Marilyn Strathern


2018 Balzan Prize for Social Anthropology

Balzan Prize Awards Ceremony 2018
Rome, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 23 November 2018


Mr President,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

   It is an extraordinary honour to be the recipient of the Social Anthropology prize, and to have the privilege of conveying in person how much this means. I must add the warmest of thanks to the Prize Committee members, for their reading of my work. This is not least because of the grounds on which the Prize has been awarded.
   My gratitude to the Foundation has two dimensions. First, for what the Balzan Prize does for Social Anthropology in recognizing its disciplinary singularity. Anthropologists have often defined their work as based on the comparative method, that is, among the social sciences theirs is the discipline overtly committed to pursuing the social knowledge that comes from relating or comparing the socio-cultural circumstances of people’s lives. And that includes the investigator’s own. I am not the first for whom the kind of challenges that are put in one’s path has necessitated a degree of reflexivity: how to render what one is studying in a language (English in my case) that has to be in dialogue with that belonging to what is being studied. This dialogue both demands and engenders the cultivation of open-mindedness. An open mind does not come by itself: it requires training, discipline in that other sense, and most anthropologists I know acquire their training not just from other scholars but also from those whose social lives they investigate.
   The second reason for gratitude is more personal. The citation mentions Melanesia and its biggest landmass, Papua New Guinea, which caught the imagination of modern Social Anthropology from its beginnings. There is of course nowhere that does not hold interest for an approach that endeavours to understand cultural context and the nature of social life. Within Italy, as in the UK, there is a fine tradition of anthropological work on local issues that are as challenging as anywhere, and I have written myself on some strands of ‘English’ life. Indeed, that is where my interest in feminist scholarship began. But the people of Papua New Guinea taught me things I could never have imagined, gave me answers to questions I did not know to ask. That has been a very special kind of teaching. I am deeply grateful to the Foundation for the opportunity to give voice to my respect.
   It was 54 years ago that I was first made to feel welcome by people from a region called Hagen in the Papua New Guinea highlands, revisited several times since. These are the women and men who are owed my principal thanks. It is they, like other Melanesians, whose ingenuity and creativity challenged the conceptual tools I was using. They turned me upside down. Of course I had been schooled to expect the unexpected, and it did not happen over night, and certainly not to me alone, yet all the knowledge in my knapsack could not have prepared me for the intellectual nature of the challenges. Hagen people were offering that most precious of research gifts, the puzzle. While one can generate and solve problems at a distance, there is nothing like an immediate puzzle – something said or done in one’s vicinity – to lead one to doubt everything one thinks one is understanding.
   This happened to me, and has gone on happening, in numerous spheres. Here is not the place for detail, but I emphatically wish to record the stimulus it was to be with people whose world was not the one I thought I knew. I have tried to turn this into a more general lesson for the world that anthropologist-scholars, and probably most of us here, do inhabit. The lesson highlights an evident and obvious conviction, namely that the way in which we describe the world is closely connected to the possibilities we see for acting in it. So how we describe anyone’s circumstances rests on the critical ability to discern its contexts, to be aware of the language of description, to perceive what is included or excluded, and so forth. A small example.
   Especially in times of crisis, we often seek to identify what we describe as the common interests that unite us, indeed everything we value about humanitarianism rests on this assumption; for the sake of peace and justice among us all, we emphasize the links and commonalities. At the same time, there might also be a place for appreciating what it is that divides us, that is, how we may relate to others not by denying difference but through our differences. That might bring us to realize that divisions are not necessarily the boundaries we thought they were; in expanding our horizons we are not limited to acknowledging people insofar as they seem the same as we are. Conversely, perceived difference is not an axiomatic barrier to sustaining relationships. To think (to describe) in these terms perhaps offers a further, though possibly counter-intuitive, dimension to how we might understand today the spirit of internationalism that lay behind the founding of the Balzan Prize.
   I return to Social Anthropology’s particular insight, wherever it is practised, into the debt that any one scholar owes to people well beyond, as well as within, any scholarly circle. It is always the work of others on which one’s own, for a moment, stands. Finally, a very personal note: in thinking of the honour the Foundation has done me, I am gratified beyond measure that I can receive it unequivocally, as a citizen – sensu lato – of Europe.