Marxist/feminist Models in the New Guinea Highlands

By Shapiro, Warren | Oceania, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Marxist/feminist Models in the New Guinea Highlands


Shapiro, Warren, Oceania


Writing in 1884, Engels (1972:120) associated capitalism, the nuclear family, and 'the world historical defeat of the female sex.' This would be but a quaint slice of the history of social thought, but for the fact that the Marxist trifecta is even today taken seriously by those for whom anthropology is less an empirical enterprise than a means by which to promulgate collectivist dogma. Thus Collier and her associates (Collier et al. 1992) suggest that the nuclear family is absent among some Maya groups in the south of Mexico; Beckerman and Valentine (2002) resurrect the Victorian fantasy of 'group marriage' in a creative rendition of the Amazonian materials; and a batch of our colleagues imagine a 'deep past' where, once upon a time, the nuclear family was barely a glimmer in the eyes of pre-capitalist/pre-misogynist men (Allen et al. 2008). Spoil-sport that I am, I have attempted to show that all three of these primitivist projects (Shapiro 2005b) are without any real-world foundation whatsoever (Shapiro 2009, in press 1, in press 2).

But my last target contains the interesting suggestion that where men's houses exist, as in much of Amazonia and Melanesia, it is analytically incorrect to speak of 'nuclear families' (Knight 2008:66), a proposition put forward by Fox (1967:39) in more grounded days. If true, two-thirds of the tripartite plan noted above would be realized: there would be no capitalism and no nuclear family, but, alas, what used gently to be called 'the position of women' would make the Religious Right in the US look like flaming socialists.

But is it true? Amazonian men's houses patently co-exist with the nuclear family (Shapiro 2009), but what of Melanesia, where the degree of misogyny is even more profound (Gregor and Tuzin 2001)? Gilbert Herdt's famous study of the 'Sambia,' among whom fantasies of female pollution are remarkable even by Highland New Guinea standards, provides a revealing illustration. Herdt (1981:75-77) tells us, and shows with a useful drawing, that husband and wife are domiciled together and separately from others, albeit their freedom of interaction is severely curtailed by male fears of a woman's alleged pollution. So perforce the nuclear family exists here.

Even where men spend the night in the men's house, there are likely to be symbolic markers of the nuclear family, the most common of which, I should guess from what I know of other areas, is the singling out of close procreative kin as (in native lexicons) the 'real' or 'true' members of their kin classes (Shapiro 2005a). This, it bears noting, is a sort of datum of positively capital theoretical importance, obviating as it does most of the claims of the self-styled 'new kinship studies,' which, it also bears noting, have more than an accidental connexion to Marxist ideology (Shapiro 2008). …

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