Summaries of some of the latest books
Current research themes
List of publications
Texts in English
Several recent studies have shown the paramount importance of slavery, especially amongst populations in the past considered as “noble savages”. Slavery really appears as one of the world’s most widespread social phenomena, even in pre-colonial societies (amongst native American populations, in Africa or in South-East Asia).
As opposed to what has been thought for a long time, factors other than violence, warfare, raids and abduction lead to slavery. Many societies, considered to be “egalitarian”, “simple” or “socially unstratified”, have been known to enslave people as a result of debt insolvency. That a poor individual, for no other reason than poverty and unpaid debts, could become a slave was perfectly acceptable.
Slaves were not only used as hard labour. They could also be bodyguards, form small private militias serving their masters: they were therefore privileged auxiliaries of empowered people.
One can even consider that this institution (in particular slavery debt slavery) created favourable conditions for the emergence of the state. A data base on pre-colonial slavery has been created by analysing some four hundred different populations.
Main publications :
Testart, A. 2001 L'esclave, la dette et le pouvoir : études de sociologie comparative[Slaves, Debts and Power : Studies in Comparative Sociology]. Paris : Errance.
Testart, A. 2002 The Extent and Significance of Debt Slavery. Revue Française de Sociologie 43, Supplément : 173-204 [translation of "Importance et signification de l'esclavage pour dettes", published in 2000 in this journal].
In most standard anthropological works, marriage has been studied from the perspective of taboos and prohibitions. Yet marriage also has an economic dimension, what one can call “the money of marriage”. In yesterday’s Europe, dowry was a serious source of worry for families and unmarried daughters. In many parts of the world, this has been termed “marriage compensation” or the “price of the bride”. This custom meant that the husband-to-be had to provide goods for his step-father in order to marry the latter’s daughter; moreover these gifts would often be of considerable value.
The importance of these considerations derives from the fact that, in a number of traditional societies, goods exchanged for reasons related to marriage constitute the largest amount of all transfers made. Primitive currencies such as Pacific shells are above all used as payment for marriage. If one is to seriously study marriage transactions, one has to reconsider the entire economics of these societies. This leads to the conclusion that those who are too poor to pay for marriage are at risk of depending on rich and powerful individuals. A data base on marriage transactions in traditional societies has been created for around four hundred communities.
Main publications :
Death and archaeology
Funerary practices can be studied from two viewpoints: from the perspective of rites and from that of the material goods buried or burnt together with the deceased. This second point of view appears as particularly important, as what archaeologists find in excavations are precisely these grave goods. We also know through ethnography that in many communities the deceased’s possessions were meant to be destroyed during his funeral. Another way of ensuring prestige yet preventing these goods’ destruction through inhumation or cremation is to distribute them during sumptuous banquets. This expenditure was always geared towards securing the social status of the heirs. Yet what is striking are the many ways in which this can be done, and the diversity of what one can describe as “funerary policy”. It is also apparent that each of these funerary policies will leave very different archaeological remains.
This research topic aims at promoting common thought and discussion by both archaeologists and social anthropologists on the many forms of and reasons for funerary practices, in order to suggest new lines of research on the archaeology of death. This discussion will eventually develop in due course.
The round table discussions on “Odd deaths, abnormal burials, questions of interpretation in funerary archeology,” held on March 16, 17, and 18, 2005 under the auspices of the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, has had a favorable reception in archaeological circles. The goal of these discussions is to encourage debate on possible interpretations of these seemingly untypical burials. Included are problematic introductions, the presentation of new assumptions, a review of existing explanations as well as examination of critical cases (known or new ones) for which interpretation is difficult or open to contradictory interpretations. The greatest part of the time is reserved for discussion.
A second round table was held in April 2006 in collaboration with the Archeological Museum of Sens. The main topic was the question of the “burials” in the silos (two days). The conclusion was (according to all participants) that the pattern of “accompanying”, by which a slave, a servant or a wife is put to death when his or her master or husband dies, is present in Europe in Late Neolithic (Chasséen, Michelsberg, etc. cultures).
Main publications :
Gift and exchange
Since Mauss’s pioneer works, there has been a confusion in anthropology between gift and exchange. One should emphasize that there is no specific “reciprocation” associated to the act of giving. Neither Mauss nor later scholars have seen the notion of obligation as a problem. Several articles have investigated the difference between gift and exchange, as well as their distinction from a third type of transfer (appearing in its most simple form as taxation). To put things simply, the difference between exchange and gift does not derive from the existence or non-existence of reciprocation, nor from the fact that the latter is expected or not. Even less relevant is the self-interest of the individuals taking part in the process. The difference lies in that compensation for a gift cannot be legitimately requested. One cannot claim to make a gift and simultaneously ask for anything in return (because this would be asking for payment). One can only expect and hope for a counter-gift.
From these observations it is possible to demonstrate that the kula should be seen as a series of exchanges while, for instance, potlatch is an uninterrupted series of gifts and counter-gifts.
This research topic has been continued as a reflection on the difference between mercantile and non-mercantile exchange.
The collection of the published articles, and some others, should soon be collected in a book : Critique du Don.
A new edition revisited (because of old arguments outdated from the author's point of view) of Des dons et des Dieux, is also available.
Main publications :
The Evolution of Societies
From his earliest writings, Alain Testart explicitly showed himself to be an evolutionist. This is particularly true in the 1992 article The Question of Evolutionism in Social Anthropology . Here he welcomes the often unappreciated originality of the great 19th century evolutionists, primarily that of Lewis H. Morgan, but simultaneously criticizes their methods. Comparative anthropology, or solely the observation of historical and prehistoric peoples is in no case adequate for reconstructing the evolution of past societies and cultures. He stresses that any reconstruction must be based on historical documents or on prehistoric archeology. For this reason he considers collaboration—as well as debate--with archeologists, whether prehistorians or protohistorians, to be extremely important.
This conviction led him to take a dual perspective on funeral practices from both an archeological and an ethnological viewpoint, and to introduce a thesis on the origin of the State. Here he focuses on what he terms “the accompanying of the funeral”, /”burial companions”/ referring to one or more men who must die in order to accompany the deceased. In Voluntary Servitude (2004, 2 parts) he examined all the ethnographic and historical reports of this practice. It appears to have been extremely widespread in the past, not only, as is often thought, in kingdoms, but in societies based on lineage (in Africa) or in acephalous societies, like those of the American Indians of the Pacific coast. Slaves who have had the role of faithful servants to their masters are often implicated. It is the idea of fidelity that the master wants to take with him to his grave. Alain Testart points out that in ethnology this practice is found in stateless societies, and in archeology in Neolithic societies, all of which indicates that it existed as a practice in non-State societies. It can also be found extensively in certain forms of the archaic State. These data all indicate that the germs of State power – and of despotic power – are present well in advance of the State. A powerful individual derives his power from dependents who depend on him to such a degree that they know they will not survive him. They are his faithful servants, and the ethnographic data show quite clearly that his power rests more on such servants than on kin, family members having a dual liability because of having rights analogous to those of the pretender, which make them his potential rivals. Historical and ethno-historical data reveal numerous kingdoms, especially in Africa and the Islamic world, where kings rely on “slaves of the crown”; they even possess whole armies of slave regiments. How can we not see continuity here? The “exceptional loyalty of slaves”, as an Arab saying goes, provides a secure base for power that wants to assert itself and, as Alain Testart maintains, for a power that wants to assert itself in the form of a state.
Main publications :
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