Community, society, culture: three keys to understanding today's conflicted identities


  • Maurice Godelier

    Corresponding author
    1. École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales
      EHESS, 54, Bd. Raspail, 75006 Paris, France.
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    • Huxley Memorial Lecture, London, 7 November 2008.

EHESS, 54, Bd. Raspail, 75006 Paris, France.


The author redefines three major concepts used in the social sciences: tribe, society, and community. He begins with his discovery that the Baruya, a tribe in New Guinea with whom he lived and worked, were not a society a few centuries ago. This made him wonder: How is a new society made? The author shows that neither kinship relations nor economic relations are sufficient to forge a new society. What welded a certain number of Baruya kin groups into a society were their political-religious relations, which enabled them to establish a form of sovereignty over a territory, its inhabitants, and its resources. He goes on to compare other examples of more or less recently formed societies, among which is Saudi Arabia, whose beginnings date from the end of the eighteenth century; and he then clarifies the difference between tribe, society, ethnic group, and community, showing that a tribe is a society, but an ethnic group is a community. His analysis elucidates some contemporary situations, since tribes still play an important role in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and so on.


L'auteur redéfinit trois grands concepts utilisés dans les sciences sociales : tribu, société et communauté. Son point de départ est le fait que les Baruya, une tribu de Nouvelle-Guinée avec laquelle il a vécu et travaillé, ne formaient pas une société il y a quelques siècles. Cette découverte l'a conduit à se demander comment une société voyait le jour. L'auteur montre que ni les liens de parenté ni les relations économiques ne sont suffisants pour donner naissance à une nouvelle société. Ce qui a soudé un certain nombre de groupes de parenté baruya en une société, ce sont leurs relations politiques et religieuses, qui leur ont permis d'établir une forme de souveraineté sur un territoire, ses habitants et ses ressources. L'auteur poursuit en comparant d'autres exemples de sociétés d'apparition plus ou moins récentes, par exemple l'Arabie Saoudite dont les débuts remontent à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Il éclaircit ensuite la différence entre tribu, société, groupe ethnique et communauté, en montrant qu'une tribu est une société mais un groupe ethnique est une communauté. Son analyse fait la lumière sur certaines situations contemporaines, dans la mesure où les tribus jouent encore un rôle important en Irak, en Afghanistan, en Jordanie et ailleurs.

I would like to invite you to reflect with me on the content of what are probably the four most used concepts in the social sciences, but also beyond, since they abound in the discourse of politicians, journalists, and the like. They are: community, society, culture, and identity. Given the multiplicity of their uses and the diversity of the contexts, can we say that these four concepts are still useful to the production of scientific knowledge? I think they are, but under certain conditions, which I will attempt to define.

In the years since I worked among the Baruya of Papua New Guinea (between 1966 and 1988), I have never stopped thinking about the content our discipline should assign to these concepts. From the outset, something intrigued me. I learned from the Baruya themselves that their society did not exist three or four centuries ago. But something else struck me as well. The Baruya speak the same language, have the same kinship system, the same initiation rites, in short, share with their friendly or hostile neighbours what we would call the same ‘culture’. Lastly, having spent nearly seven years all told with the Baruya, I saw the profound changes that had occurred in both their society and their personal or collective identities.

I regard two facts as a stroke of luck. The fact that the Baruya have existed as a society only for a relatively short time made me wonder: How do societies come about? What are the social relations that bring human groups together and make them into a society, that is to say, a Whole that reproduces itself and its members? The second thing that intrigued me was: If the Baruya and their neighbours shared the same language, the same culture, and the same social organization, would the notion of ‘culture’ enable me to understand why all of these local groups claimed to constitute distinct societies, with different names – Baruya, Wantekia, Boulakia, Usarampia, and so on – but which were in a certain way all alike?

I therefore set out to discover how the Baruya society had formed and then, as I will show you, I became fascinated by the problem and began to look for other examples of societies that did not exist a few centuries ago. There is one with which you are all familiar, the Tikopia, magnificently analysed by Raymond Firth, although he did not raise the issue in his book (Firth 1967a). But circumstances also led me to take an interest in Wahhabism, and I discovered that Saudi Arabia had not existed before the eighteenth century and only began to take shape in 1742.

Perhaps I should spell out immediately the nature of my problem. It has nothing to do with the eternal question put by philosophers, namely the so-called question of the foundations of the social bond. My question is purely of a sociological and historical nature. I believe that human beings are naturally a social species. They did not have at some point to begin living in society by making a contract or murdering a father. But humans are not content simply to live in society. They produce new forms of social existence, and therefore societies, in order to go on living. And as they transform their ways of living, they also transform their ways of thinking and acting, and therefore their culture.

Returning to the first question and to the ideas that I had taken with me when I went into the field in 1966, remember that we were in the 1960s–1980s and Lévi-Strauss's structuralism together with various brands of Marxism held sway in Paris. Lévi-Strauss saw the incest taboo and kinship relations as having done no less than transport human beings from the state of nature to the state of culture. The Marxist gospel, for its part, advanced as an explanation of human history – once we had passed from nature to culture – the fundamental role of the relations humans engendered in the course of producing their material means of social existence through the so-called ‘succession of modes of production’.

Therefore, when I began searching my data for the social relations that had been capable of welding the Baruya kin groups into a society, I started by examining the nature of their kinship system and then the nature of the relations the kin groups entertained with each other as they produced the material means of their social existence. I can tell you right away that I concluded that neither kinship relations nor the relations of production between these groups could explain the emergence of the Baruya society, a new society whose structure and culture were in no way different from those of the societies around them. I had to look elsewhere.

You will recall that the anthropology handbooks and our teachers at the time explained that, when we found ourselves faced with a society that was not divided into castes, classes, or orders and governed itself without benefit of a state, we were dealing with a so-called ‘primitive’ and kin-based society. In the field I quickly saw that the Baruya society was made up of fifteen patrilineal clans, and came to the obvious conclusion that I had found another kin-based society.

All of these assumptions about the role of kinship or modes of production were to lose their status of scientific truths as my analyses progressed. I will begin with a brief summary of how the Baruya society came into being.

Until the seventeenth century or thereabouts, this society did not exist. It stemmed from two acts of violence: two massacres, one sustained and the other perpetrated. The initial players were a group of men, women, and children from the various clans of the Yoyue tribe, which lived near Menyamya, several days' walk from the home of the present-day Baruya. These men and women had left their village some weeks earlier and gone deep into the forest to hunt and bring back the great quantities of game needed to celebrate their initiations. While they were away, news reached them that all those who had stayed behind, including the future initiates, had been massacred by warriors from an enemy tribe at the behest of members of their own Yoyue tribe.

Too terrified to come back for fear of suffering the same fate, these men and women sought refuge with various tribes that might be willing to take them in, in other words to provide them with agricultural land and hunting territories. One group finally came to the Andje, a tribe living in the Marawaka valley at the foot of the volcano Mount Yelia. There, one of the Andje clans, the Ndelie, agreed to take them in and to allow them to use part of their territory. A few generations later, having exchanged women with their hosts and their children having learned the local language, which differed only slightly from their own, the descendants of the original refugees made a secret pact with their protectors, the Ndelie, to seize the lands of the other Andje clans. They invited these clans to a ceremony in the course of which they massacred a great number. The rest fled, abandoning their lands to the conspirators.

At the outset the Baruya society appeared as a result of acts of violence – the massacres. But violence does not explain the mode of existence that the victims-turned-victors adopted in order to live and to reproduce themselves together. For that, there was a need for social relations that, precisely, would gather them together and bind them into a Whole. What were these relations? The answer was given to me one day by a Baruya man, but I did not understand it at the time. He said to me: ‘Moriselo, we became Baruya when we built our own tsimia and initiated our own boys as warriors and shamans’. What did his reference to the tsimia mean? Here I have to give you a few ethnographic elements, which underpin my statements.

In this region, when people from different societies but who speak the same language meet, they ask each other, ‘What tsimia do you belong to?’ This is another way of saying, ‘What society do you belong to?’ And then they ask, ‘What tree do you belong to?’ or ‘Who are the same as you?’, which means, ‘What clan do you belong to?’

Here we are on the trail of the social relations that gave rise to the Baruya society. For what is the tsimia (see Godelier 1986)? It is the vast edifice that the Baruya or their neighbours erect every three years or so to shelter a few of the most secret rites of their male initiations from the eyes of women and young non-initiates. The tsimia, the Baruya say – and I am using their categories here – is like their ‘body’: the poles are the ‘bones’ and the grass of the roof is the ‘skin’. At the centre of the building stands an immense post at which all the roof beams meet. This post is called ‘Tsimie’ and is supposed to represent the Baruya clan ancestor. At the top of the post are affixed four pieces of carved wood, which point in the four directions of the sky and are called ‘nilamaye’– the flowers (maye) of the Sun (Nila). Through them the Sun God is connected with the Baruya initiates and future initiates assembled in the tsimia. I will add a few crucial details to show the mythic signification and the nature of the symbolic practices surrounding the tsimia and which lie at the heart of Baruya initiation rites. For the Baruya, each of the poles supporting the roof beams stands for a future initiate. Each pole was cut in the forest and carried to the tsimia site by the father of a future initiate. At a signal from the master of the initiations (a man from the Baruya clan accompanied by the great shaman in charge of the initiation of shamans), all of these men in a single movement sink the poles representing their sons in the ground. What is remarkable is that these men do not line up according to ties of kinship but according to the village they come from, in other words according to sites of co-residence and daily co-operation.

The question then is: What do the initiation rites mean for the Baruya's life? In passing I would like to point out that Baruya women are initiated at the time of their first period and at the birth of their first child. These initiation rites divide the whole population, men and women, into age-groups whose members are supposed to co-operate with each other and respect their elders until the time comes for them too to initiate their young people. In the course of the rites, the masters of the initiations, with the help of the ancestors and the spirits, predict those individuals of the new generation who will become the great warriors, great shamans, or great cassowary hunters – in sum, the ‘great men’ (and women) on whom the society will be able to count.

Something else is at stake in the initiations, which can be seen in the fact that only the clans that descend from the Yoyue ancestors as well as the Ndelie clan that initially betrayed their own tribe are responsible for ritual functions, on the pretext that they alone possess the sacred objects and the knowledge needed to use them. The other clans that allied themselves with the Baruya are thus excluded, while their children are initiated by the victors. The rites are therefore the occasion to reassert the hierarchy between the victors and the vanquished, a reminder of past history.

In light of these facts and many others that point in the same direction, the conclusion was clear. It is the initiation rites that enabled these groups to exist as a Whole in their own eyes and in those of their neighbours – friends or enemies. In producing and reproducing the system of age-groups and the hierarchy between the genders and the clans, these rites involve all members of the society and assign to each his or her own status, different but useful to all, according to the individual's age, sex, and capacities. They are therefore what in the West would be called political-religious relations: political because the rites impose and legitimize a power structure, an order within society that reserves its government for men; religious because the gods, the nature spirits, and the ancestors are present at the initiations and co-operate with the owners of the sacred objects in initiating the new generations. That was what the Baruya man was trying to make me understand when he said: ‘We became Baruya when we built our own tsimia and initiated our own boys as warriors and shamans’.

In the end, what the Baruya affirm and reaffirm at each initiation is their right to exercise together a form of sovereignty over a territory, its resources, and the beings that live there, a territory whose boundaries are known if not always recognized by their neighbours. But at the same time, they assert and legitimize the right of men to dominate women and non-initiates and to be the only ones who have the right to govern and represent their society. The aim and the sense of the male initiations is to fulfil the men's desire to re-engender their sons without this time having recourse to a woman's uterus. It is this desire that explains the men's main secret, the practice of homosexual insemination between initiates. For just as a man nourishes the foetus in the woman's womb with his sperm, the young third- and fourth-stage initiates nourish the new first- and second-stage initiates with their sperm, which has not yet been defiled by contact with a woman. This short example shows that it is impossible to understand the nature of social relations without first understanding how these relations are conceived and experienced. These ways of thinking, acting, and feeling make up what we call a ‘culture’, which is inseparable from the social relations that lend it meaning.

Taking the analysis further, I will say that it is because this social order is founded on imaginary facts recounted in myth and enacted in rites mobilizing the whole Baruya society that relations and a feeling of generalized mutual dependence are created. It is the belief in the existence and the truth of imaginary events that are said to have happened in the beginning – such as the men's theft of the flutes originally owned by the women or the Sun's gift of the sacred objects to the Baruya ancestor – that makes the rites socially effective, capable of convincing people that everyone depends on everyone else within one social-cosmic order.

But why do I say that the Baruya's kinship relations and economic relations do not bind each person to everyone else and therefore gather these human groups into a society? The Baruya used to exchange women between lineages and clans; and these exchanges respected two rules: that the son could not repeat his father's marriage, and therefore could not marry a woman from his mother's clan, and that two brothers could not marry into the same clan. Notwithstanding pressure to diversify their alliances, I observed that no clan was related to all the others, even if one goes back four or five generations. Furthermore, all lineages were easily capable of self-sufficiency while producing the indispensable surplus to barter with other tribes for what they did not produce themselves. Neither kinship relations nor economic relations, then, created general ties of interdependence among all kin groups.

Prompted by the example of the Baruya, I would like to compare the births of other societies, beginning with Tikopia (Firth 1967a; 1967b). When Raymond Firth arrived in Tikopia for the first time, in 1928, the island's old political and religious organization was still almost intact. The society was divided into four non-exogamous clans, ranked according to the tasks they performed in the cycle of rites ensuring the fertility of the land, the sea, and human beings. The Kafika clan and its chief occupied the top rung. But the chiefs were not alone in performing the rites; the gods were at their side. In a note, Firth mentions that Tikopia did not exist a few centuries earlier. Human groups from other islands – Puka Puka, Anuta, Rotuma, and so forth – had settled the island at different times. These groups warred with each other until an ancestor of the Kafika managed to persuade them each to take a role in the cycle of rites connected with the work of the chiefs with the gods. Once again we see that it is political-religious rites that integrate a set of human groups from different places into a Whole that makes a society.

The example of the Tikopia enables us to move beyond the limits set by the case of the Baruya. Another type of social hierarchy and another role played by economic relations emerges in Tikopia. The chiefs in charge of the rituals were considered to be imbued with a divine nature, and the ancestor of the Kafika clan chief was regarded as the Atua, the god of the island. The chiefs were spared the hardest productive tasks (which was not the case for the Baruya initiation-masters). At the same time, it was the chiefs who parcelled out the gardens and fields and who imposed and lifted the collective taboos that punctuated the fishing and farming seasons. And had we visited Tonga, Tahiti, or even Hawaii before the Europeans arrived, we would have seen that their chiefs and their lineages wielded even more power over the people and the economy than the chiefs in Tikopia. In Tonga, the eiki, the nobles, had almost absolute power over the persons and the labour of the commoners and their access to land. The paramount chief of Tonga, the Tu'i Tonga, was seen and honoured as the descendant of Tangaloa, the principal Polynesian god (Douaire-Marsaudon 1998). In Tonga, the nobles no longer involved themselves in any productive task. Their role was exclusively to perform the rites alongside the Tu'i Tonga, or to make war. Once again, it is the establishment of political-religious relations that explains the foundation of these societies; but the fact that those who exercise these functions are entirely detached from productive activities necessarily means that the economic relations between nobles and commoners become essential to the production and reproduction of this type of society.

Let us venture further abroad and closer to our own time. Saudi Arabia did not exist until it began to emerge in 1742 from the encounter between two men representing two social forces: Mohammed Bin Abd al-Wahhab and Mohammed Ibn Saoud. The first was a religious reformer who had been excluded from his tribal confederation for preaching jihad against what he considered to be the bad Muslims populating Mecca and Medina, Islam's holy places. The second was a local tribal chief who ruled a small city in Najd in the centre of Arabia and aspired to bring all of the surrounding tribes under his rule as well. But in the Muslim world, no political ambition can be fulfilled without the help of religion and no religious reform can be successful without the backing of a powerful political figure. Historians recount that Mohammed Ibn Saoud greeted Mohammed Bin Abd al-Wahhab saying: ‘This oasis is yours, do not fear your enemies. In the name of God, even if all of Najd wanted to banish you, we will never forsake you’. To which Mohammed Bin Abd al-Wahhab is supposed to have replied: ‘You are the sheik of this oasis and you are a wise man. I want you to promise to make jihad against unbelievers. In return, you will be Imam, Leader of the Muslim community and I will take care of religious affairs’ (quoted by Al-Rasheed 2002: 17). At the time, the West had not defeated this part of Arabia (the Najd region), which the Ottoman Empire itself had not fully conquered. In the eighteenth century, the Wahhabist movement declared jihad on ‘bad’ Muslims, those who dared to interpret the Qur'an in their own interests (Vassiliev 2002). Today militant Wahhabism sees as its enemies not only bad Muslims but Jews, Christians, and the West.

Before addressing the last concept, ‘identity’, I would like to draw a number of theoretical consequences from the foregoing analyses. First of all I was obliged to conclude that the Baruya were not a kin-based society. Their society has never been ‘based’ on kinship relations. In fact, I think that there has never been any such a thing as a kin-based society. Nowhere in the world have kinship or the family served as the basis and foundation of a society, even though throughout the world kinship relations and all forms of the family have been essential components of social life.

Our analysis also enables us to clarify the difference between a ‘community’ and a ‘society’. It is essential not to confuse the two concepts or the distinct social and historical realities behind them. One example will suffice to make this difference clear. The Jews of the Diaspora living in London, New York, Paris, or Amsterdam form communities within the societies and countries of Great Britain, the United States, France, and Holland. They live alongside Turkish communities, Pakistani communities, and so forth, each of which has its own life-style and traditions. On the contrary, the Jews of the Diaspora who have left these countries to live in Israel are now living in a society that they have created in the Middle East and which is represented and governed by a state whose borders they wish to see recognized definitively by the neighbouring peoples and countries. This is what the Palestinians too want: a territory and a state. Once again, the criterion of a society is sovereignty over a territory. It is important to note that all of these communities lead a social existence within the host society that is peculiar to them. To give another example: all big cities in the world have a Chinatown, where Chinese continue to speak their own language, follow their own holiday calendar, and run restaurants. They form communities, but these are not societies.

In passing, I would also like to make a distinction which seems to have become obsolete for many of our colleagues: I call ‘tribe’ the form of society that is the Baruya's, just as I call their kin groups ‘patrilineal clans and lineages’. And I call ‘ethnic groups’ the set of local groups in this region that claims to have a common origin and to come from the dispersion of groups that used to live in the vicinity of Menyamya. The Baruya call this set of groups to which they know they belong ‘those who wear the same ornaments as we’. But the fact of being conscious of belonging to these same sets of groups does not give a Baruya access to either land or women and does not keep him from making war on the neighbouring tribes that belong to the same set of groups. We see from this that it is only the ‘tribe’ that is a ‘society’ for the Baruya, while the ethnic group constitutes a ‘community’ of culture and memory, but not a ‘society’. This sheds light on the fact that, in order to become a society, an ethnic group today must sometimes manage to form a state that will ensure sovereignty over a territory. This is one of the demands of the Kurdish groups that are dispersed over several states. It was also a demand made by the Bosnians and the Kosovars. Furthermore, in some cases, an ethnic group seeking to appropriate a state and a territory for itself alone decides to carry out ethnic cleansing.

In Western societies, in principle democracies, we observe two different responses to the presence of various religious, ethnic, and other communities in the society: either communalism, the British response, or integration, the French response. However, neither seems to have truly managed to resolve the problems raised by cultural and religious diversity in modern societies.

Another theoretical conclusion can be drawn from these analyses. In the case of the Baruya, the economic activities and the social relations that implement them do not seem capable of producing societies. But in the examples of Tikopia, Tonga, and Saudi Arabia, we see that what are called ‘economic activities and relations’ seem to play a very different role in the course of human history, particularly when social groups appear which ensure and control the political and religious activities. The formation of concrete societies is therefore not explained by their modes of production, but instead, in all likelihood, it was the centuries-long development of new concrete forms of power, which mixed, combined, or fused politics and religion, that entailed the changes in the modes of production. Of course, from the moment those who have power depend on those who have none for their material existence, the ties between economics and politics become reciprocal – which is roughly the reverse of Marx's hypothesis.

A last point before going into the question of identities. Social relations exist not only between but also within each of the individuals and groups involved in these relations. That part of the social relations that exists within individuals is what I call their ‘mental and subjective’ structure, which is composed not only of representations but also of action principles and prohibitions. The example of the Baruya initiation rites showed that at the heart of the mental portion of their social relations are cores of reality that are (for us) completely imaginary. And the same could be said of biblical myths of the New Testament, which describes the brief passage on earth of a God believed to have died for us on a Cross. We thus measure the huge role of the imaginary in the construction of social realities and the subjectivities that experience and reproduce them. But I would like to stress that there are also cultural facts which are broader than the local social relations in which the actors are involved and which have an impact on the history of their societies, for instance Christianity and Islam, two monotheistic religions that arose centuries ago and which became a component not only of the culture and development of hundreds of local societies but also of the subjectivity of hundreds of millions of individuals whose only common tie is their religion.

With this allusion to Christianity, I will turn to the final part of my exposé, the analysis of the changes that have occurred in the identities of people belonging to societies subjected to enormous pressures of all kinds coming from the West – military, economic, political, and cultural – like those experienced by the Baruya since, in 1960, Australia decided to extend its colonial power over this part of Papua New Guinea.

By ‘identity’, I mean the crystallization within an individual of the social and cultural relations in which he or she is involved and which he or she is led to reproduce or reject. One is the father or the son of someone, for example, and this relation with the Other defines the relationship that exists between the two and at the same time within each individual, but in a different form for each: the father is not his son. This is the definition of the Social Ego that each of us displays to others. But there is another side of the Ego, the Intimate or innermost Ego, which is formed by the positive or negative encounters of this Social Ego with others. That is why each person's social identity is both one and many, fashioned by the numerous relations he or she has with others.

This definition applies to the Baruya as well. I am going to describe for you a few stages in their recent history and let you hear the comments some of them made to me concerning the changes occurring in their society. As we shall see, their history was bound to bring the Baruya into conflict within themselves and with others, and to produce what I call ‘conflicted identities’.

The Baruya, who until 1951 had never seen a European, even if, since the war in the Pacific theatre, they were aware of their remote existence, were to become Australian subjects just nine years later. In 1960, a military expedition was mounted by the Australian government with the aim of pacifying the Baruya region: the Baruya were then at war with their neighbours and enemies, the Youwarrounatche. At one and the same time, the self-governing Baruya, who exercised their particular form of sovereignty over their territory and themselves, were colonized and turned into subjects of the Queen of England. For a society to be colonized means quite simply that overnight its sovereignty is abolished and appropriated by others, in this case the colonial government. The future of this society will henceforth depend largely on decisions made by an outside power. In 1975, once again without having asked or really understanding, the Baruya ceased being subjects and became citizens of the state of Papua New Guinea, which was granted independence by Australia. But this does not mean that the Baruya recovered their former sovereignty over themselves, or their old right to mete out justice or to attack their neighbours and take their land. Now citizens of a multicultural nation whose creation was needed to consolidate the existence of an artificially composed and newly independent state, the Baruya found themselves endowed with new rights and duties. The Baruya society did not disappear, but it ceased to be a sovereign society and instead became a local territorial group, featuring on the Administration's official list of tribes.

In 1960, Australia built a patrol post and an airstrip at Wonenara, on the site where Baruya warriors were accustomed to do battle with their neighbours. Soon afterwards a missionary from the Summer Institute of Linguistics arrived to learn the Baruya language in order to translate the Bible and to convert them to Christianity. In the same year, a young British officer burned one of the Baruya's villages as punishment for feuding, and in the fire were lost the sacred flint-stones used to rekindle the primordial fire during the initiations as well as the dried fingers of the hero Bakitchatche, who had led the Baruya in battle against the Andje. In 1961, a Lutheran mission built a school attended by a few boys and girls from the Baruya and enemy tribes. But until 1965, the region was ‘restricted’, that is to say, Europeans were forbidden to go beyond the protective perimeter of the patrol post.

In 1966 I arrived in Wonenara. At the time, only one Baruya had converted to Christianity, a young man who acted as an informant for the missionary-linguist who had come to translate the Bible. But the first pupils of the Lutheran mission school were already preparing to leave for the city to pursue their studies in religious high schools. I questioned one of the young men who were leaving about what he thought of Baruya customs. He said to me: ‘I spit on the elders’pul-pul, on their customs, it's shit'.

In 1968, the Baruya held large-scale initiations, at which time an old warrior, Bwarimac, addressed me in public, shaking a stone club. He said to me: ‘Moriselo, you see there what made our force. But today our clubs have been bought by the Whites as souvenirs. To them we showed the branches and leaves. To you we have just now shown the trunk and the roots’. Which goes to show how conscious he was of his identity and culture.

In 1979, after independence, the Baruya resumed initiating their children, but also continued to send growing numbers of them, boys and girls, away to school. In 1983, enemies of the Baruya, the Youwarrounatche, decided to take back the airstrip, and killed several Baruya, one of whom, Gwataye, was a friend of mine: they shot him full of arrows while one of them battered in his face with a big rock, saying: ‘May your spirit go back to Bravegareubaramandeuc’, in other words to the place where the Baruya ancestors lived when they were still Yoyue and had not yet been massacred by their brothers. The police arrived at the scene by helicopter, but did not dare land and simply burned a Baruya village by dropping grenades.

In 1985 the Baruya again initiated their children and in 1988 they initiated a number of shamans in the course of rites that are carried out once every fifteen years. I was present. Then everything came to a halt until 2006 when, after a pause of twenty-one years, the now-Christian Baruya began once more to initiate their young people (but this time without piercing their noses), to the astonishment of all their neighbours, who had ceased their initiations. The same year they also resumed initiating new shamans. In the interval, the Baruya had stopped making their salt-money and had used the land to plant coffee, which they export but do not drink. Having lost the use of their airstrip, which was still in the hands of enemies armed no longer with longer bows and arrows but with Kalashnikovs, they have built a new airstrip inside their territory in order to export their coffee and to be able to leave their valley. This all-too-brief summary of nearly a half century of history gives you a good idea of the changes that have occurred in the Baruya's ways of thinking and acting – in their identities, in sum.

The young man who had told me that he spat on the ancestors' pul-pul came home for the 1985 initiations dressed in European clothing and holding a job with the forest service. Breaking every rule, he stepped in front of the masters of the initiations and lectured the initiates and elders: ‘What you are doing is good; perform the rites. What you are doing is what the Whites call “caltcha”[culture], that is where our force is, that is what you must rely on when you are in the cities, alone, without work, without friends, hungry’.

In 1988, I participated in the installation of new shamans, which lasted nearly a month and mobilized a large portion of the population. But for the first time some had refused to participate. Then a group of men and women came to me and asked me to write their names in a notebook, each time adding a biblical first name – David, Sarah, John, Mary, and so forth. I wrote these down, and when I asked why, they told me that they were all waiting for the next missionaries, whatever their denomination, so they could be baptized. When I asked: ‘Why do you want to be baptized?’ a young man with a forceful personality answered: ‘So we can be new men and women’. When I asked: ‘What is a new man?’, he answered: ‘Two things: following Jesus and doing Bisnis’.

Twenty-one years later, all of the Baruya are Christians. Five different Protestant Churches care for their souls and some Baruya have already joined three different Churches. Of course all of these decisions taken by individuals alone or collectively are choices, designed either to preserve something of their past on which they can still rely or to adhere to something new that will also be of help in the future. The Baruya are Christians, to be sure, and citizens, but at the same time they are still at war with their traditional enemies; and that is also perhaps what they were reaffirming when in 2006 they built a tsimia and carried out rites, though now redefined to be sure and somewhat simplified.

This ends my account, which mixes the lives of individuals with that of their society, but I would like to conclude by stressing once again that anthropology is more necessary than ever in the world in which we live. Neither molecular biology nor nanotechnology is going to teach us what it means to be Shia or Sunni or Pashtoun, or explain the history of Western colonial expansion. As anthropologists, we have to do fieldwork, remain conscious of the position we occupy, conduct systematic studies over the long term, with the co-operation and insight of those with whom we have come to live and work; and we have to subject our methods, analyses, and conclusions to constant critical reflection. All of this makes anthropology an indispensable discipline for gaining a slightly better understanding of the globalized world in which we live and will continue to live.

But today's world is pulled in two directions. No society, great or small, can hope for economic development without becoming daily more bound up with the world capitalist system. But paradoxically, as their economies integrate the capitalist system, we see these societies demanding greater sovereignty over their own political and cultural development either by reinventing traditions or by rejecting the Human Rights of the West. This two-pronged movement of economic integration and reassertion of national or local identities is the new context in which we will be practising our trade. And it is a context that we can and must understand.

Anthropology therefore has a fine career ahead of it, even if it takes the death of a few of its old celebrated ‘truths’. For my part, I plan to continue to analyse various forms of sovereignties that human groups have devised and imposed – on themselves and others – throughout history.


  1. Translated by Nora Scott. I would like first of all to thank my colleagues at the Royal Anthropological Institute for having made me a Fellow and asking me to give this year's Huxley Memorial Lecture. It is, as you can well imagine, not only a great privilege but also a great pleasure to have this opportunity to share a few of my convictions concerning the ever-greater importance of anthropology for the world in which we are living and going to live.

Professor Maurice Godelier is Directeur d'études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. He is currently working with a group of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians to set up a comparative research programme on the processes and contexts that laid the grounds for the development, at various points in history and in various parts of the world, of the forms of sovereignty which appear to us today as proto-states or states.