“It is by taking part in the running of a society that the anthropologist can grasp its profound dynamics. “ This reflection by Alban Bensa illustrates his conception of the social sciences and their practice: a political anthropology, an anthropology of action and social transformations. The ethnologist, director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and recognized specialist in New Caledonia and Kanak society, died on October 10 in Paris at the age of 73.
Alban Bensa has devoted nearly fifty years of his life as a researcher to the study of Kanak culture, mythologies and socio-political systems. A work started in 1973, when he arrived for the first time in a territory marked by the violence of colonial domination. But what is for him, at the start, a field and a subject of study is transformed into a field of action which forces him to question himself about his own practice. Anthropology must, he professed from then on, be put back into the “Colonial situation”.
The structuring of the independence movement and the quasi-civil war of the 1980s precipitated its commitment. “To what extent can ethnological knowledge provide keys to understanding the process of decolonization on which the Kanak separatists have been working for about two decades? “, he asked in Kanak chronicles. Ethnology in motion (Survival International, 1995). During these years of political crisis and the rise of the independence movement, he co-chaired the Association for Information and Support for the Rights of the Kanak People and forged close ties with the independence leaders.
After the Matignon-Oudinot agreements of 1988, which initiated a process of reconciliation and political and economic rebalancing, he worked with the team of the architect Renzo Piano and with the Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture at the construction of the Jean-Marie-Tjibaou cultural center, architectural flagship inaugurated in 1998 and intended to enhance and promote Kanak cultural heritage. “The Kanak civilization is called upon, by the institutional future which is looming in New Caledonia, to rebuild itself while undergoing a metamorphosis”, he explained to the World, highlighting “The limits of an authoritarian tradition” which hinders aspirations to “The emancipation of young people and, above all, of women”.
A tireless teacher
Alban Bensa leaves behind an abundant and powerful work, dozens of books and texts through which he explored the depths of the soul and of Kanak civilization, but in which he also accompanied a movement he deemed inevitable towards independence: “The colonized never give in on the question of their asserted identity”, he recalled in an article published in The world in September 2020, before the second referendum on New Caledonia’s accession to full sovereignty.
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