Professor Maurice Godelier, of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes
Maurice Godelier, born in a poor family in Provincial France, began his intellectual career as an anthropologist-philosopher with a particular interest in the works of Husserl. After obtaining his agrégation in philosophy, Godelier pursued an interest in Marxist theory and politics and, influenced by Lévi-Strauss, saw in anthropology a field that would provide the most fruitful avenues for the questions that preoccupied him. In 1963 he organized at the Collège de France the first program of study in economic anthropology to be offered in France. His particular concerns were to refine some of Marx's most useful insights—including the relationship between infrastructure and superstructure, and the typology of modes of production—and apply them to nonwestern societies.
From 1966–1969, Godelier conducted his first major anthropological field research among the Baruya of Papua New Guinea. This research was a turning point, leading to major contributions to the understanding of New Guinea cultures. His ethnography of the Baruya, The Making of Great Men (1982), is a modern classic. It reflects his concern with sex- and gender-based inequality, concerns he went on to investigate comparatively across huntinggathering societies, stimulated in part by Eleanor Leacock. His analysis of the Baruya material also shed light on systems of power in Melanesia: he demonstrated that, while the celebrated "Big Men" claim power by controlling exchange in certain New Guinea societies, other societies recognize "Great Men," who distinguish themselves as warriors, shamans, and initiators of younger men. These insights are fleshed out in Big Men and Great Men (1991), which Godelier co-edited with Marilyn Strathern.
His more recent work has led him in two directions. One is a rethinking of the fate of peripheral societies under the yoke of world capitalism; the other is a reconsideration of kinship theory, in which issues of gender inequality and sexuality figure prominently. This latter work is informed by original thinking in both psychoanalysis and physical anthropology, a testimony to the extraordinary breadth of Professor Godelier's expertise. His work on kinship has recently inspired the publication of a collection of essays, co-edited with Jacques Hassoun (Meurtre du Père, Sacrifice de la Sexualité, 1996). His two most recent single-authored books, The Mental and the Material (1984) and L'Enigme du Don (1996) pursue both older and newer areas of inquiries.
The same humanism that pervades Godelier's writings and research defines him as a person. Those who know him personally value his charm, his gregariousness, his sense of humor, and his generosity. He is extraordinarily attentive to those around him and to their thinking, regardless of their standing in the profession or in society. The combination of his extraordinary accomplishments with such outstanding personal qualities make him a rare human being.
Niko Besnier, Victoria University of Wellington, and Alan Howard, University of Hawai'i (April 1997 Newsletter)