Statement of Research – Rome, 22.11.2018 – Forum (vidéo + texte – anglais)


Marilyn Strathern

Prix Balzan 2018 pour l'anthropologie sociale

Pour le caractère profondément novateur de ses contributions à l’anthropologie culturelle et sociale, et en particulier pour sa critique des conceptions occidentales du genre et de l’égalité, ainsi que, corrélativement, pour ses investigations sur la façon dont des concepts pourtant familiers fonctionnent différemment dans d’autres contextes.

Statement of Research

The 1960s was an extraordinary time for the people of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea (PNG), which lies in that part of the Pacific Island constellation known as Melanesia. The Hagen people, in PNG’s central highlands, belonged to a vast inland population not known to outsiders until 1933. Now they were getting initial proceeds from cash crops (coffee), paying taxes to a local government council, and the neologisms «development» and «business» had become part of the vernacular. Keen to see what the Australian administration’s economic promises would bring, they submitted to what was also now in their vocabulary, «the law». Important local men were eager to emulate the new powers they saw embodied in administration officers, and (unofficially) set up «courts» to settle disputes and help, as they saw it, keep the peace. What was extraordinary to me was the preponderance of cases that concerned women, who – to put it briefly – were frequently accused of causing trouble among men. I think my research career started at that moment.

The Influence of Papua New Guinea

This is deliberately introduced through Hagen eyes. It is all very well to talk of my proposal for PhD research or of my training at Cambridge (one of the centres of the then British School of Social Anthropology); the mental apparatus I brought with me both did and did not answer to the circumstances of that part of the world in 1964-5. From the start of my doctoral fieldwork, I was in the hands of the people I was with, although it has taken me a lifetime to appreciate the extent. Much of my research proposal had to be put to one side. Much of my effort was instead directed towards understanding the structural imperatives by which women, who moved in marriage from the clan of their brother to that of their husband, underpinning alliances between men, found themselves caught «between men» (hence the book title Women in Between, 1972), and drew on my training in social structure. But that did not prepare me for the reasons for the court accusations. At first I thought that men’s emphasis on women breaking up relations between brothers-in-law, «running away» or obstinately following «their own minds», was a reflex of alliances based on intermarriage. Divorce was constantly talked about, and I set about to study what I thought would turn out to be an uncommonly high divorce rate. Only it was not, and this was when I realized that talk about divorce was exactly that: talk. It bolstered among other things stereotypes about male and female behaviour. The term «ideology» was barely in the anthropological vocabulary at that time, and «gender» in the sense of gender relations was in no-one’s. (It did not acquire that resonance until the early 1970s.) However, I had indeed stumbled across – although I had to use other terms – gender relations.
I was not isolated. As soon as «gender» was articulated, it became clear that it was a term for a concept already in the air. In 1973-4 I was writing a general work then called «Men and Women» – it was not published until years later (as Before and after Gender) – and it shows only a hesitant use of that term, although clearly I had the concept of it. In the company of a growing cohort of feminist anthropologists in particular, it was important to stress the two-way edge of gender ideology: gender concerned not only ways of thinking about men and women, but also the ways in which relations between men and women were used to think about other things. For the European (or Euro-American) world that made feminism necessary, similarities and differences between what was perceived as male or female lodged in all kinds of stereotypes and hierarchies of values. These included ideas of nature and culture on the one hand, and on the other hand ideas about individual freedoms and the social constraints of relations as played out (for instance) in terms of rights and subjugation. The comparative scope of anthropology allowed one to look elsewhere too, where gender relations both organize and are organized by concepts central to social life. In Hagen, for example, the very capacity to speak in public, such as is demanded in a court hearing, is a male quality: no wonder women were largely passive – and in this sense uncooperative – targets of men’s public concerns. My critics said that in pursuing the interplay of concepts I neglected obvious features of power, domination and subordination. Yet without understanding how tenaciously the tenor and structure of ideas about gender are reinforced in the tenor and structure of other ideas, my answer at the time would have been that we underestimate both the power of concepts and the reach of power relations.
Looking back, what now might be recast as the study of a certain kind of masculinity framed enquiries I pursued while living in Port Moresby (PNG’s capital) in the 1970s, namely into the economic and social circumstances of largely young, male migrants from Hagen who had come there. I was inordinately grateful to them for making the city interesting. The study was published as one of two book-length works for the Australian National University’s New Guinea Research Unit; the other was an investigation of official and unofficial court procedures, which began my relation with the PNG Law Reform Commission, at a time when the country was preparing for independence (it came in 1975). What had begun in a quite disinterested way turned out to have some relevance to the establishment of a new local courts system.
From this early period I should also mention a joint publication with my then husband and co-anthropologist, Andrew Strathern, on the aesthetics of self-decoration, which was in Hagen a visual focus at public events celebrating inter-clan wealth exchanges. The aspirational nature of these displays afforded insight into the conventions by which men and women evaluated the past and anticipated the future. In fact, what I learnt here was a touchstone of sorts for apprehending a value system that had come into new prominence with pacification: at its height, an exaggeration of gift exchange as simultaneous channels for the perpetuation and resolution of inter-clan rivalry. On occasional return visits to Hagen, I documented some of its later permutations, including people’s retrospective evaluation of their own past practices as their «culture». This ultimately led to a collaborative study with other Melanesianists, and a Papua New Guinean lawyer, on the implications of intellectual property rights. It was undertaken at a point in the 1990s when the scope of such rights was being internationally pursued as a worldwide solution to the recognition of «cultural property». I mention the study because what on a list of research interests might seem an extraneous item, in the present case of intellectual property rights, sprang from a crucial dovetailing with certain Hagen concepts. This concerned the relationship between what was displayed (as when people decorated themselves) and what was hidden (the spiritual powers they at once claimed and forever sought). In the end, what could or could not be on public display turned out to be at odds with the whole rationale of IPR to make inventions and texts public while protecting private rights in them, quite apart from vexed legal questions about the individual agent in whom originality or authorship was supposed to subsist.
This was but one in a series of moments that formed a conceptual backbone for much of my work: the conviction that concepts at odds with one another may well be indicative in quite fundamental – even cosmological – ways. The clash of concepts, so to speak, is not just a matter of differing viewpoints (and thereby agreement over what is worth quarrelling about), or dealing with what seems unfamiliar (as encountered in every translation across dialects or languages), but rather with apprehending the framework people perceive sustains their very existence. An obvious example is that the long-enduring matrix of concepts that support Western – including European – notions of nature and culture, indeed is we might say paradigmatically «Western». Infused through colonial efforts to «introduce» law or education everywhere, it affects how present-day Papua New Guineans make sense of their past and anticipate their future. For the anthropologist, the analytical tools this matrix furnishes inevitably reproduce pre-conceived questions about the phenomena under study. Attempts to understand gender relations as they had been reported from across Melanesia had often found them useful, but they raised as many problems for analysis as they resolved.
Impressed by the quantity of excellent work on gender relations, in no small part stimulated by the feminist anthropology of the time, I embarked on a comparative reading of Melanesian materials; this resulted in The Gender of the Gift, 1988. The materials inevitably belonged to a particular ethnographic present, but almost always included attention to practices of the recent past as well. At the same time, it emerged that there were certain distinctive aspects to many of the unresolved problems, that is, to the way in which the problems were being articulated, and by this I mean by anthropologists in their approach to gender relations (for example, in how to conceptualize what seemed a dichotomy between public and domestic life or the extent to which gift-giving was caught up in life-cycle events). In short, what seemed required was not just appreciating the cosmological underpinnings of Melanesian ideas and practices, but appreciating the unacknowledged assumptions on the part of anthropological investigators, too (myself included). This meant reading between the lines, because it was of course the same accounts on which I was drawing for my understanding of Melanesian life. In any event, it was this double approach that enabled me to sketch out an alternative account. The modelling I suggested for understanding some of the fundamentals of Melanesian gender relations was not expressed quite that way at the time, and is of course open to the same charge – the alternative, too, will have sprung from unacknowledged assumptions. But that was partly the point: the endeavour was heuristic, namely a way of showing up the effect of the concepts we use, and the worlds they bring in their train.
A prime pair was the axiomatic way in which Europeans dealt with the concepts of «society» and «individual». Neither an overarching conceptualization comparable to society nor a notion of a person separable from the relations that composed him or her appeared to resonate in Melanesia. It was not a matter of making one or two adjustments with «indigenous» concepts in mind, but providing an overall and thus systemic account of the basis of people’s concepts of relations, personhood, cause and effect, and so forth. At the same time, one had to deploy a language (in my case English) that was not fashioned to articulate such ideas. Indeed, to some extent, I had to «unwrite» my own earlier account in Women in Between.
Again, of course, I was not alone. The Gender of the Gift triangulated three distinct sources of argumentation at the time: feminist debate, social science including anthropology, and Melanesian ethnography. However, the schema by which I identified some of the cosmological underpinnings of existing anthropological accounts, for which I used the shorthand «commodity logic» (by contrast with Melanesians’ «gift logic»), was very broad brush, and indeed would have sounded a bit of a caricature of «Western thought». Immediately after finishing the book, I embarked on an account of English culture (After Nature, 1992), in which I tried to offer an ethnographically thicker understanding of personhood and relations, focusing precisely on articulations of individual and society. This was also partly in response to the politics of the day: it was the era of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had asserted there was no such thing as society, only individual men and women. If we take seriously the cosmological dimensions of specific concepts, and their systemic effects, I argued to myself, it ought to be possible to seek the underpinning of that kind of individualism in other parts of the same social world. So I began thinking about English family and kinship, a seemingly unlikely source for political ideology, and the reproduction of «the individual» therein. I probably would not have done it, however, if my research interests had not also taken a 180-degree turn away from immediate Melanesian matters.

Renewed Impetus in the UK

The turn was propelled by my departure from Papua New Guinea, in 1976, for Girton College Cambridge, and eventually Manchester, where numerous other preoccupations, familial and administrative, shaped the possibilities for research. What was to be a lifelong strand in my studies, kinship relations, took new conceptual shape as well. I became involved in helping write up a collaborative research venture focused on the English village of Elmdon, near Cambridge, attending to villagers’ insistence on the difference between who were and were not «real» Elmdon people; this stimulated an interest in English kinship, and the intersections of family and class. However, the book on Elmdon, published as Kinship at the Core (1981), was in a sense to be «unwritten» by After Nature. For there was another extraordinary moment that gave a distinctive turn to the direction of my research.
Beginning in the UK in the mid-1980s, but gathering momentum thereafter, it suddenly seemed that anthropologists’ arcane discourse about nature and culture had become part of a public conversation. Moreover, in the popular press as well as in a growing medical literature, it was embraced – and not by feminist writers alone – for its destabilizing effects (positive or negative) on prevailing assumptions about kin relations. It was conceptual re-thinking out loud, if you like: the advent of what were called the new reproductive technologies.
The implications for anthropological understandings of kinship were evident, although it also became clear that there was a divide between the kinds of imaginative liberties people awarded themselves in thinking about the «nature» of family life and the lived realities of women’s and men’s choices in the matter. In any event, this was an arena in which technology seemingly modernized what many had dismissed as anthropology’s rather antiquated interest in kinship studies. One of my own concerns was the way in which this emergent field in turn made re-conceptualization of both nature and culture necessary. If one had to hold these concepts in tension, it was not because they were alien, but because – complex as they had always been – they were being subject to new complexities. Almost like an echo of the Elmdon preoccupation, there were for example questions about who, in this or that configuration of conception and childbirth, was the «real» mother or «real» father. We are some years beyond that now, and the questions have necessarily moved on. That said, a collaborative project on «kinship and the new reproductive technologies» captured a defining moment.
Meanwhile, I was myself captured by a changing ideology in the workplace. As head of department from 1985 at Manchester University, and then at Cambridge University from 1993 onwards, I was aware of the pressing demands for accountability in UK higher education, and the scrutineering that went along with targets, outputs and performance indicators. The language of scholarship was becoming a luxury by contrast with the «real» work of managing universities as productive and profitable enterprises. Of course, this was good practice raised to a high degree, for who could object to having to justify spending public money? But the zeal with which good practice was implemented – a bit like the zeal of the colonists of the PNG highlands – left little room for nourishing alternative goals alongside. (Scholarship, that most international of pursuits, was re-conceptualized as parochial by contrast with the new national visibility and self-advertisement being demanded of universities as institutions.) A malaise of sorts set in, and for my own part I could lift it only by turning the emerging «audit culture» into an object of a research. Although I wrote no more than a handful of papers on this topic, taking critical liberties as a researcher that the administrator could not, they seem to have caught something of the mood of the time, and these papers have travelled across disciplines almost more than all the others of mine put together. Incidentally, as a footnote to this exercise, I also became involved in some research on concepts of «interdisciplinarity», where what were often excellent cross-disciplinary practices had been thus hijacked – at least by the UK Research Councils – as a tick-box desideratum.
Needless to say, Melanesian concepts were never completely out of mind. On the contrary, it was illuminating (for example) to compare the new language of transparency with the practices of concealment and revelation familiar from Hagen, even as having worked with people untroubled by European notions of biology helped one appreciate the impact of assisted conception on English people’s view of the natural order of things.

In the Company of Concepts

Like scholars, concepts are always in the company of others, which was one impetus for the systemic accounts anthropologists once wrote under the rubrics of society or culture. More recently, they have tried to avoid the reifications implied but retained by a strong emphasis on the interrelationship of phenomena. The interrelationships in question refer both to the world of human relationships (and these days other-than-human beings) and to all kinds of relationships between ideas as they impinge on institutions, people’s images about themselves, diverse forms of interaction, and so forth, including the kinds of connections any scholar makes in the course of producing knowledge. It has always struck me that the English term «relation» is felicitous as far as anthropological usage is concerned, insofar as (like the English term «knowledge») it merges both logical or epistemic (conceptual) usage with an interpersonal one in the way kinsfolk are designated «relations». It could equally be disputed that these are quite distinct meanings, and that this terminological idiosyncrasy does not set English off from (say) most of the rest of Europe in any conceptually meaningful manner. That is probably a matter for investigation.
I have recently ventured on a book, simply called Relations, which reflects on the English-language term and its implications for the concept of relation itself. The emphasis I have been giving to concepts echoes the obvious fact that the way in which we conceptualize 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 and be aware of the language of description. Thus it is often assumed that relating is about mutuality and similarity of purpose or identity, and that relating can override difference. Among the tasks that the book undertakes is a re-examination of some of the assumptions written into adjudications about difference and similarity, and the weight we give to each. This strikes to the core of contemporary debate about what humanity holds in common and the purported differences – cultural, political, racial among many others – which seemingly divide it. While anthropology’s comparative method often rests on that same contrast (similarity and difference), and cannot escape scrutiny, it nonetheless also affords a longer look.
Whether or not we determine that people such as those of Hagen in the PNG highlands had in past times an explicit counterpart to the English concept of relations, their transactions, epitomized in those exchanges concerning men, were – and to a large extent are – doing something very interesting with interpersonal relations: relations bring people together through the divisions they enact. Thus men engaging in formal exchanges with each other act on a mutuality of interest from the very extent to which they are distinct, the one a donor and the other a recipient (roles that are subsequently reversible). They are not trying to overcome that difference. When, by contrast, clan brothers act together as a collective, it is less from their similarity to one another than from a form of identification in which each is, so to speak, a substitute for any other. Here, each one is also a microcosm of the clan, the single«one» clan as a unit. In fact, neither set of relations is quite grasped by what English speakers – or Western peoples more broadly – would conceptualize as difference and similarity. Understanding the Papua New Guinean concepts as they work together might help us to think through what we mean by similarity of interests, and be less afraid of difference.
This might also entice anthropologists to a bolder apprehension of the difference between their language of analysis and the vernacular – wherever that vernacular is – including that of fellow native-speakers. A neologism with which I am associated is «dividual» (though it was not an invention of mine); I used it to differentiate the Melanesian person from the individualized person of the individual-society duo. Without going into the arguments here, it is worth remarking that it was intended as an analytical re-conceptualization of, or a solution to a problematic assumption about, the nature of society. «Dividual» has been taken up and now travels across many anthropological contexts, an answer uprooted from its question, as is the way of neologisms. Sometimes it answers other questions; sometimes it itself becomes a problematic to which a new solution must be found. In the manner of heuristics, it works if it keeps us on our toes, conceptually speaking.
Let me sum up the virtue of re-thinking difference through what I said in my acceptance speech. 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 valuing 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.

Future Research

From having discussed rather generally some of the implications of this research, I add a few notes on some specific interests I would like to develop in the future.
Melanesian ideas of kinship are not best rendered though the nature (biology)-culture contrast, which grounds so much Western thought, including evolutionary concepts about the development of life and society; in the past they had their own grounding. Indeed, almost literally, people in Hagen modelled their sense of attachment to one another through ideas about attachment to the soil that nourished them and the root crops that they cultivated. These horticulturalists did not know these plants in the botanical terms of vegetative reproduction (cloning) but they did draw on the constant regeneration of plant material, and their own practices of planting, as a way to conceptualize the replacement of persons over time (and vice versa) – now that replacement may also be visualized as abrupt, especially in the case of the root crops taro and yam, whose edible part grows hidden underground until the point of harvest, when a new corm or tuber is revealed emerging in the place of the old fragment that was planted. Let me explain what is interesting to an anthropologist here, and where it might lead.
These are ancient crops. Preparations for opening a World Heritage Site in Hagen, which has the best preserved evidence of cultivation going back to 7,000 years ago (use and processing to 10,000) were underway when I revisited in 2015. That set in train ideas about continuity on the one hand (less a lineal sequence than the constant regeneration of the «same» plant) and on the other, what has been called episodic time (the abrupt emergence of the new from the old), concepts that have been reported from all over Papua New Guinea. This has piqued my interest in going back to the now extensive ethnographic record that anthropologists have built up for this part of the world, in order to explore further what has already been written about time, growth and replacement. These are the very concepts that underpinned the former treatment of women and men in terms of their diverse capacities to give or take away life, in effect an orchestration of their powers. Less predictably perhaps, I suspect they also underpinned the Hagen reaction to the new promises of colonialism and its particular consequence for the development of ideas of law and justice. Among other things, I am planning to return to some as yet untouched tapes from the legal study I undertook in the 1970s in order to attune myself afresh to the crisis of colonization as it was refracted through the (unofficial) courts. The possibility of a Balzan Research Project is a stimulus to seeing beyond this, and on an altogether different scale.

The Balzan Research Project in Social Anthropology

To put it in a paragraph, the proposed research will open up diverse conceptualizations of time to a broader enquiry likely to engage the interest of younger scholars who will also be on trajectories of their own. Crucially, it will address ideas about the future and about the relationship of time and transformation to perceptions of crisis. This will afford space for aspirant anthropologists to advance their discipline’s contribution to current concerns, including gender (old and new inequalities), embodiment (agents of transformation), environment (climate change/horticultural futures) or governance (the future of the social contract/legal innovation), any of which may contribute to a contemporary sense of a epochs in crisis. A principal research focus will be Melanesia, with comparative input from Amazonia, a highly relevant source of intellectual inspiration, with the possibility of enabling promising scholars from the Pacific or from Brazil to undertake first hand research on these issues.


Again, like concepts, scholars are always in the company of others; one’s thoughts are other people’s thoughts as well. Certainly these lines of research would not have been possible without the teachers, colleagues and students I have been fortunate enough to keep company with. They are not named here, but every step along the way has been – whether in dialogue or dispute, whether in person or through their works – accompanied by those to whom I owe a huge but very welcome debt. Indeed this sense of debt is quite close to that engendered by Hagen exchange relations, where alternations of debt and credit through the transaction of material items are substantial signs of ongoing interdependence. This is dependence of a very positive kind. In more general terms, I have been nourished by my discipline, and by currents of thought and debate in the air at this or that moment, and beyond the discipline as well as within it. It really is an honour to be carrying this prize for Social Anthropology.
At the same time, the discipline would have no rationale if it were not for those who also speak back to us: the many interlocutors who agree to engage with our enquiries, whether or not they have their own use for them, whether they speak our language or not, whether they find us helpful or intrusive, and whether they are down the street or across the world. They are a substantial presence in any anthropological account that draws on ethnographic enquiry. And while putting oneself in other people’s hands is the sine qua non of the ethnographic field study, it would not work if people were indifferent. As English puts it rather immaterially, they are owed manifold thanks. The contours of that kind of engagement are not straightforward. Regardless of the complexities involved, I have a very concrete sense of where some important, material debts lie.
The Balzan Prize gives me an opportunity to acknowledge the crucial presence of people from Hagen, and Melanesia more generally, in this research trajectory of mine. Thinking of what they have taught me includes the illuminations they have cast on other subjects, not least some seemingly thousands of miles away

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