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Oceania Newsletter 15, March 1995


Toon van Meijl

On Friday 30 September 1994, Prof. Dr Henri J.M. Claessen officially retired as professor of anthropology from the University of Leiden. He presented his valedictory lecture, entitled Factoren gekoppeld: Over de evolutie van de sociaal-politieke organisatie ('Factors Connected: On the Evolution of Socio-Political Organisation'). In this lecture Henri Claessen provided a clear and concise overview of the impressive results of his research into the origins and evolution of the Early State. Claessen published widely on the evolution and devolution of Early States, and (co-) edited a number of influential volumes which have been acclaimed throughout the world.

Henri Claessen began his career in anthropology relatively late. He enrolled at university after he had begun working as a teacher. Initially, he studied social geography, but he switched to anthropology as soon as he became acquainted with it. He completed his doctoral dissertation in 1970, in which he compared the socio-political organisation of five prehistoric principalities, namely Tahiti, Tonga, Dahomey, Buganda and the Inca empire, which had been selected because of their historic independence (Claessen 1970). In order to characterise the distinctive features of the socio-political formations of those five societies, he examined the respective relationships between royal households, nobility and common people. Although the theoretical assumptions of his doctoral research project were chiefly functionalist, the main concern of his research was with the comparative aspects of his inquiry. This has remained the most important topic in Claessen's work.

Professor Claessen's interest in the Pacific dates back to the time of his doctoral research: two of the five societies under scrutiny were located in Polynesia. Claessen kept a special, albeit not exclusive, interest in this region until the end of his career. In later years he shifted the focus of his concern to some extent, to Africa. One day of the two-day seminar organised on the occasion of his retirement was focussed around the theme 'Continuity and Change in African Political Systems'; the other day centered on 'Interdisciplinary Collaboration in the Study of Early States'. At the end of the seminar entitled 'Complex Interaction: Early States in Comparative Perspective', a Festschrift edited by three former students of professor Claessen, namely Martin van Bakel, Renée Hagesteijn and Pieter van de Velde, was presented to him. The volume in honour of Henri Claessen contains an interesting collection of essays on that aspect of Early States which for some reason had never been given the attention it deserves: the ethnic component of Early States. The collection reflects the interdisplinary approach which Claessen has consistently advocated and includes contributions by anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and political scientists. In addition, it contains a useful overview of the research programme on Early States initiated by Claessen at the University of Leiden, as well as a bibliography of his work.

In the meantime, Professor Claessen continues to dedicate himself to his greatest love: teaching. He will continue to teach voluntarily one course each semester over the next five years at the Centre for Pacific Studies on that topic which has intrigued him from the outset of his anthropological career: the study of the development and decline of socio-political organisation, particularly in Polynesia. Thus, he has committed himself to the further development of Pacific Studies in the Netherlands.


Bakel, Martin van, Renée Hagesteijn & Pieter van de Velde (eds.)
1994 Pivot Politics; Changing Cultural Identities in Early State Formation Processes, Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis

Claessen, H.J.M.
1970 Van vorsten en volken; Een beschrijvende en functioneel-vergelijkende studie van de staatsorganisatie van vijf schriftloze vorstendommen ('About Princes and Peoples; A Descriptive and Comparative Study of the Organisation of State in Five Pre-Literate Principalities'), Amsterdam: PhD Thesis
1994 Factoren gekoppeld: Over de evolutie van de sociaal-politieke organisatie, Leiden: Rijks Universiteit Leiden, Afscheidsrede ('Valedictory Lecture')

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