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The Baining, who live not too far from Rabaul on New Britain, are a society without priests, gods, kings, philosophers, doctors, teachers, warriors, police or judges. Nor do they have any institutions, aside from the nuclear family. They do not divide in moieties or clans, nor do they have elaborate genealogies.
Gregory Bateson, a famous anthropologist, considered them "unstudiable."
Fifty years later, Bateson told Jane Fajans, who lived among the Baining in the 1970s, "They broke my heart; have they broken yours?"
"No," says Fajans, who was associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University when this book was published in 1997. But it had taken her close to two decades to work out how to explain this strange society.
The answers she arrives at are a standing challenged to just about every generalization about human society than anyone ever made. "Despite the absence of social sanctions, political hierarchy or sacred authority," writes Fajans, "the Baining have managed to maintain a distinctive social and cultural identity for over a century in the face of varied and often violent pressure for assimilation and change."
Most observers, including Fajans, describe the Baining as boring. Their goals in life are few and simple: They work in their gardens, they exchange food, they nurture children and support the aged who can no longer work. They have hardly any traditional stories, though they have narrative songs. They perform no rites and they do not gossip.
On the surface, there is not much for an ethnologist to analyze.
But in "They Make Themselves," Fajans offers a radical interpretation of the "Baining problem.Read more ›
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