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Historicizing Play-Logic in the Making of Relatedness: The Case of Bumba Meu Boi Festival in Maranhão, Northeast Brazil

Shapiro, Matan

Sociologus, Vol. 65 (2015), Iss. 2: pp. 131–152

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Honorary Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL); Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Anthropology, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel Campus, Rabin Building, 31905, Israel.


After the establishment in 1682 of a trading company to monopolize commerce between the colony and the metropolis, the Brazilian state of Maranhão has become one of the main slave ports in Latin America. Abolition in May 1888 nonetheless failed to precipitate the collapse of colonial class hierarchies so that throughout the twentieth century a series of local oligarchs continued to cultivate clientelist political systems. Despite institutionalized socioeconomic inequality, however, maranhenses celebrate on a grand popular scale a colossal repertoire of legends, tales and myths. This amounts to a corpus of shared knowledge on the forces that sustain and transform their social universe. In this article, I will focus on the local festival of Bumba meu Boi as preeminent manifestation of this cosmology. Through the analysis of post-abolition sociality in this annual celebration, I argue that in the Tristes Tropiques of Maranhão an infinitely expanding sense of affective egalitarianism is infused with bounded, totalizing and abiding social hierarchies. I thus offer my reading for an ethics of relatedness centred on prevalent imaginaries of play and paradox rather than on clear-cut discriminatory power-relations.