[Social Change in Melanesia: Development & History]

By Sillitoe, Paul; McPherson, Naomi M. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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[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.

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