In spite of numerous critiques, Marshall Sahlins’ dual model opposing the ‘Big Man’ to the ‘Chief’ still seems to haunt studies dealing with past and contemporary sociopolitical organizations of Melanesia. Embedded in this discussion stands an enduring problem of how categories fit social and cultural realities.
Going back to Sahlins’ original model and its critiques allows, on the one hand, to identify the criteria on which sociopolitical ‘types’ have been grounded and, on the other hand, to examine the offered alternatives by Sahlins’ critiques or followers. This review brings about a broader question. Namely, on what grounds would it be possible to elaborate a comparison and a classification of sociopolitical systems in Melanesia as they could have been described by ethnographers, while taking into account their diversity and historicity? Would there be no alternative to analyze Melanesian political systems but through abstract cultural ‘types’? These are questions that this talk aims to address. With the help of published works and by focusing more on the Solomon Islands populations, it presents the first steps of on-going research and hints at what could be an alternative framework and methodology to realize a comparative analysis of Melanesian political systems.
François-Xavier Faucounau is a PhD student at L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and at the Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie (CREDO) in Marseille, France, under the supervision of Laurent Dousset (EHESS) and Chris Ballard (ANU). His PhD project, A Comparative Study of Leadership in Zabana (Santa Isabel): re-examining the notions of “chief” and “big man” in Island Melanesia. François-Xavier’s previous research focused on the Banaban community, whose original island had been largely destroyed by phosphate mining, and who were resettled to Rabi (Fiji) after the Second World War.