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Community, society, culture: Three keys to understanding today's conflicted identities

by Maurice Godelier
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute ()
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The author redefines three major concepts used in the social sciences: tribe, society, and community. He begins with his discovery that the Baruya, a tribe in New Guinea with whom he lived and worked, were not a society a few centuries ago. This made him wonder: How is a new society made? The author shows that neither kinship relations nor economic relations are sufficient to forge a new society. What welded a certain number of Baruya kin groups into a society were their political-religious relations, which enabled them to establish a form of sovereignty over a territory, its inhabitants, and its resources. He goes on to compare other examples of more or less recently formed societies, among which is Saudi Arabia, whose beginnings date from the end of the eighteenth century; and he then clarifies the difference between tribe, society, ethnic group, and community, showing that a tribe is a society, but an ethnic group is a community. His analysis elucidates some contemporary situations, since tribes still play an important role in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and so on.

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