Big Man (Anthropology)

The Big Man, the prototypical Melanesian leader, is a key figure in the ethnography of Melanesia. He stands at the centre of a complex of economic and political structures found generally across the region, although the model Big Man inhabits Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and, to a lesser extent, Vanuatu. He along with his counterpart the chief in Polynesia together serve to delineate a major ethnographic boundary in the Pacific. Big Man has frequently been defined in counterpoint to chief, each of these twinned Pacific political types shadowing the other. Marshall Sahlins’s influential comparison of the two leadership types, in fact, did much to cement the term ‘Big Man’ into anthropological parlance (Sahlins 1963). Alternative labels for Melanesian leaders have included ‘headman’, ‘centreman’, ‘strongman’, ‘director’ and ‘manager’. Big Man, however, is apt anthropological terminology because it is a direct translation of indigenous terms for leader in numerous island vernaculars (Lindstrom 1981).

Sahlins, drawing largely on ethnographic accounts of Bougainville Island and Papua New Guinean political systems, characterized the Big Man as ‘reminiscent of the free-enterprising rugged individual of our own heritage. He combines with an ostensible interest in the general welfare a more profound measure of self-interested cunning and economic calculation’ (1963: 289). This caricature epitomized the archetypal Big Man whose political status flows primarily from economic ability. Whereas a chief succeeds to an ascribed status, a Big Man achieves his leadership position. A politically ambitious man accumulates both subsistence and prestige goods (e.g. pigs, shell money, yam, taro and other foodstuffs) in order to give away this wealth. He also plans and takes charge of rituals of economic redistribution. By astute economic generosity and management he secures influence over his kin and neighbours, who become his debtors. People support a Big Man’s political endeavours and his ambitions to build his ‘name’ because he contributes to their brideprice funds, bankrolls their ritual obligations and because they also, as a group, profit from investing in his increasing political renown.

The various means and consequences of Big Man status achievement have been important issues within Melanesian ethnography, and the stock Big Man, as quickly sketched by Sahlins, rapidly developed ethnographic complications. Areas of concern have included the sort of person who becomes a Big Man; the various means by which Big Men achieve and maintain their positions; the economic consequences of Big Man politicking; the amount of authority and/or influence that Big Men possess; the structural relations between Big Men and the social groups they lead; the relationship of Big Men to colonial and post-colonial Melanesian states; and whether ‘Big Women’ might also exist within island societies.

A central question concerns the means by which Big Men acquire and hold power without the traditional authority that chiefly status accords and without other institutionalized mechanisms of social control. A Big Man who underperforms or who overdemands may be elbowed aside by his competitors and abandoned by his following. Thus, Big Men typically possess aggrandizing and competitive personalities, but they must also be able to accommodate other people’s demands for economic equivalence and political cooperation. Big Men must rely on skills of oratory and persuasion, leading by example or by cajolery in hopes — not always fulfilled — that others will follow.

Many Big Men acquire their influence through economic production and exchange — their political ambitions, as Sahlins noted, fuelling the production of surpluses within Melanesia’s horticultural and cash economies. Big Man competitive politicking encourages people to produce subsistence and prestige goods beyond local needs and to participate in trade networks that circulate these goods throughout extensive regions. In parts of Melanesia, such politicking has also inflated customary brideprice payments; young women from Paama, Vanuatu, for example, are sometimes called ‘Toyotas’ after the sort of good their families demand.

Other Big Men are such because of their specialized knowledge of genealogy, myth and history, curing and magic; and the influence of some leaders once depended on physical strength and on strategic abilities in war as well. This sort of achieved political influence, too, originates in an unequal exchange, although people here transact information and services rather than shell monies, yams, or pigs (see Harrison 1993). Whether transactions involve pigs, money or knowledge, Big Men acquire and maintain their political influence over followers by engaging in ongoing imbalanced reciprocal exchange.

The Big Man, as a political type, has been generalized and extended outside of Melanesia to label leaders who achieve their positions by engaging in astute exchange. Anthropologists have spotted, for example, Big Men in the halls of the United States Congress as well as within a number of other political organizations worldwide (see, e.g. van Bakel et al 1986).

Back in Melanesia, though, the term has lost some of its currency. Leadership patterns are varied and complex in these islands, and the term ‘chief more accurately describes the capacities of leaders in many Melanesian societies (in Fiji, New Caledonia and among Papua New Guinea’s Mekeo and Trobriand Islands peoples, for example). Elsewhere, anthropologists, following ^Maurice Godelier, have bifurcated the Big Man to locate a different sort of Melanesian leader: the ‘Great Man’. Great Men exist in societies whose exchange practices are differently constituted to those where Big Men operate. Great Men ‘flourish where public life turns on male initiation rather than ceremonial exchange, on the direct exchange of women in marriage and on warfare pursued as homicide for homicide’ (Godelier and Strathern 1991: 1).

Exchange, in this sort of society, requires a manifest balance — pig for pig, marital partner for partner and homicide for homicide. This equivalence disallows the sort of clever investment and exchange schemes that Big Men elsewhere use to turn economic obligation into political power. Great Men, instead, deal in knowledge and services whose exchange is less constrained by demands for equivalence.

As anthropologists enlarge the company of Melanesian leadership types, many post-colonial local leaders in these islands reclaim for themselves the label ‘chief. There are a variety of local, provincial and national councils of chiefs throughout the region (such as Vanuatu’s Mal-vatumauri and Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs); no one, yet, has organized a National Council of Big Men.

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