Christianity, Culture Change, and the Anthropology of Ethics

By Rumsey, Alan | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Christianity, Culture Change, and the Anthropology of Ethics


Rumsey, Alan, Anthropological Quarterly


Joel Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, 419 pp.

This is a path-breaking book on several counts. One is that, notwithstanding the central importance of Christianity in the lives of many Papua New Guineans and the hundreds of English-language ethnographic monographs that have come out of field settings there, this is the first of them to take the culture of Christianity from one of those settings as its main subject matter. For Melanesianists, another of its virtues is that it is one of only a handful of monographs yet to have appeared from the Mountain Ok region at the western end of Highland Papua New Guinea. Best known to anthropologists through the work of Fredrik Barth (1975, 1987), the region has been central to debates on diverse topics such as ritual (e.g., Gardner 1981, 1983; Jorgensen 1981; Strathern 1991; Crook 1999); ecology (Hyndman 1979, Morren 1986, Gardner 1980, Ohtsuka 1994) and the impact of large-scale mining operations on indigenous peoples (Hyndman 1987, 1994; Jorgensen 1997; Kirsch 1997, 2001). But few book-length studies have appeared from the region, and it is renowned among Melanesianists for the number of outstanding PhD theses from there that remain unpublished. One can't help but wonder about the extent to which this may be due to the change of fashion in anthropology over the past twenty years or so, whereby field projects carried out in such "remote" locales have come to be regarded as antediluvian: embarrassing reminders of anthropology's original identification with the "savage slot" among social science disciplines. In truth, this reversal has had the unfortunate consequence of tacitly affirming the very proposition that we as anthropologists should aim to combat: that there is such a place in the world as "the savage slot," which we can and should avoid by directing our research elsewhere. To assume as much is to fail to heed the following eloquent injunction by the originator of the phrase "savage slot" himself, Michel-Rolph Trouillot:

Anthropology did not create the savage. ...Anthropology came to fill the savage slot in the trilogy order-utopia-savagery, a trilogy which preceded anthropology's institutionalization and gave it continuing coherence in spite of intradisciplinary shifts. This trilogy is now in jeopardy. Thus, the time is ripe...to attack frontally the visions that shaped this trilogy, to uncover its ethical roots and its consequences, and to find a better anchor for an anthropology of the present, an anthropology of the changing world and its irreducible histories. But postmodernist anthropologists pass near this opportunity looking for the savage in the text. They want us to read the internal tropes of the savage slot... But they refuse to address directly the thematic field (and thus the larger world) that made (makes) this slot possible, morosely preserving the empty slot itself (Trouillot 1991:40).

Becoming Sinners (without reference to Trouillot) attacks this problem frontally by taking as its subject matter the irreducible history of a long-isolated corner of the world which an earlier anthropology would unhesitatingly have claimed for the "savage slot" (or which would have been consigned to on that basis), and treating it instead in terms of the same trope that is widely regarded as diagnostic of the post-modern condition, the trope of "hybridity." Thus Robbins tells us in the conclusion:

I find myself in the unexpected position of having written an ethnography of an unfashionably remote and geographically contained group of people that raises issues ... that are at the center of a much in vogue theoretical discourse focused on populations that are far better integrated into the world economy and that are often to some or other degree geographically displaced. The primary watchword of this theoretical discourse is "hybridity," a term that well captures the nature of the Urapmin predicament. …

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