“Great men”, “big-men”: revisiting the Baruya of Papua New Guinea and muddling the models

Abstract : The Baruya of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea became famous in anthropology for “Great Men” model that Godelier forged (1986), enriching previous paradigms of leadership (Sahlins 1963). The Great man has already created much debate and discussion (see Godelier and Strathern 1991), but little has been said about its relationship to Western-like, capitalist modernity. Ben Finney (1973) argued that the “Big men” were entrepreneurs in the making, whose culture suited the new glove of colonial modernity. What about the Great men in this new reality? The Baruya remain virtually “off the grid”, with hardly any Digicel coverage and no internet, but they are now part of a state that imposes its rules on them via the electoral system, the action of magistrates and village courts, and through local schools in English. Some Baruya also engage in the international market economy by selling coffee and migrating to town or coastal plantations for wage labour. The impact of churches has led to a decrease in the importance and role of initiations. Who are the Great men today? Have the Great men just disappeared? Does it even make sense to use those terms? Maybe the process is not so much that of a “bigmanization” of Baruya society (Liep 1991: 46-47) as it is a “de-greatmanization” of society (Bolyanatz 2000: 122)? If modernity has not annihilated the necessity for prestige and “greatmanship”, maybe it has merely displaced it; can women now pursue these new avenues, and can the model encompass both genders? One has to wonder whether such models blur reality, and are potentially at odds with what is observed on the field; but one could also think about muddling the muddle, as some models are still indeed useful to think with.
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Contributor : Anne-Sylvie Malbrancke <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - 12:55:25 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 1:30:31 AM

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Anne-Sylvie Malbrancke. “Great men”, “big-men”: revisiting the Baruya of Papua New Guinea and muddling the models. European Society for Oceanists 2015 Conference, Jun 2015, Bruxelles, Belgium. ⟨hal-01271563⟩

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