Dumont’s hierarchical dynamism

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Joel Robbins. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.009


Dumont’s hierarchical dynamism

Christianity and individualism revisited

Joel ROBBINS, University of Cambridge

In this article I offer a dynamic account of the relations between values in Dumont’s theory. I then suggest that we can use this account to reframe the recent debate surrounding the extent to which Christianity sometimes introduces the value of individualism into the social formations created by recent converts from religions in which it was not important. Scholars who are skeptical of the importance of individualism among converts assert either that Christianity is not individualist or that it fosters various kinds of relationships as much as or more than it fosters a focus on the individual. I suggest that on my dynamic reading of Dumont we can draw on his theory to develop an understanding of individualism as a value that [190]allows us recognize the role of relationships in some Christian traditions without having to underplay their individualist components. I develop my argument through a discussion of ethnographic materials from Papua New Guinea and, comparatively, from Africa and Amazonia.

Keywords: individualism, Dumont, values, Christianity, dividualism, cultural change

In the first chapter of his last book, German ideology, Louis Dumont (1994) makes a strong claim that individualism as a value can never be fully realized, that it can never achieve its goal of coming to govern all domains of social life. “Individualism,” he asserts, “is unable to replace holism wholesale and rule everywhere in society … in actual fact it was never able to function without an unperceived contribution of holism to its life” (ibid.: 8). Dumont goes on to argue that this is the case for several reasons, of which I want to stress here one that he argues for elsewhere but leaves implicit in this piece. The reason in question is in fact one of Dumont’s most fundamental assumptions: that all human life grows out of social relations and so must be grounded in holist configurations in order to exist (e.g., Dumont 1980). Given this fact, no collection of human beings can live completely without [174]such holist configurations, and the implementation of individualism, when it is implemented at all, is always selective, restricted to only some domains of social life (Dumont 1994: 8–9). Put differently, because human life is in reality social, individualism must always be found in combination with holism. This “fact is not due to a legacy of the past [i.e., it is not due to the fact that holism as a paramount value appears to have preceded individualism historically]; it is enduring, permanent, definitive” (ibid.: 15). To study individualism, then, is never to study societies that are only individualist, but rather “to come to some reasonable idea about the place or significance of individualism in society, to gauge the extent to which it has really worked … to see between what limits it was able to replace holism” (ibid.: 7–8, emphasis mine).

In some respects, Dumont’s argument about the essentially limited nature of individualism as a socially realized value should be an obvious one. Anyone with a grasp of the first principles of sociology or anthropology ought to surmise that individualism can never completely banish holism from social life. Yet if we fully acknowledge Dumont’s point, it plays havoc with many of the simplistic understandings that have dominated the reception of his work. Those understandings figure Dumont as arguing that there are two kinds of societies in the world, holist ones and individualist ones, and that they are discrete and separate. But if, to coin a phrase, neither we nor anyone else has ever been fully individualist, the picture becomes more complex. Rather than examining two wholly distinct kinds of societies, we would be looking at divergent developments of values that hold between social formations that in fact share a fundamental commitment, recognized or not, to holism (see Kapferer 2010). Furthermore, if the work of individualism, where it is a value, is never finished, then individualist formations must of necessity be dynamic ones—ones in which individualism struggles to gain ground, producing social and ideological movement as it sometimes advances and sometimes retreats from domains it endeavors to organize. There is nothing static, then, about Dumont’s vision of individualist social formations, nor, I would suggest, of any other social formations.1 One argument I want to develop here is that the view from value will always generate social theories that assume that dynamism is inherent in social life.

In making an argument that some kind of value-driven dynamism is of necessity part of social life, I am joining an important stream of contemporary readings of Dumont. Thus, for example, Knut Rio and Olaf Smedal (2009) have recently read Dumont’s theory as demonstrating how values establish social process as a continuous play of totalization and detotalization. Bruce Kapferer (2010: 199) has in somewhat, though not wholly, similar terms stressed that “the holism of Dumont based on the hierarchy of value specifies a system which is open rather than closed, fixed, or static, thus defining a space of multiple potentiality.” In a different but related vein, and one that will be important to my own ethnographically based [175]argument in this article, André Iteanu (2005) has focused less on dynamism as change than on the way relatively stable patterns of action in a society can regularly produce the active encompassment of a lower-ranked value by a higher-ranked one, as exchange routinely encompasses ritual among the Orokaiva. Such patterns of enacted encompassment become templates for various (and potentially novel) efforts to realize the values toward which they are directed. What all of these approaches to reading Dumont share is the conviction that values do not produce inert representations, but rather set social life in motion.

I share this conviction, and will take a moment here to ground it in my own terms—terms which are largely in keeping with and have been influenced by the work of those scholars I have just mentioned but are nonetheless slightly different. At the very end of Homo hierarchicus, Dumont (1980: 245) urges that analysts “need to recognize the presence of transcendence at the heart of social life.” He understands transcendence here as a movement toward the whole, defined as the most encompassing level of value relevant to a given situation or problem (see also Kapferer 2010). There is a drive toward such a whole because it is only in relation to a “superior level” that social actors (or analysts) can understand the import of any level to which they wish to attend (Dumont 1980: 245). If meaning is made by way of hierarchical opposition, then no one will ever grasp any element of an ideology without transcending it in their understanding by referring it to a level above it. A crucial corollary of this is that every whole, or superior level, will seek its own transcendence in a superior level that will likewise give it meaning. It is this constant seeking after more encompassing levels that renders social life of necessity restless and dynamic.2 This dynamism is experienced by social actors as a striving for ever fuller or better realizations of key values, or for fuller or better understandings of kinds of values and their relative ranking—a kind of striving that we often figure as giving life “direction.” This dynamism also registers socially, where it appears as the movement of key values into new domains, or the creation of institutions that better realize such values in domains in which they have already been present. And, of course, this dynamism can also register as the failure of such social movements, and in experiential terms life can become chaotic and lose its direction. But whether they succeed or fail, people’s efforts to give their existence some direction and their attempts to move values into new domains or to afford them higher degrees of realization render social life everywhere dynamic.3

[176]The impossibility of ever fully realizing individualism lends it something of a special status as regards the dynamism I have just described. Because it is always incomplete, always a horizon that is never reached, wherever it makes an appearance it forever holds itself out as a transcendent level one can strive to reach. It stands ready to serve as the transcendent, encompassing frame for any other whole for which one might be in search of a superior level to give it sense. At the same time, since its work is never finished, its ideal form is also available to serve as the superior whole to which less than perfect attempts to realize its own value can be referred. It is perhaps for this reason that societies in which the realization of the value of individualism has become a goal are so aware of their own dynamism, so invested in their ability to progress toward a kind of transcendence that remains a fixed but unattainable endpoint of their efforts. In formal terms, their dynamic seeking after transcendence is not unique, but their conscious of it may well be.

In the article that follows, I develop both my general argument concerning the dynamism inherent in Dumont’s view of social formations and some of the hints I have just given regarding what might be unique about the dynamics of social formations in which individualism is in play. I will do so through an intervention in a debate that has recently arisen in the anthropological study of Christianity over the question of whether or not this religion can be seen as promoting individualism. I hope to show that the dynamic reading of Dumont that I am developing here can help to frame this debate in a more productive way than it has been to this point, and to avoid the kinds of confusion into which it has tended to fall. I will then use a discussion of my own research among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea to illustrate both this claim about the study of the relationship between Christianity and individualism and my more general approach to deploying Dumont’s theoretical contributions.

Christianity and individualism: The state of play

As is by now well known, the 1990s saw the beginnings of a concerted effort to develop an anthropology of Christianity (see Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008 and Robbins 2014 for reviews). From early on, the literature that fed into this effort stressed the tendency of Christianity, particularly in its evangelical forms, to [177]introduce individualism among its converts. Different authors emphasized different aspects of individualism in their accounts. For some Africanists, it was primarily a matter of breaking with kin (Meyer 2004: 461); for scholars working elsewhere, it consisted of the ability of converts to directly challenge the norms of the society in which they are embedded (Errington and Gewertz 1995), or to speak their minds sincerely, unfettered by social convention (Keane 2007), or, drawing on Dumont (1986), it was rooted in a focus on the individual as the sole unit of salvation (Robbins 2004). Although these authors and others treated individualism in diverse ways, they were united in their claims that fostering some version of it was an important project for Christian converts, and that the notions of individualism these converts held followed from what they understood to be Christian doctrines and practices. Quite quickly, the idea that Christianity in many if not all of its forms promoted various kinds of individualism became a staple of the literature in the anthropology of Christianity (Robbins 2012).

In the face of the rising number of works linking Christianity and individualism, there has recently developed a set of critical responses suggesting that the anthropological discussion of Christian individualism is marred by mistaken understandings of Christianity and/or an undue emphasis on its individualist aspects. As is true for those who have written about Christian individualism, their critics also make a diverse set of arguments. Since my goal is to reorient some of these debates, I want to lay out this diversity with some care.

The most influential opening salvo in the debates over Christian individualism came from Mark Mosko (2010). His position is also the most extreme, in that he argues that Christianity is not at all individualist. Instead, he suggests, Christianity, like Melanesian social life as he understands it, is a matter of exchanges of partible aspects of the self between beings (human and divine) that need to be understood not as individuals but rather as “dividuals” (a term he borrows from Strathern [e.g., 1988], who in turn took it from Marriott [1976]). Like the Papua New Guinea Mekeo, who on Mosko’s account reckon their lives as a continual process of moving “bloods” and other substances around between themselves, so too Christianity is based on the exchange of partible bits of dividual humans with God, other members of the trinity, and demons who are all also dividually constituted. Melanesians like the Mekeo have converted, Mosko argues, because they recognize in Christianity a model of life much like their traditional one, in which all that has changed is the appearance of some novel dividual beings to whom persons can relate. He derives this understanding of Christianity from his analysis of the [178]Mekeo case, as well as from some other studies of Melanesian Christianity that he reinterprets in dividual terms, claiming that they have been profoundly misunderstood by those who first reported them (including, I should note, myself). His dividual understanding of Christianity is also based on his own original analysis of biblical texts.

If Mosko’s analysis of Christianity is correct tout court (rather than, say, only for the Mekeo and their understanding of Christianity), then the debate on Christianity and individualism should be fully settled, for Christianity would have nothing at all to with individualism. But I do not think it is correct tout court. I have expressed some of my reservations about Mosko’s argument elsewhere (Robbins 2010) and will not rehearse those worries again here. I would only add to what I have written before that while it does not seem profitable to dispute Mosko’s analysis of the Mekeo case, those whose ethnographies he has reanalyzed all strongly reject his reading of their material, and this despite the fact that not all of them are invested in the project of the anthropology of Christianity (see Barker 2010; Errington and Gewertz 2010; Knauft 2010; along with Robbins 2010). Moreover, Mosko’s biblical interpretations strike me as idiosyncratic and heavily determined by his preexisting theoretical commitments. I will therefore leave his argument to one side here, taking it as a limit case that would foreclose the debate into which I am endeavoring to enter.

In relation to this strategy of setting Mosko’s extreme position to one side, it is reassuring that most of those who have followed him in criticizing anthropological work on Christianity and individualism have also done so, refusing to follow him in reading individualism out of Christianity completely. Instead, they have allowed for some individualistic component of Christianity, even as they have wanted to stress that there are also some aspects of dividuality present in the lives of Christian people.4 All of them, that is to say, have explored what Richard Werbner (2011: 192) refers to as “alternating personhood,” by which he means the ability of Christians to shift between dividual and individual construals of the nature of their selves. Most of those who take this line also adopt to some extent Mosko’s homogenizing strategy, defining Christianity itself as containing dividual elements (Vilaça 2011; Werbner 2011; Bialecki 2015).5 But there are also those, like Girish Daswani (2011), [179]who seem more concerned to analyze the ways Christian individualism and “traditional” dividuality come into interaction in the course of social life, than to argue that Christianity itself harbors or promotes dividualism. Thus, for those who claim that, as Werbner (2011: 198) puts it, “dividuality … has until now received rather short shrift in the recent anthropology of Christianity,” all that appears to be really required is a conviction that the lives of Christians are not wholly dominated by individualism. Dividualism is present in at least some aspects of their lives. What I have called the homogenizing move of claiming that Christianity itself promotes dividualism adds some further complexity to the argument (and I will return later to issues it raises), but it is not strictly necessary in order to criticize the neglect of dividualism on the part of anthropologists of Christianity. It is therefore in relation to the most general claim of these critics—the claim that Christian lives are not free of dividual aspects—that I want to develop my own intervention into this debate.

Drawing on Dumont, one can formulate two important responses to the emerging critique of the study of Christian individualism. The first response is simple, but crucial for our understanding both of Christianity and of individualism more broadly construed. It involves pointing out that it should come as no surprise that one finds evidence of dividuality or some emphasis on social relatedness among Christians, for the impossibility of a completely thoroughgoing individualism, as Dumont has demonstrated, makes the existence of some social notions a necessary feature of all social formations.6 Given this, we would not want to construe the existence of dividual elements in societies deeply influenced by Christianity as somehow rendering them not “really” individualist in tenor. If we were to adopt this position, then no social formation would ever be susceptible to analysis as individualist. Dumont (1994: 15) himself goes further than this, arguing that the appearance of individualism alongside configurations like dividualism renders individualism “more adaptable and even stronger” than it would otherwise be. It is the space that individualism gives to relational representations such as holism or dividualism that allows it to flourish in actually existing societies. But we do not have to follow Dumont this far to ground the point I want to make here: we need only recognize that the copresence of dividual/relational and individualist value configurations is routine, and not evidence for an absence of some kind of more [180]robust individualism we would expect to find in other configurations we would define as the true representatives of social formations organized by that value.

The second point I will make in response to the dividualist critique of the notion of Christian individualism is a bit more complicated, and it involves bringing in both Dumont’s notion of value and the dynamic view of social formations that, I argued above, attention to value demands that we adopt. If we forgo defining individualism as a kind of social formation in which dividual/relational elements are absent, then we are left in need of some other definition. Following Dumont, my proposal is that we define individualism as a value. Put more concretely, I suggest that we define individualism as something that persons can seek to realize in various social domains. Social formations in which they seek to realize it in important (highly valued) domains, and in which their efforts frequently create institutions and representations in which individualism serves as the paramount value, are ones that warrant the label “individualist.” Working from this definition, the key claim made by anthropologists of Christianity can be formulated as stating that in social formations where Christianity has become important, individualism often emerges as a prominent value in just this way. It is this claim, and not one that asserts an absence of dividual/relational elements, that needs to be demonstrated ethnographically in order for arguments about Christianity and individualism to be rendered compelling.

When we turn to making the case for individualism as a value in Christian social formations, the dynamic reading of Dumont’s anthropology that I argued for in my introduction becomes critical. For in this view, what we have to look for is not only accomplished, stable individualist institutions and representations (though we can sometimes find these), but also efforts to extend the reach of individualism, or processual exemplifications of its encompassing power. Instances (be they events, institutions, representations, or ideological assertions) in which individualism confronts dividual, relational, or holist values and succeeds in encompassing them are key evidence of the force it is exerting as a value. An important feature of this kind of analysis is that it need not disregard the evidence of dividualism or relational values more generally that exist in a given social formation—a kind of disregard the critics of studies of Christian individualism worry quite a bit about. Instead, it will seek to put whatever evidence of relational values it finds in their proper context within the social formation in question more widely construed. In the next section, I will try to illustrate the kind of analysis I am calling for here in some detail by drawing on my own field materials. But before doing so, it will be useful to demonstrate briefly that this kind of analysis also helps to give a coherent picture of the material that the dividualist critics have highlighted in their own work.

It is striking that in Werbner’s (2011) work from Botswana and Daswani’s (2011) from Ghana, both with groups that could be broadly defined as in the lineage of charismatic Christianity, the key evidence of the importance of dividualism comes in contexts of illness and healing. It is in cases of sickness and misfortune that the Christians whom both of these scholars study appear to turn to dividualist understandings of their lives. It is their dividual involvement with human others—kin, enemies, witches (not always discrete categories)—and with demons that they see as leading to their afflictions. Whatever other value they may have in various contexts not discussed in these articles, one thing dividual connections clearly do is [181]make one ill or vulnerable to misfortune. Both articles dwell on the ways people respond to this fact by attempting to diminish the role at least this kind of dividualism plays in their lives. These are thus clear cases of an individualist interest in the reduction of relatedness that point to the force of Christian individualism in the lives of converts. An ethnographer can choose to dwell only on the dividualist ideas that are on display in these cases—to define the personhood on display as “alternating” rather randomly—but to do so does seem to miss a crucial part of the ethnographic material under consideration. In fact, personhood here gives every evidence of being directed, and the direction in question is toward its individualist pole.

To be fair, dividualism shows up in Werbner’s and Daswani’s articles not only as a cause of affliction, but also as part of its cure. Healers themselves often enter into dividualist relations with the Holy Spirit as part of performing their work. Setting aside the issue discussed earlier (in footnote 5) of whether we want to define relations with members of the trinity as dividual in the same way as other kinds of relations, we can see the healing work dividualism performs here as pointing to its realization of some positive value, albeit one that serves a more highly valued individualism that defines wellness. As is well known, in his analysis of reversals Dumont (1986) argues that lower-ranked values can themselves appear as paramount on ideological levels that are themselves lower ranked. I would suggest that this accounts for the positive role of dividualism in healing. Illness and misfortune exist as low-ranked levels for Christians, and on them the lower-ranked value of dividualism can flourish, both as part of the problem and as part of the solution. But the ultimate direction of Christian life is toward more highly valued levels, and on those levels individualism is likely to be more to the fore.7 This becomes strikingly clear in the case of the Amazonian Wari’ as discussed by Aparecida Vilaça.

Illness as it is understood in the African cases I have just discussed does not appear to be the primary setting in which dividualism becomes a major concern for the Wari’. Instead, in keeping with their commitment to what has come to be known as a perspectivist understanding of things, they evidence a preoccupation with avoiding situations in which they are bodily transformed into beings such as jaguars, and instead work to retain their human-Wari’ bodies and perspective on the world. Vilaça reads the transformations the Wari’ seek to avoid as kinds of dividualism (coming to share food and other substances with animals) that can only be countered by other kinds of dividualism (sharing food and other substances with human-Wari’ persons) that ensure one’s continued humanity. So here again we find dividualism expressing itself in relation to states that are understood as undesirable (disvalued), and as a tool to use to help one keep from falling into such states. Wari’ find Christianity attractive, Vilaça explains, because it removes the threat of dividual transformation toward animality, and stabilizes the human-Wari’ position. Minimally, then, it attenuates the force of one set of potential relations. More than this, Vilaça explains, the Wari’ view of heaven, the attainment of which [182]is the goal toward which they strive as Christian human beings, is of a place where people will truly live as individuals, completely free of the encumbrances of dividuality (Vilaça 2011: 254–56). As we should by now expect, the Wari’ do net yet live in a world where individualism exists wholly alone in this way, without competition from other values. As they might put it, they are not yet in heaven. But surely the fact that they define such an individualist place as the one they are ultimately working to reach ought to inform our analysis of the directedness of their lives and of the place of dividualism within them (as in fact it does inform Vilaça’s analysis).8 The Urapmin case is similar to the Wari’ one in some important respects. It is to their case that I now turn.

Individualism and relationalism among the Urapmin

The Urapmin are a group of roughly 390 people living in the West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.9 Remote even by Papua New Guinea standards, they were never directly missionized by the Australian Baptist missionaries who moved into their region in the early 1950s. But in the early 1960s, the Urapmin began to send some young men to study with the missionaries at schools they had established among neighboring groups about six hours’ walk to the west and the east of their territory. As the decade wore on, these young men, now converts, brought a basic understanding of Christianity back to Urapmin. Few others converted, however, and through the middle of the 1970s Urapmin remained a community predominantly dedicated to what people would later come to call “the religion of our ancestors” (alowal imi kakup), though one in which there was also a fairly widespread understanding of some elements of a Baptist version of the Christian faith. Then, in 1977, a charismatic Christian revival movement that was moving throughout the highlands of Papua New Guinea, carried from group to group by local people who had encountered it in their travels, finally reached Urapmin. It produced an explosion of experiences of Holy Spirit possession, during which people felt hot as their bodies shook and they found themselves overwhelmed by a sense of their own sinfulness and the reality of God’s existence and power. In the wake of such [183]experiences, people quickly converted, and those who did not have them personally were convinced to convert by watching others undergo them. By the end of the year, as the Urapmin narrate their history, the entire community had become Christian.

By the time I began to carry out fieldwork in Urapmin in the early 1990s, it was evident that a charismatic form of Christianity was at the center of everyone’s public and private lives. People discussed Christian issues constantly, participated in Christian rituals on a daily basis, and recognized God’s powerful influence in all parts of their lives, from gardening and hunting to political and domestic relations. The kind of Christianity that has come to so decisively shape life in Urapmin today is one that is focused on human sinfulness and the need to overcome it in order to be saved. People feel keenly their own status as sinners, and most keep mental (and occasionally written) lists of their sins to confess at the periodic confession rituals the Urapmin developed during and after the revival. The sins that worry them often concern what we might take to be mundane matters, such as passing feelings of anger at or frustration with others, or the desire for foodstuffs belonging to others that one might see as one passes their gardens on the way to one’s own. But even such quotidian sins fill the Urapmin with intense worry about the state of their souls. The depth of such worry is grounded in people’s conviction that Jesus’ return is imminent, for the Urapmin hold to a version of Christian apocalyptic thinking, known as Dispensational premillennialism, in which one looks constantly for signs that the last days have begun, and in which the end times will come to a climax during the “rapture,” a moment when Jesus will appear in the sky and take true believers to heaven while leaving the damned on earth. The earth will in turn be destroyed in a great battle after which the damned will be consigned to hell. In light of this eschatological understanding, much of Urapmin Christian life is directed toward cleansing oneself of sin so as to be ready to go to heaven when Jesus comes during the rapture.

I have written about the conversion of the Urapmin and about the nature of their Christianity at great length elsewhere (the fullest account is Robbins 2004, the main argument of which is summarized in this paragraph and the two that follow). Moreover, I have frequently discussed Urapmin Christianity in terms drawn from my understanding of Dumont’s work (though in a less developed, or at least earlier, form than I presented above). At the heart of this analysis has been an attempt to account for the overwhelming feeling of sinfulness that so dominates Urapmin life. In summary, my argument has been that through the process of conversion the Urapmin developed a sophisticated understanding of the Christian value of individualism. They recognize that during the end times each person will be judged on his/her own, not as part of any group of related people. As one person put it to me, “my wife can’t break off part of her belief and give it to me”; belief is a “big thing” and each person has to have his or her own (see Robbins 2002). The greatest fear people express in relation to the rapture is that Jesus will take them to heaven but as they ascend they will see other members of their family left behind on earth, damned for eternity, or, alternatively, that some of their closest relatives will be taken but they will not. People not only talk about this possibility regularly, they also dream about it with great frequency. It is a representation of the end times that drives home with great force the fact that the individual is the key unit of salvation, [184]or, as a Baptist theologian has recently put it, “that God deals directly with each particular human person” (Holmes 2012: 6). More than this, in ways I can only point to very briefly here, most of the sins that the Urapmin recognize as condemning a person to damnation are wrapped up with processes of social relating—they follow from the feelings of anger, frustration, and desire that arise in the course of Urapmin social life and that move that social life along. Therefore, Urapmin Christian individualism constantly pulls people in the direction of withdrawing as much as possible from the relational world in order to attain salvation.

In order to understand the Urapmin preoccupation with sinfulness, however, it is not enough to recognize community members’ firm grasp of one common version of the Christian notion of the value of individualism and of the need for individuals to overcome their fallen state. One needs to complement this with an awareness of the extent to which what I will call the “traditional” Urapmin paramount value still shapes their social life. This traditional paramount value is one I have called “relationalism.” As a value, relationalism holds that what is most important in life is the creation and maintenance of social relationships of various kinds. As a small group of people who insist on endogamy within the community, and who are possessed of a thoroughly cognatic system of reckoning relationships, each Urapmin person finds himself or herself at least potentially related to almost everyone in the community, and people never assume that they or others do what they do on the basis of rules linked to pregiven, well-defined relations of kinship or descent. Instead, people spend much of their social energy recruiting others to their projects of building villages and assembling gardening groups, hunting parties, and football teams. It is in the struggle to build these and other kinds of groups that people often find themselves falling into sin, as they “push” others to join in their projects, or try to avoid the claims for cooperation others try to press on them in turn. Structurally very fluid, this kind of social life demands that people pursue relationalism as a value—for if they do not work to create and maintain relationships, they are likely to find themselves without many, a disvalued, “rubbish” condition everyone works hard to avoid. Because what we might call the “infrastructure” of Urapmin life remains much as it was before the coming of Christianity —an infrastructure based on swidden agriculture, modest pig rearing, and the construction of villages that are composed of houses made from bush materials and that are frequently reorganized, gaining or losing members in the process—the conditions in which relationalism serves as the paramount Urapmin value remain firmly in place. People still need to devote a great deal of energy to creating and maintaining relationships in order to live their lives.

What I have endeavored to describe is a situation in which the Urapmin find themselves caught between two competing values. These are the individualism that dominates their Christianity and is central to their efforts to achieve salvation, and the relationalism that governs the conduct of many other aspects of their social lives. These two values are not in harmony, but rather clash with one another. What counts as good relationalist behavior, such as orchestrating aggression, anger, and appeals to desire in order to build and maintain relations, counts as sinful in Christian individualist understanding, whereas the kind of quietism that defines success in Christian individualist terms is “rubbish” behavior in relationalist ones. It is being caught between these two conflicting values that generates for the Urapmin [185]their profound sense of sinfulness. The fact that the feelings of failure that follow from their attempts to live with both values at once are ones they interpret most often in terms that derive from the world created by only one of them—for they define themselves primarily as sinners (i.e., failed Christian individuals), rather than as “rubbish” people (though they recognize this danger as well)—gives us a good sense of the value direction in which they understand themselves to be trying to move. It is for this reason that it makes sense to analyze their current social life as one in which they aim more and more to realize individualism at the expense of relationalism. This is an aim that, as Dumont would lead us to expect, is never fully realized, but that directs many Urapmin efforts nonetheless.

At this point, we rejoin the primary argument of this article. Like the African and Amazonian Christians I discussed in the previous section, the Urapmin live in a world where relational values continue to be inescapably present, but in which people try very hard to realize individualist values as fully as they can. As with the African and Amazonian cases I discussed above, one can see this in the way that, just as ritual often gives way to exchange in Orokaiva (Iteanu 2005), ritualized expressions of relationships often lead on to representations or performances of individualism among the Urapmin. This is the direction hierarchical dynamics most often take in their current social formation.

I have already presented several examples of the ritual overcoming of relationalism by individualism in great detail elsewhere (Robbins 2009). I want only to review a few of these cases briefly here to give a sense of how I would analyze them within the theoretical framework I am laying out in this article. Consider, for example, the way the Urapmin most often deal with illness. In general terms, their approach to matters of illness and healing is similar to the Botswanan and Ghanaian ones discussed above. The Urapmin hold that all illnesses that do not result in death are caused by nature spirits (motobil) that see themselves as the original owners of the forest land and other resources from which the Urapmin secure their livelihoods. They usually let the Urapmin use these resources, provided that people do not violate taboos designed to prevent them from disturbing the nature spirits as they go about their work. These taboos prescribe laughing or talking loudly while gardening or hunting and they forbid having sexual relations in the forest. As the Urapmin discuss them, these taboos can be taken to demand that the Urapmin do not impinge on the nature spirits; do not, we might say, force the spirits to have relationships with them by clearly signaling their presence in the spirits’ territory. When the taboos are violated—when the nature spirits and people do come into relationship—nature spirits retaliate by clutching the offenders tightly with their hands and feet. “To hold” someone (kutalfugumin) is an image of a strong positive relationship among people in Urapmin, but the nature spirits display this type of sociality in a pathological form. It is this surfeit of relatedness with the nature spirits that makes people sick.

Healing rites in Urapmin address this excess of relatedness by severing the relationship between sick persons and the nature spirits that are holding on to them. This is accomplished most often by healers known as “Spirit women” (sinik unang), who become possessed by the Holy Spirit at will. Once possessed, they begin to shake as the Holy Spirit shows them which nature spirit is responsible for a patient’s illness. They then pray with the Spirit’s power and entreat God to tear the nature [186]spirit from the afflicted person and bind it in hell, far from Urapmin territory. As we have seen in the African cases discussed above, so too in Urapmin do healers make use of divine relatedness to help sever a demonic relatedness that is afflicting their patients. The realization of the divine relationship is not, however, the ultimate goal of the healing rite. The goal is to leave patients free of a negative relationship with nature spirits, so they can once again function as healthy individuals. Urapmin healing rites are thus a clear case of the hierarchical dynamic whereby relationships ultimately give way to a realization of the value of individualism.

The Spirit Disco is a major collective Urapmin rite which follows the same dynamic pattern of foregrounding relationships only to encompass them in a final expression of individualism. Spirit Discos are collective dances held in church the ultimate aim of which is to cleanse people’s bodies of sin so that they will be ready to be taken by Jesus when he returns. Before the dance, all those who will participate confess their sins to a pastor or deacon who prays over them and asks God to take their sins from them. Even after sins are confessed, however, a residue of them remains in the body. During the Spirit Disco, some people become violently possessed by the Holy Spirit as it struggles to throw these material residues of sin out of their bodies. Once possessed, people careen wildly around the church. Other dancers will “control” them by holding them as they dance (though I have not heard people speak of this as “holding” in the sense mentioned above). People can remain in this possessed state for an hour or longer. When the Holy Spirit finally finishes its work and leaves a dancer, he/she collapses in a completely limp and relaxed unconscious state on the church floor. After the Holy Spirit has left all of those possessed, the dancing stops and people pray until those lying on the floor regain consciousness, at which point the rite ends.

The postpossession person lying in repose on the church floor is the most compelling image the Urapmin have of what the saved individual looks like on earth. Completely free of sin, the previously possessed person lies alone, unresponsive to others and free of the tensions that social relations produce. As someone put it to me once, after they leave the church, all of the participants in the Spirit Disco will begin to sin again. This is just how people are. But for a brief period at the end of the Spirit Disco, those who have been possessed exemplify the condition of the saved individual. It is noteworthy that these saved individuals reach this exalted state by moving through several intense periods of social relatedness: the violent possession of the Holy Spirit as it relates to the sins that are still part of them; the wild, also violent relation they have with other dancers; and the tense “controlling” relation some fellow dancers will initiate with them while they dance. But in the end, those possessed will shed all of these relations as they come to at least momentarily achieve the condition all Urapmin strive to attain—that of the individual ready for salvation.

The final representation of the dynamic encompassment of relations by individualism in Urapmin Christianity that I want to discuss does not involve a ritual, but rather has to do with the way the Urapmin believe the end times will unfold. As I have already noted, Urapmin eschatological visions are profoundly shaped by Dispensational premillennial theology, which holds that Jesus will rapture the saved off of the earth before the battle of Armageddon. They talk constantly about Jesus’ second coming and the events that will follow, and the basic Dispensational [187]premillennial structure of their apocalyptic narrative is a very stable one that all Urapmin know and use to organize many of their thoughts about the future. Because of the key role the rapture plays within this narrative, it is not surprising that Jesus plays a major part in the stories they tell about the coming end of days.

Considered within the context of Urapmin Christianity more broadly, the careful attention the Urapmin pay to Jesus in their eschatological thought is a bit of a puzzle. For outside of their constructions of the last days, Jesus is not a very vibrant or intimate figure for them. They refer to Jesus regularly in formulaic phrases within prayers (“God, we pray to you in Jesus’ sweet name,” for example), but otherwise they do not talk about him very much in contexts other than eschatological ones. This is in stark contrast to the way the Urapmin talk and think about God and the Holy Spirit, both of whom are very active figures in their lives with whom they very clearly feel themselves to be in complex, ongoing interaction. Compared to these two figures of the trinity, Jesus is a background character in Urapmin life.

One can speculate on why Jesus is such a distant figure for the Urapmin. A key clue here is, I think, that Urapmin are sure that in his human aspect Jesus is a “white” man (rather than a “black,” Papua New Guinean, one), and he is distant from the Urapmin in precisely the way whites have always been (see Robbins 2004). But my concern here is less to explain why Jesus plays little role in Urapmin Christianity outside of eschatological contexts than it is to explain why, given his limited presence elsewhere in Urapmin Christianity, he shows up so centrally in that part of their Christian lives toward which all their religious efforts lead, the achievement of salvation.

I should acknowledge right away that there is an easy answer to this question. This is that the Urapmin have not created Dispensational premillennial eschatology by themselves. It is a flourishing Western version of Christianity that they have picked up from a number of sources and have come to understand quite well in its canonical Western form (Robbins 1998). In this Western form, as in Urapmin, Jesus is an absolutely central figure during the rapture. In some respects at least, this is surely why the Urapmin also feature him so clearly in their apocalyptic imaginings. But I think there is also another story to tell about why Jesus suddenly leaps to prominence in this one context in Urapmin life. This, I want to argue, has to do with how his role during the rapture sets up the ultimate Christian encompassment of relationships by individualism.

The moment of the rapture at which Jesus appears in the sky and takes those who are saved with him to heaven is one upon which, as I have already noted, the Urapmin dwell. People frequently report dreams in which they see Jesus take some Urapmin with him, but not others. Their vivid reports in turn fuel constant preaching and “strengthening” exhortations outside of church in which speakers remind people that they need to free themselves from sin so as to be ready to be taken. One would not, they stress, want to be left behind while one watched all of one’s closest relatives ascend to heaven. As great a moment as the Urapmin imagine the rapture will be for saved individuals—and it is in key respects the crucial moment for which Urapmin people live—it will also be an extremely painful moment because of all the broken relationships between the saved and the sinners it will leave in its wake. The poignancy of this severing of relationships is brought home by dream images people sometimes report of standing on earth, knowing they are damned, [188]while looking forlornly at the soles of the feet of their closest relatives as Jesus takes them up into the sky. It is difficult to construct a scene that would more forcefully express the ultimate importance of the state of the individual soul in assuring one’s salvation, as compared to that of the finally ephemeral relations it will leave behind.

Even as this analysis of the individualist imagery of the rapture is true to Urapmin understandings of it, it leaves out one aspect of the scene. This is the intense relationship of judgment and acceptance the returned Jesus forms with those he saves as he raptures them off of the earth. It is possible to set this aside as another of those relationships with divine characters that ultimately foster individualism in so many forms of Christianity (see footnote 5). But for the Urapmin, who also stress Jesus’ humanity as a white man, this case is perhaps less easy to make for their relations with him than it is for those they have with God and the Holy Spirit. It seems that here, at the very center of the greatest drama of individualist triumph the Urapmin ever tell, lurks a relationship that is crucial to salvation. But to give this relational moment its proper due is also to acknowledge that it is not the end of the story. As compelling as the moment of Jesus’ rapturing of the individual person is for the Urapmin, the final act of the drama finds saved individuals installed in heaven, where they will never again sin and will thus no longer need Jesus to save them. In heaven, as the Urapmin imagine it, people will not depend on any relationships at all. This is where their tale is finally heading, and it is a place where persons’ intense moments of relatedness to Jesus will be encompassed by their emergence as selfsustaining individuals for all time. Jesus’ great importance in Urapmin eschatology is thus based on its being a final acknowledgment of the lingering value of relationships in Urapmin life, even as it is also an acknowledgment of that fact that the value of relationships is not the most important one. That status remains reserved for the value of individual salvation.


I have had two goals in this article. The first has been to draw on recent considerations of Dumont’s theoretical work to develop a dynamic account of the ways values relate to one another in social formations. This account has stressed that no such formation is wholly shaped by a single value, but that all are marked by tensions between values as each struggles to organize an increasing number of domains of social life toward its own ends. In some social formations, we may find one value to be clearly dominant in the sense that it organizes the most social domains, or that it organizes the most important ones. But even in cases of clear dominance, no single value will have the entire social field to itself. It is for this reason that dynamism is inherent in social life. And it is because so much of this dynamism is driven by struggles between values that Dumont’s notions of hierarchical opposition, encompassment, and levels are so crucial to us as anthropologists when we try to develop ethnographic accounts that adequately reflect the social processes such dynamism puts in play.

The second goal of this article has been to use this understanding of the dynamism of value relations to craft an intervention in the current debate over the question of whether or not Christian conversion tends to bring individualism in [189]its wake. I have suggested that those who argue that Christianity does not promote individualism often confuse the presence of relationships or relational values in a given social setting with an absence of individualism. The question is not whether relational or holist values are present—in fact, following Dumont, we should acknowledge that they will always be present in any social formation—but rather whether they tend to organize the majority of social domains, or at least the most important ones. In the Christian cases I have discussed, relational values do not appear to be dominant in this way. Instead, it is individualism as a value that encompasses relationships and relational values in the most valued domains, and it is individualism that thus appears to give life in these social formations its most consistent direction. This is not to rule out that some social formations might in fact develop forms of Christianity that do not promote individualism to a great extent. But it would take more than simply pointing out the existence of social relations and relational values among its adherents to show that one had identified such a form of Christianity. I hope my discussion here has pointed in this way toward a more precise formulation of what it is we should be looking for in the debate over Christian individualism that is now underway in the anthropology of Christianity.

I began this article by discussing the introduction to Dumont’s last book, German ideology, and I would like to end there too. In that piece, Dumont notes that what would soon come to be widely referred to as “globalization” ensures that almost all social formations today are marked by conflicts between the values of individualism and holism. No social formation, he suggested, is likely to remain free of the kind of self-conscious individualist dynamism I have tried to explore here. We thus need to draw on the tools Dumont provided us for studying this kind of dynamism now more than ever. It is the ability of anthropologists to give credible, at least somewhat holistic or thorough accounts of social life in the places they study that is ultimately at stake.

Postscript: On Aparecida Vilaça’s “Dividualism and individualism in indigenous Christianity: A debate seen from Amazonia”

As Aparecida Vilaça notes, her article published in this issue of Hau was written in part as a response to a manuscript version of the present article. Vilaça’s piece represents a further grappling with some core issues in the debate on Christianity and individualism by means of an extension of her distinctive theoretical approach to these issues and a continued exploration of her ethnographic research undertaken with Amazonian Wari’. It is a characteristically rich discussion which it is not possible to consider in detail here, though a few comments seem in order given its appearance in the same issue of Hau as this article.

For those who may download my article without being aware of its original provenance, I should note that it was written for a conference honoring the centenary of Louis Dumont’s birth and is published along with other pieces from that event. This is relevant because I take my own essay to be primarily a contribution to Dumont’s effort to create an anthropological theory of values. I attempt to unpack some aspects of that theory that have not featured centrally in my own reading of Dumont before, and then to recommend this theoretical vantage point as one that allows us to shape up the debate over Christianity and individualism in a productive way. As I read things, Vilaça and I do not disagree terribly much about any of the ethnographic facts she discusses (though see below for a few small exceptions), but we do, I think, disagree about the usefulness of value analysis in anthropology, or at least in the anthropology of Christian conversion in particular and cultural change in general. Vilaça does not for the most part analyze her material in terms of values, preferring instead to work with ideas drawn from Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Marilyn Strathern, and perhaps most importantly here from Roy Wagner (a major influence on Viveiros de Castro and Strathern as well). On my reading, it is Wagner’s discussion of the innate and the human made, on the one hand, and the differentiating and the conventionalizing, on the other, which is most central to her argument. She makes a brief attempt to translate these distinctions into value-theoretical terms, but she does not stick with this. While she occasionally mentions values in other places as well, she does not work from a perspective that approaches them in any consistent way.

I think the difference between our approaches shows up most importantly in our analyses of what she calls “oscillation” and what others have called “alternation” between individualist and other models of personhood in some societies in which Christianity has become important. Vilaça takes this oscillation to be a simple fact of life in Wari’ and other places, and like the others she cites she treats it as almost random in its occurrence—it can happen at any time or in any place. By contrast, I try to explain it, detailing the contexts in which shifts occur and exploring the differential valuations of the contexts in which individualist and nonindividualist forms appear. In this way, I hope to be able to explain when and where each form appears, and to give a sense of what “oscillations” mean for those who experience them and how they might figure in the projects that give shape to their lives. It seems clear to me that there is some evidence of differential valuation of different states of personhood in Vilaça’s data that would allow for this kind of analysis—particularly the value the Wari’ place on remaining Wari’—but this is not the analytic route she prefers to take, offering instead an account in which oscillation sometimes seems simply to reflect the way things are for the Wari’ and other times to be valued for its own sake (which perhaps makes its absence part of the sterility of heavenly existence).10 Of course, this point about the value of oscillation itself means that even in the kind of analysis Vilaça undertakes, one that does not focus on values, notions of value are in play. It is because I think values are always in play in social life that I recommend becoming systematic in our analytic handling of them.

So Vilaça and I disagree about the value of value theory. At the very end of my conclusion, I mention that I think that value analysis allows us to develop fuller and more coherent understandings than rival approaches of the complex nature of life today in many of the places we study (see also Robbins and Siikala 2013). That is the wager of my position. I would want readers to test Vilaça’s account and my own against this criterion. Of course, this desire of mine is an expression of one intellectual value among many one could adopt, so perhaps some people will be inclined [191]to test our two analyses against some other criteria as well (e.g., how well they each extend established interpretations of the nature of Amazonian and Melanesian sociality and put them to work in explaining change).

Alongside such theoretical matters, there are also two empirical issues I would like to discuss briefly. First, I concur with Vilaça’s point that for fundamentalists, like the ones who missionized the Wari’, the authority of the Bible is not in competition with that of revelation from the Holy Spirit. I had not thought about its potential ethnographic importance before—it raises very interesting comparative issues for the anthropology of Christianity. However, it is not true to say, as she goes on to add, that the Urapmin have had “little direct contact with the Bible.” My previous ethnographic writing makes clear that this is not the case (Robbins 2004). More crucially for present purposes, I have shown in some detail how the Urapmin read at least one biblical passage that is very important to them, and that takes up issues of sharing, exchange, and (metaphorically) marriage, in profoundly individualist rather than recognizably dividualist ways (Robbins 2002). This points up the importance of looking at how the Bible is read in various ethnographic contexts (as Vilaça mostly does here), rather than attempting a theory-driven reading of biblical texts in general such as the one Mosko (2010) undertakes and that Vilaça also seems to endorse here in principle, if not in practice.

On to the second ethnographic issue. As per Daniel Patrick Moynihan, most of us are likely to agree in general with the idea that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. But of course it never quite works this way in ethnographic argument: ethnographers can always bring new data to bear to counter someone’s reanalysis of their previous work. This is perhaps one way anthropology makes progress, as we find in the heat of argument ways to bring more ethnographic data into our accounts in relevant ways. My analysis of Wari’ notions of heaven accords well with what Vilaça told us about them in her 2011 article that I discuss, where the stable if inert human-Wari’ individualism of heaven appears desirable in contrasted to the dangerous and disvalued potential bodily oscillation of earthly life. In her new piece, she counters my reading by telling us a little bit more about Wari’ ideas of heaven. Specifically, we learn that heaven is not a place the Wari’ would like to reach. This point is, however, a bit confusing, since we learn that heaven is in fact valued, though it is “only valued in contrast to hell,” but then that heaven and hell are basically the same, at least in relation to individualism, in being negatively valued. From a value-theoretical point of view, it is difficult to imagine both of these things being true in the flat terms Vilaça presents them. That heaven is more valued than hell but also the same as hell would suggest that heaven is working as an encompassing value, meaning it is more valued in more valued contexts. So perhaps we need more ethnographic work here to fully get to grips with what heaven means for Wari’ thought and life, and value analysis might help direct such ethnography in useful ways. But staying within the confines of our current discussion, Vilaça does recognize that the Wari’ idea that completely realized individualism of a heavenly kind is not something one can realize in earthly life does not contradict anything I have argued about the nature of individualist social formations, or that I attribute to Dumont. This does not stop people from reaching for some forms of individualism on earth (perhaps, for example, by selling meat rather than giving it to kin). Still, the possibility of Christians who actively [192]want to avoid heaven is an interesting one, and, like Matthew Engelke’s (2007) work on Christians who forbid the reading of the Bible, it reminds us of the importance of the anthropology of Christianity as a specifically comparative intellectual enterprise. It would be interesting to have a discussion of Wari’ Christianity written explicitly from the point of view of this distinctive aspect of it, and I look forward to learning more about Wari’ notions of heaven in the future.


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Le dynamisme hiérarchique selon Dumont: Christianisme et individualisme revisités

Résumé : Dans cet article, je propose une approche dynamique de la relation entre les valeurs dans la théorie de Dumont. Je suggère ensuite que cette approche permet de reformuler un débat récent : dans quelle mesure le Christianisme introduit des valeurs individualistes dans les formations sociales crées par de récents convertis issus de religions où ces valeurs n’étaient pas importantes ? Les chercheurs qui doutent de l’importance de l’individualisme parmi les convertis affirment par ailleurs que le Christianisme n’est pas individualiste ou qu’il promeut différents types de relations tout autant, voire plus, qu’il ne favorise une focalisation sur l’individu. Sur la base de ma lecture dynamique de Dumont, je suggère que l’on peut s’appuyer sur sa théorie pour comprendre l’individualisme comme valeur, ce qui nous conduit à reconnaître le rôle des relations dans certaines traditions chrétiennes sans avoir [195]à sous-estimer leurs composantes individualistes. Je développe mon argument à partir de matériaux ethnographiques de Papuasie Nouvelle Guinée et comparativement, d’Afrique et d’Amazonie.

Joel ROBBINS is Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. His work has focused on the anthropological study of Christianity, values, morality, and cultural change. He is the author of the book Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society (2004) and recently coedited with Naomi Haynes a special open-access issue of Current Anthropology entitled “The anthropology of Christianity: Unity, diversity, new directions” (55 (S10), 2014).

Joel Robbins
University of Cambridge
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF
United Kingdom


1. I have argued elsewhere (Robbins 2013) that Dumont’s conception of hierarchical opposition and the allied one of levels suggest that there is more than one value in play in all social formations. For this reason, dynamic interaction between values is also present everywhere, though, for reasons I explore below, it may be fair to say that such interaction is foregrounded where the value of individualism is active in ways it might not be where it is not developed to a significant extent.

2. Drawing on the political philosopher Voegelin and the theologian Lonergan, Hughes (2003: ch. 1) makes a somewhat similar point about the human drive for transcendence in terms that do not refer to value but otherwise bear comparison with those I am gleaning from Dumont. I know little about Voegelin and less about Lonergan, and so I am in a position neither to evaluate Hughes’ reading of them nor to speculate on the extent to which their work might be useful in further developing the kind of argument I am making here. But I do want to acknowledge that Hughes’ argument has somewhat shaped my reading of Dumont on this point.

3. One of the reviewers of this paper posed a very apt and important question: What is the mechanism that produces dynamism in Dumont’s model, as schismogenesis does in Bateson’s work or contradiction does in the theories of Marx and Lévi-Strauss? All of these theories have been important in my own thinking at various times, and I very much recognize the force of this question. In the previous two paragraphs I have tried to lay out an answer to it. Hierarchical dynamism results both from the ways values solicit efforts at full realization from those who hold them (see Robbins 2007), and from the way social formations are organized such that some elements and levels routinely encompass others, which leads to situations in which efforts to fully realize any one value often come into conflict with the demand to realize others (Robbins 2015). Readers would be right to detect a mixture of principles related to structure and those related to action here—a mix, we might say, of structuralist and Weberian intuitions. I think this is a strength of the kind of value theory I am trying to derive from Dumont’s work and from other sources, rather than a failure of it (see also Graeber 2001: 20). The hope is that by means of such a synthesis one can fashion a realistic model of social dynamism that builds on but does not limit itself to the contributions of those models the reviewer mentioned.

4. I find the use of “dividual” to refer to all nonindividualistic aspects of personhood or social life a bit unfortunate, for it robs the term of its original specificity and makes of it a rather blunt instrument that lumps together what is in fact a crossculturally hugely diverse set of understandings of kinds of relatedness (Robbins 2010; Bialecki 2015). The fact that some of those who take up this issue also on occasion use terms like “sociocentric,” “relational” (Werbner 2011: 192), and “interbeing” (Bialecki 2015) perhaps intimates some awareness of this problem. But it remains true that “dividual” is the term they most commonly oppose to “individualism,” so I will also use it in this section. When I later turn to discussing my own work from Urapmin, I will use “relational” instead, for I have never been comfortable defining even the “traditional” Urapmin understanding of the person as dividual in the canonical Melanesian sense (Robbins n.d.).

5. Because none of the authors cited here work in Melanesia, most of them have in fact operated a double homogenization, defining not only Christianity, but also non-Christian social life where they work as dividual in the sense given to this term in the Melanesian literature. Thus, for example, Vilaça (2011), in her study of the Wari’, reduces some (though not all) aspects of what is usually understood as Amazonian perspectivism to an expression of Melanesian-style dividualism. While it is not my purpose to criticize any of these homogenizing moves here, I would mention two points. First, Vilaça has also written sophisticated studies of both Wari’ perspectivism and Christianity that do not so thoroughly adopt the homogenizing strategy she takes in her recent piece (e.g., Vilaça 2002, 2009), so her work provides a good opportunity for interested readers to weigh what might be gained or lost by way of ethnographic understanding in taking the homogenizing tack. Second, most moves toward finding dividual aspects within Christianity itself involve defining interactions between persons and demons or members of the trinity, interactions that Christians often understand as “spiritual,” as the same as, or very similar to, frequently (though not always) more substanceor material-based notions of partibility in Melanesia. One wonders whether we would get further ethnographically by attending to differences between such cases, especially among Christians who have picked up the strong Pauline opposition of body and spirit, than we do by collapsing them in a model of partible exchange as everywhere in essence the same. One might also speculate that in some cases relations with Christian divinities are precisely relations in service of individualism, in a way traditional relations of partibility are not.

6. I am here taking dividualism to be, like holism in Dumont’s work, a value-idea that represents the social aspects of human life. The two terms, and the notion of “relationalism” I will introduce later, are not exactly the same, and in other contexts it would be important to work through their differences (e.g., Robbins 1994, and see footnote 4 above). But for the purposes of the argument I am making here, I think it is fair to focus on what they share as representations of the value of social connection in opposition to individualist representations of the value of the autonomous self.

7. Discussing Christianity directly, Dumont (1986: 35) argues that because of the difficulty of fully realizing individualism in this world, Christians tend to define this world as a whole as a less-valued level than the world beyond it. For this reason, holism has “a remarkable degree of latitude in most worldly matters.” The development of a positive role for dividualism in worldly healing can be taken as evidence of this.

8. Liana Chua (2012: 168–74) has very cogently argued for the need to look closely at Christian models of salvation in our efforts to sort out the hierarchical relationship between individualist and relationalist values in a way that is similar to that carried out by Vilaça in the work we are considering. From this perspective, Chua’s account of a charismatic evangelical church in Malaysian Borneo finds individualism to be the most important salvational value for its members, just as Vilaça’s account does among the Wari’. Chua’s discussion of Anglicans and Catholics in the same setting is less clear on this matter. While she does argue that fostering peaceful community relations is a crucial goal for them, and that when such relations are in good working order people feel they are helping to realize some aspects of heaven on earth, she does not go so far as to argue that these Christians imagine that salvation will not in the end be on an individual basis.

9. This discussion of the Urapmin is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the early 1990s. The ethnographic present tense deployed here refers to this time period.

10. See Londoño Sulkin (2012) for an approach to similar Amazonian material that, while not framed in value-theoretical terms, is more amenable to them.