For several years I have been analyzing the peasant world of the Isandra Valley in Madagascar, whose agrarian civilization is politically based on a network of villages linked by bilateral kinship and maintained by ritual gatherings. I observe that this local society is building its autonomy without rejecting the State, but rather seeing it as a means of protecting this autonomy. I analyze this dual system - the village network and the state apparatus - through the prism of the bilateral kinship structure which, because it maintains links between the paternal and maternal branches, shapes a society made up of open, interwoven networks, while acting as the conceptual matrix of what is expected of the nation-state.

I am currently preparing a doctoral thesis on this subject under the supervision of Christophe Darmangeat (Université Paris Cité, LADYSS)

Through the symmetrization of paternal and maternal families, bilateral kinship generates a certain type of social relationship, centered on individual and conjugal autonomy, and more broadly a political organization, in this case a state formula, which is expected to implement pacification, protection and public service. Based on observation of the rural territory of Isandra, in the Highlands of Madagascar, the present study will seek to explain the resilience of bilateral kinship, both as an organizing principle of a highly autonomous peasant society and as a guiding idea of what is expected of the nation-state.

By cross-referencing the level of cultural complexity with the principle of descent, Georges Murdock has observed that societies with bilateral kinship are found at both the simplest and most complex levels, while unilinear systems essentially occupy the intermediate levels. Murdock deduces from the first point (the simplest systems are essentially bilateral) that bilaterality predates over the other systems. The second point (the strong presence of bilaterality at the most complex level) remains to be explained.

The present work aims to explore this bimodality of bilateral kinship, and in particular to account for the second point - the close relationship between bilateral kinship and complex social organization, in this case the state.

The aim here is not to provide an exhaustive demonstration of this relationship and its causes, but to grasp its concrete expression:
- in its day-to-day operation, at the level of the family, the local community and the State and its services,
- in its historical movement, through a non-linear sequence of political organization models developed in response to various tensions and disruptions.

To this end, we will focus on a field that makes visible the properties of bilateral kinship both in its local expression and in its large-scale political evolutions. This is the Isandra district, a peasant territory located in the Highlands of Madagascar.

Centered on the autonomous conjugal cell (bilaterality), this society is structured around ritual gatherings organized at kinship and local level, which maintain intervillage networks mediated by married women. The Malagasy state, which takes a back seat but plays an essential role, produces a supralocal unity and manages security, health and education, with varying degrees of success. This system emerged after several centuries of chronic insecurity, and today the territory functions by combining local autonomy based on conjugality and a peacemaking, unifying nation-state.

Finally, we propose a general hypothesis that attempts to account for the anthropological processes underlying the observation of Murdock and his Malagasy incarnation. By mobilizing related men around war, unilinear systems weaken conjugal cells and marginalize women. Conversely, complex bilateral societies rely on the organization of military activity outside the kinship sphere, thus preserving the independence of nuclear families for the benefit of the general dynamics of society. Bilaterality thus seems to favor the emergence of the state in its inclusive form, making possible both public service and individual autonomy.

Within EHESS (School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris) and under the supervision of Claudine Cohen, I have produced a 300-page research thesis on the rural territory of Isandra, Madagascar, and its relationship to globalization: 

"This study is devoted to Antsangy, a peasant hamlet in the Isandra Valley in Madagascar. We will attempt to understand how the population of this rural territory, although connected to the global flows of globalization, seems to manage to preserve - or even develop - an indigenous centre of gravity. To this end, we will analyze social and spatial organization in order to uncover the mechanisms that enable this economic, political and cultural resilience".


"While staying as close as possible to the field, Boris Lelong systematically relates his observations to the major economic and political forces that influence the inhabitants of the Isandra Valley. Indeed, this work is based on a remarkable long-term field survey: the attention to detail, singularities and personal trajectories, typical of a good classical monography, does not prevent the candidate from developing very solid general analyses on this region and its adaptation to economic changes".
Eric Wittersheim (EHESS)

"The thesis is strong because it is not about showing how the village community studied is being tested by globalization but how globalization is coming up against its capacity for resilience. This informative and invigorating thesis is a first academic work of very high quality and quite promising."
Jean-Michel Wachsberger (University Lille 3)

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in french)

I have also produced, still within the EHESS and under the supervision of Alain Mahé, another research dissertation which this time poses the specific question of the relationship to the State:

"The aim of this study is to examine the relationship to the State of the rural inhabitants of the Isandra district in Madagascar. Are they autonomous, both politically and economically? Do they seek to stand up to the State or to distance themselves from it? Are they able to implement the utopia of the free village that Eric Wolf said was the goal of peasant societies? We will see that while the villagers of Isandra manage to implement a state of local independence, they do not reject the state for all that, and instead see it as a protection of that autonomy."


"The tutor and the reporter agreed to underline the extent of the work accomplished, both because of the quality of the ethnography carried out and the mastery of the anthropological theories discussed. The clarity of the analyses and positions defended by the author, as well as their height of vision, were underlined. The long exchanges that took place during the defense also confirmed the intellectual maturity of the author and the very important part of his immersed knowledge."
Alain Mahé & Riccardo Ciavolella (EHESS)

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in french)