1st Edition

Slavery and Essentialism in Highland Madagascar Ethnography, History, Cognition

By Denis Regnier Copyright 2021
    208 Pages 13 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    208 Pages 13 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book explores the prejudice against slave descendants in highland Madagascar and its persistence more than a century after the official abolition of slavery.

    ‘Unclean people’ is a widespread expression in the southern highlands of Madagascar, and refers to people of alleged slave descent who are discriminated against on a daily basis and in a variety of ways. Denis Regnier shows that prejudice is rooted in a strong case of psychological essentialism: free descendants think that ‘slaves’ have a ‘dirty’ essence that is impossible to cleanse. Regnier’s field experiments question the widely accepted idea that the social stigma against slavery is a legacy of pre-colonial society. He argues, to the contrary, that the essentialist construal of ‘slaves’ is the outcome of the historical process triggered by the colonial abolition of slavery: whereas in pre-abolition times slaves could be cleansed through ritual means, the abolition of slavery meant that slaves were transformed only superficially into free persons, while their inner essence remained unchanged and became progressively constructed as ‘forever unchangeable’.

    Based on detailed fieldwork, this volume will be of interest to scholars of anthropology, African studies, development studies, cultural psychology, and those looking at the legacy of slavery.

    1. An encounter with southern Betsileo 'slaves'

    2. Three lenses: ethnography, history and cognition

    3. The Berosaiña

    4. Contested histories

    5. Marriage in Beparasy

    6. Unilateral unions and their consequences

    7. Mixing ancestries and keeping a memory of origins

    8. Essentialism: evidence, development and transmission



    Denis Regnier is Assistant Professor and Head of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda. He gained his PhD in anthropology from the London School of Economics, UK.

    Slavery and Essentialism in Highland Madagascar offers a compelling, beautifully written, and ethnographically rich account of slavery’s legacy in the lives of Malagasy people. Drawing from historical, ethnographic and psychological research, Regnier systematically addresses the book’s central question — Why are the Berosaina stigmatized in the ways they are? – leading readers to a multifaceted answer that is ultimately satisfying.”

    Andrew Walsh, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Western University

    "This beautifully written and wonderfully insightful ethnography is based on the author’s years of fieldwork among the southern Betsileo. Regnier’s research is especially important and original because of its focus on slave descendants. Because of the stigma attached to this status among the Betsileo and the Malagasy more generally, the topic is extremely difficult to research. Regnier describes how his understanding emerged gradually from his participant observation and interviewing and as he continued to establish rapport and friendships and be incorporated into southern Betsileo society. I found particularly intriguing (like solving a puzzle) his description of how he pieced together verbal accounts by individuals of different backgrounds to arrive at an understanding of slave descent and its enduring stigma, expressed particularly in avoidance of marriage between individuals of slave and free descent. As an anthropologist who also has lived among and studied the southern Betsileo, I can vouch for the accuracy and appropriateness of Regnier’s ethnographic account. Reading this vivid description of contemporary Betsileo society made me nostalgic for the Betsileo villages where I did fieldwork decades ago. Regnier combines ethnographic, historical, and cognitive approaches to provide us with an original and unique understanding of the nature and underpinnings of Malagasy social stratification."

    Conrad Kottak, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan

    Slavery and Essentialism offers an ethnographically rich, theoretically astute analysis of the ongoing legacy of slavery in southern Madagascar. By combining historical and psychological lenses, Regnier illuminates why the stigma associated with slavery continues to be perpetuated, long after the slaves were freed by the French.  Both a sensitive ethnography of an important social issue and a compelling plea for combining cognitive and historical approaches, this book will be of broad interest to anyone interested in the historical transformation of African societies and the legacy of unfree labor in the contemporary world.”

    Jennifer Cole, Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

    "Through his artful blending of ethnographic, historical, and cognitive perspectives, Regnier illustrates how the legacies of slavery shape the intimate relationships of life, and death, in the southern highlands of Madagascar. This is a beautifully crafted ethnography, meticulous and compelling, that considers vital cultural questions of identity, memory, and belonging.“

    Sarah Osterhoudt, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University

    "Denis Regnier’s book raises fundamental questions about the ongoing significance of slave ancestry in Madagascar long after the official abolition of slavery. His answers to these questions are much more revealing than those that have been proposed so far. He argues that psychological essentialism is key to explaining the discrimination against slave descendants. Such a conclusion is of great importance for our understanding of the continuing stigma of slavery in modern Madagascar since it suggests that the phenomenon has become rooted in an underlying feature of the nature of human beings: their propensity to essentialise the social. This analysis shows why pollution cannot be understood simply in socio-economic terms, as it has often been the case in the anthropological literature, and how social categories can be historically redefined in such a way as to have new significance. This book therefore demonstrates that social anthropologists cannot be satisfied by socio-economic explanations but must also consider the cognitive basis of what they find.”

    Maurice Bloch, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science