From reasons of state to individual interest: Morality, power and the political category

Joel Robbins


This article argues that political anthropology has never had a version of the substantivist/formalist debate that shaped economic anthropology. Instead, political anthropology tends to rely rather unselfconsciously on Western notions of power and individual interests in formulating its most influential theoretical programs (e.g., practice theory, various forms of marxist thinking, and studies of resistance). In the Western tradition from which these theories draw, morality and politics are often construed as opposed social domains. After tracing the genealogy of this split, I consider some of the key political concepts at the heart of Melanesian traditions of big-manship, suggesting they link morality and politics in ways that escape the reach of much of political anthropology. I illustrate this point with material from my fieldwork with the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea. By making this argument, I aim to contribute to this collection’s goal of establishing a wide-ranging comparative anthropology of politics.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/723224