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A big man, within the context of anthropology, refers to a highly influential individual in a tribe, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia. Such person has no formal authority (through for instance material possessions or inheritance of rights), but maintains recognition through skilled persuasion and wisdom.


Big man "system"

The American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has been a proponent of the big-man phenomenon. In his "Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia" Sahlins uses analytically constructed ideal-types of hierarchy and equality to compare a larger-scale Polynesian-type hierarchical society of chiefs and sub-chiefs with a Melanesian-type big-man system.[1]

The latter consists of segmented lineage groups, locally held together by faction-leaders who compete for power in the social structure of horizontally arranged and principally equal groupings (factions). Here, leadership is not ascribed, but rather gained through action and competition "with other ambitious men".


A big-man's position is never secured in an inherited position at the top of a hierarchy, but is always challenged by the different big-men who compete with one another in an on-going process of reciprocity and (re-)distribution of material and political resources. As such the big-man is subject to a transactional order based on his ability to balance the simultaneously opposing pulls of securing his own renown through distributing resources to other big-man groups (thereby spreading the word of his power and abilities) and redistributing resources to the people of his own faction (thereby keeping them content followers of his able leadership).

The Big Man concept is relatively fluid, and formal authority of such figures is very low to nonexistent.

In the Island of Malaita in Solomon Islands the big-men system is dying away as westernization is influencing the people,[citation needed] but the big-men system can be seen at the political level. Every four years in Solomon Islands' National Elections the system can be clearly seen among the people, especially in the Melanesian Islands.[citation needed]

The "big man" system in Papua New Guinea

Traditionally, among peoples of non-Austronesian-speaking communities, authority was obtained by a man ("big man") recognised as "performing most capably in social, political, economic and ceremonial activities" [2]. His function was not to command, but to influence his society through his example. He was expected to act as a negotiator with neighbouring groups, and to periodically redistribute food (generally produced by his wives). In this sense, he was seen as ensuring the well-being of his community.

Such a system is still found in many parts of Papua New Guinea, and other parts of Melanesia.

See also


  1. ^ Sahlins, Marshall (1963). "Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia". In Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5/285-303.
  2. ^ Waiko, John D. (1993). A Short History of Papua New Guinea, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-553164-7, p.9

Further reading

  • "The Big Men: Chris Bowler, Fergus Feilden, Edmund Fowles, Ben Smyth, Alex Thomas, and John Zhang." Essay by John Zhang in the 18th issue of Scroop.


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