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The death of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins

Marshall Sahlins died on April 5, at the age of 90, in his home in Chicago, Illinois, announced the university of this city, where he taught for a long time. He was arguably the greatest contemporary anthropologist in Oceania. Unclassifiable scholar, man of the field and tireless purveyor of ideas, he launched some of the greatest debates in the discipline. He was the author of seventeen books, six of which have been translated into French.

He was born on December 27, 1930 in Chicago to Russian immigrant parents. After a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Ann Arbor (Michigan), he defended, in 1954 in New York, a thesis on social inequality in Polynesian societies at Columbia University (Social stratification in Polynesia, 1958; “Social stratification in Polynesia”, not translated). As soon as he graduated, he flew to Fiji, with Barbara Vollen, whom he had just married. After two years of collecting ethnographic data, he returned to the University of Ann Arbor, where he taught until 1974.

Read also (archive from 2009): “Human Nature, a Western Illusion”, by Marshall Sahlins: Against the Myth of Selfishness

His early works are marked by an evolutionary Marxism, that of Leslie White (1900-1975), who trained it. At this time, Marshall Sahlins is trying to understand whether Oceanic societies act in the political and economic field for cultural reasons (in the name of their values) or for practical reasons (out of interest). But he will quickly free himself from this theoretical heritage, not hesitating to go back on his assumptions, shaking up the dominant models of his time while remaining a committed man. His lively protest against the Vietnam War, with which he associated his students, and later that of Iraq, made him an unconditional pacifist.

Deep ties with France

Thanks to an invitation to the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and to the University of Nanterre, he stayed in France in 1968 and 1969. He then discovered a Paris where structuralism was on the way to colonize the world. anthropology. Sahlins will keep deep ties with France, whose language this polyglot spoke.

If he does not seek controversies, he attracts them and many of his publications provoke debate and controversy. This is the case with his article published in 1963 in the review Society and History, “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia”, where he shows how, for revive their economic system, companies are trying to destroy the goods they have accumulated. This text of just under twenty pages is a great success: it is cited more than a thousand times in academic publications.

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