[Social Change in Melanesia: Development & History]
Sillitoe, Paul, McPherson, Naomi M., Anthropologica
A companion volume to the author's An Introduction to the Anthropology of Melanesia (1998, Cambridge University Press) focussed on "traditional cultural orders," this volume offers an anthropological perspective on issues common to contemporary Melanesian societies. Always aware of the extent of diversity in Melanesia, each chapter provides an overview of an issue illustrated by a specific case study, most of which are situated in Papua New Guinea.
Chapter 1, "Change and Development," sets up the theoretical framework, the concept of social change, and the contribution of anthropology to understanding social change in Melanesia. Key concepts such as economic development, modernization theory, dependency theory are critically defined and the notion of an applied anthropology is succinctly flailed. Social change here focuses on 'forced" change occasioned by 200 years of colonial intrusions and acculturation in Melanesia. Chapter 2, "The Arrival of the Europeans," briefly reviews the history of colonial contact economically (whalers, traders and blackbirders), spiritually (missionaries) and politically (the annexation of territory and development of administrative infrastructures to claim and properly extract the region's resources). To counter this European (Orientalist) interpretation of interaction with Melanesian peoples and cultures, Chapter 3 offers "another history" from the perspectives and perceptions of the Wola whose first experience of European intrusion in their lives came in the guise of the Hides and O'Malley patrol into the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1936. The two accounts differ radically; however, this "democratization of representations" both acknowledges and celebrates differences and permits a more complex and nuanced rendering of the same historical events. In the process, it enhances understanding and tolerance of cultural differences. From here the text focuses on Melanesian understandings of and responses to technological innovation (chapters 4-6), the economic and social consequences of technological change (chapters 7-10), and indigenous rationalisations of the socioeconomic changes (chapters 11-14).
Chapter 4 explores technological change and economic growth to show that, contrary to assumptions of Western economic development theory, new technologies and social conditions do not propel less developed countries along the same developmental trajectory experienced by the West consequent with the industrial revolution. This is a succinct discussion of technological innovations and, from the perspective of modernization theory, failed economic development. The assumptions of modernization theory are also subjected to a "democratization of representations" in order to understand social obstacles and cultural attitudes that might explain the failure of development initiatives and, conversely, to understand indigenous factors that might create incentives that facilitate economic development. Contextualized in a discussion of the traditional system of land tenure and use rights, kinship and community, Chapter 5 considers the ethnocentric assumptions embedded in modernization theory and its failure to consider local responses and accommodations to social change. Land is central to Melanesians, and the point is made clearly that disrupting traditional land tenure systems undermines the very existence of social groups and communities. The question "development for whom?" enjoins those involved in development schemes to consider "what they are doing and why" (p. 89).
Situating the discussion within the coffee-growing regions of Eastern Highlands Province, Chapter 6 looks at whether the characteristics of the traditional big men comprise a positive model for emerging entrepreneurial businessmen. The answer is no. Successful businessmen are individualistic and invest in their own enterprises. They act contrary to big men ideals embedded in the obligations of reciprocity which militate against the accumulation of individual wealth, capital and profit. In the end, big men entrepreneurs have a limited impact on economic growth and social change.
To be sure, there are many successful businessmen in Melanesia which leads to a discussion in Chapter 7 of an emergent class system and a Melanesian peasantry that holds tenaciously to a self-sufficient subsistence base as security in an increasingly unpredictable world. Dependency theory is taken to task for its universalist and ethnocentric assumptions. Features of Melanesian societies that inhibit class stratification include traditional land tenure, the obligation of reciprocity and sociopolitical exchange which serves as levelling device, and, interestingly, the persistence of tribal warfare. On the other hand, the economically successful are the most active in local and state politics. This "nascent elite class" has a vested interest in promoting land tenure changes, has access to foreign aid to purchase alienated land for commercial purposes, and can legislate away all traces of the old egalitarian order in favour of class and economic success as the basis of renown.
Enlarging on this theme, Chapter 8 looks at national governments and incomes, multinational consortia, foreign investment and centrally planned development within the context of mining and gas and oil fields. This is an evenhanded discussion of the benefits (wage labour, education and training, improved services) and distresses (pollution and destruction of the land and waters, loss of land, social disruption and inter-group strife) of development. The massive mine and bloody rebellion at Bougainville feature prominently. Another major resource extraction and source of foreign income is forestry (chapter 9). Again, land is a central issue and development is really about transformation of the traditional order which is contrary to the goals of the foreign interests. While change is inevitable, clearly it may not entail "progress," and the ethics of development are scrutinized. The contributions of anthropology to understanding indigenous knowledge and advocating its inclusion in programs for development are well presented.
All large scale development projects require a large and mobile work force which is associated with problems of migration, urban drift (chapter 10) and, in Papua New Guinea urban centres, a form of tribalism known as the wantok system. Urbanites who do not maintain their rural ties lose their rights to village land and related resources and, equally landless in the urban environment, struggle for a sense of identity. Tribalism, as ethnic enclaves and source of community among the landless in urban areas, provides identity. Tribalism substitutes for class as groups from less developed areas see themselves disadvantaged relative to those with a longer history of development who are thus more sophisticated, educated and experienced, able to access better paying jobs and to exercise more social and political control. These urban ethnic blocks promote hostility and violence, an increasing problem of 'law and order" in Melanesian urban centres.
Melanesian responses to past and present experiences of change would be incomplete without the discussion of the phenomenon of cargo cults and millennial politics in Chapter 11 and exemplified by the John Frum movement on Tanna, Vanuatu. Perhaps the whole topic of cargo cults is stale as this is the least inspired analysis and the usual explanations of anomie, relative deprivation, and incipient nationalism are given as "explanations" of cargo cults. Millenarianism and cargo cults are also caught up in changing Melanesian cosmologies and belief systems as a result of Christian proselytization, and Chapter 12 reviews the considerable impact of missions and missionaries on Melanesian world views. Until the 1950s, missions were the sole providers of medical and educational services and did much good in promoting literacy and improving health. In more contemporary times, Melanesian versions of Christian teachings and values play a role in the politics of independence and decolonization.
Chapter 13 looks at the relationship between tribal and state political systems. In Papua New Guinea, politics is "a game of opportunism" where abuse of power, bribery and corruption flourish along with political incompetence as exposed in the Barnett Report into the forestry industry. Following on is a provocative discussion on the imposition of the European state system as somehow "better" or more conducive to "progress," the unseemly haste of past colonial administrations to transfer political power to inadequately prepared subject populations, and whether tribal values of equality and political power can survive the pressures of a stratified state system of democracy. Since there can be no "conclusion" to a volume of this nature, it is entirely appropriate that the last chapter focuses on the concept of kastom as cultural heritage and as part of a "search for identity in the contemporary world" (p. 241) as Melanesians create continuity in change.
Although each chapter is topically oriented, Sillitoe's analytical skill deftly integrates issues and ideas across topics to present a holistic and complex analysis of contemporary Melanesia. This book is written to be accessible to the non-specialist and does that very successfully. It is excellent as a text introducing undergraduates to contemporary Melanesia societies. There is a comprehensive index but, unfortunately for the specialist, very few citations in the body of the text and no comprehensive bibliography although each chapter ends with a list of references and suggestions for further readings. An unusual but most welcome feature in some chapters is suggested films. I have seen 11 of the 21 films listed, and each is an excellent choice to accompany the text. This book works on many levels for the specialist and non-specialist alike. Highly recommended.…
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Publication information: Article title: [Social Change in Melanesia: Development & History]. Contributors: Sillitoe, Paul - Author, McPherson, Naomi M. - Author. Journal title: Anthropologica. Volume: 43. Issue: 2 Publication date: January 1, 2001. Page number: 289. © Wilfrid Laurier University 1996. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.