rather than explanation, leading to the radical abandonment of Western academic categories (in particular their obliteration of contextual dimensions), and to a fundamental critique of the inevitable ethnocentrism of anthropologists. By considering the way in which a researcher is implicated in his or her subject matter, she calls for reflexivity on one’s own conceptual tools.

She turns upside down classical anthropological concepts (“gift”, “agent”, “identity”), taking them as metaphors to be used as subject matter rather than as methodological tools. Instead of a Western-centric economy of goods, of objects and of classes (privileging inequality and dominance), she presents a rigorous description of an economy of the gift, of people and of clans (privileging interdependence, relationships and prestige): an economy focusing on the increase in, and the manifestation of, social relationships, in which a gift has an institutive function, in which objects are not ends but means, and in which a relationship has at the same time a joining and a separating function, which makes distancing as important an operation as exchange. She abandons, moreover, the notions of kinship as a determiner of bonds, property, work, dominance, inequality and identity, in favour of the importance accorded to relational action, to inner capacity and to self-control, to hierarchy via englobement, and to the constant activation of transactions.

From the very beginning as an ethnologist, her work has been characterised by her anthropology of Western feminism and by her use of a feminist approach in anthropology. Insofar as the relationship between the sexes is a model for many other relationships, she critiques the inadequacy of certain concepts drawn from feminism (in particular sexual antagonism) in the societies she studied, its generally naïve constructivism, as well as the contradiction between the progressivism of its aims and the conservatism of its concepts.

Finally, Marilyn Strathern deserves the Balzan Prize for what she calls, in her own words, the “methodological scandal” which constitutes the invention of an anthropology that breaks away from previous models of ethnography, social history and the sociology of marginal cultures: an intellectual undertaking that is exemplary not only for the countless specialists in her field but for anthropology as a whole and beyond, for the social sciences.

Emeritus Professor, Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

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