Big Man – A Person with Prestige and Influence in Melanesian Society

In Melanesian society, the term “Big Man” refers to an individual who holds a position of prestige and influence within their community. This person is seen as a leader and is responsible for maintaining order and resolving disputes within their group.

The concept of the Big Man has been present in Melanesian societies for centuries, with roots in traditional customs and practices. Over time, the role has evolved to adapt to changing socio-economic conditions, but it remains an important symbol of status and power in many communities throughout the region.

This post will explore the role of the Big Man in society and examine some of the reasons why they are so influential.

The Role of the Big Man

The role of a Big Man in Melanesian society is multifaceted, and their responsibilities and duties can vary depending on the community they belong to. However, some common traditional responsibilities include maintaining peace and order within their group, resolving disputes between members, and acting as a mediator between different communities.

Big Men gain prestige and influence within their community through various means. One way is by demonstrating exceptional leadership qualities such as being brave, wise, generous or skilled at diplomacy. Another way is by accumulating wealth or resources that they can use to support their community’s needs. Additionally, they may gain respect through acts of generosity or by displaying physical prowess in activities such as hunting or warfare.

Regardless of how they gained their status, once a person becomes a Big Man, it is expected that they will use their power and influence for the betterment of their community. This can involve providing support for individuals or families in need, organizing communal events or ceremonies, or representing the interests of their group in dealings with other communities.

The Symbolism of a Big Man

There are a number of ways that a Big Man can visually communicate their position of power and influence within their community.

One common example of a ceremonial object used by Big Men is the “tambaran” or “haus tambaran,” which is a traditional meeting house used for important gatherings and ceremonies. The tambaran may be adorned with carvings, paintings, or other decorative elements that represent the history and culture of the community. This structure serves as a physical manifestation of the Big Man’s authority and responsibility to lead their community.

Clothing and body adornment are also important visual indicators of status for Big Men. They may wear clothing made from rare or valuable materials, such as feathers, shells, or woven fibres, to signify their wealth and prestige. Additionally, they may decorate themselves with tattoos or scarification marks that represent their achievements or social standing.

Other visual indicators can include the size and layout of a person’s home or compound, as well as their personal possessions such as weapons or musical instruments. All of these elements work together to communicate a person’s status as a Big Man within their community.

The Origin of the Term Big Man

The term Big Man is used in ethnographies of Melanesia. It was first coined by anthropologist Marilyn Strathern who used it to describe the way in which Melanesian men, and in some cases women, gain social status and influence.

The term Big Man is used to describe a person who has a lot of prestige and influence in a small-scale society. The big man is not the official leader of the group, but he is greatly respected by other members of the community and has a lot of social clout.

Big men are often involved in gift giving and exchange, which is one of the main ways they gain prestige and influence. They also often take on leadership roles in times of crisis, as they are seen as more capable and trustworthy than other members of the community.

Big men are often successful hunters or warriors, and they use their prestige to get people to help them with their projects. For example, a big man might ask other members of the community to help him build a house or clear a field for farming. In return, the big man provides food and protection for his supporters.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins describes this type of political system as unstable, with several factions and competing Big Men in “open status competition”. This can lead to conflict and violence both within the factions and between different groupings.

The concept of the Big Man is often used to contrast small-scale societies with more complex societies, such as chiefdoms and states. In these complex societies, there is a formal leader who has more power than the average person, and this leader is supported by a bureaucracy or social elite.


In conclusion the Big Man is a term used in ethnographies of Melanesian societies to describe a person who occupies a position of leadership and prestige and has great influence over the community.

His power comes from his ability to accumulate wealth and resources and distribute them among the people. He is also responsible for mediating disputes and ensuring the well-being of his constituents. The Big Man is not a formal leader, but he exercises a great deal of power and authority within his community.

Related terms:

Prestige – a form of social status that is based on respect and admiration.

Influence – the ability to have an impact on the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of others.

Leadership – the ability to motivate and guide people towards a common goal.

Social Organisation – the way that a society is structured and organised.

Small-Scale Society – a society that is not highly industrialised or urbanised.

Chiefdom – a type of social organisation in which a group of people are led by a chief.

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