Why We Return to Papua New Guinea

By Gewertz, Deborah; Errington, Frederick | Anthropological Quarterly, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Why We Return to Papua New Guinea


Gewertz, Deborah, Errington, Frederick, Anthropological Quarterly


In this article we reflect upon the continued significance of Melanesian ethnography to anthropology. To do so, we consider what of importance has compelled us to return frequently to Papua New Guinea. Focusing primarily on a confrontation between a Chambri big man and a Chambri evangelical woman, we establish what we think remains (rather) unique about contemporary Papua New Guinea (and perhaps about Melanesia more generally). Our analysis shows Papua New Guinea as a place where the global intersects the local in axiomatically condensed form. Within the lifetimes of most adults, colonialism, missionization, military occupation, independence, development, transnational capitalism, and charismatic Christianity have all provided contexts in which a diversity of local peoples, responding to the extensive transformation of their lives, have generated a range of desires and an active sense of the possibility of enacting those desires. Our analysis reveals, thus, a preoccupation with local agency that demonstrates with instructive immediacy the contingency and variability characteristic of the local instantiation and shaping of global processes. [ethnography, Papua New Guinea, globalization, gender, culture areas]

During various public presentations over the past few years we have often been asked troubling questions which focus on "whither Papua New Guinea?" (or, more generally, "whither Melanesia?") in contemporary anthropology. Thus, at one university, after discussing hybridity, imagined communities, and transnational capitalism in Papua New Guinea-in other words, topics we thought would "grab" an audience of contemporary academics-an anthropologist (a non-Melanesianist) inquired critically to this effect:

Although Papua New Guinea has brought us much of importance in anthropology concerning, for example, leadership and economic exchange-from models of egalitarian and stratified redistribution to critiques of formalist economics-the anthropology you're describing could be happening anywhere. What's coming out of Papua New Guinea that's especially instructive?

Given the prevalence with which we have heard such responses suggesting Papua New Guinea's contemporary peripherality-or, at least, noncentrality-to the discipline (along with scuttle-butt that Melanesia is, for purposes of employment, no longer a "trendy" culture area), we were not surprised when the editors of the major book series devoted to Melanesian ethnography convened a session at the 1995 meetings of the American Anthropological Association entitled, "Globalization and the Future of `Culture Areas': Melanesian Anthropology in Transition." The session abstract asked, among other things:

In what contexts does the construct of a "Melanesian" anthropology become irrelevant or even downright debilitating? Conversely, if the contemporary anthropology of Melanesia has something distinctive, or even critical, to offer-such that scholars working elsewhere might benefit from engaging with it-what might that contribution be? This article is our effort to wrestle with these questions.

As should be obvious from the frame we have already established, the answer we will try to provide concerning "whither Papua New Guinea?"that part of Melanesia we know best-in contemporary anthropology is not the one we would have given when we began our anthropological careers in the late 1960s (for Fred) and early 1970s (for Deborah). We have elsewhere described these early years as a time when Papua New Guinea's important place in the discipline was as the pristine, the untouched and the remote (Gewertz and Errington 1991: 14-15). For us, as for other anthropologists, Papua New Guinea was still the "last unknown." Before going into the field, we read books such as Patrol into yesterday (McCarthy 1963) and New Guinea: The last unknown (Souter 1963). And if we were not to be the first "Europeans" to "discover" a people, we would, we thought, be at least the first actually to live among them. …

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