Society of Others: Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place

Society of Others: Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place

Society of Others: Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place

Society of Others: Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place

Synopsis

This important study upsets the popular assumption that human relations in small-scale societies are based on shared experience. In a theoretically innovative account of the lives of the Korowai of West Papua, Indonesia, Rupert Stasch shows that in this society, people organize their connections to each another around otherness. Analyzing the Korowai people's famous "tree house" dwellings, their patterns of living far apart, and their practices of kinship, marriage, and childbearing and rearing, Stasch argues that the Korowai actively make relations not out of what they have in common, but out of what divides them. Society of Others, the first anthropological book about the Korowai, offers a picture of Korowai lives sharply at odds with stereotypes of "tribal" societies.

Excerpt

This book examines the ways in which Korowai people of West Papua, Indonesia, make qualities of otherness the central focus of their social relations. According to a dominant strand of Western thought, people’s social unity is based on their similarity and their shared experiences. The most authentic, valued, and intimate social bonds of life are ones that most approach an ideal of pure identification. In popular stereotypes “tribal” people hold a special place in this understanding: they are whole human populations whose main social experience consists of undifferentiated unity of consciousness, following from their enduring, intimate copresence in the same living spaces. One of this book’s goals is to discredit this model of social bonds.

Korowai number just a few thousand persons, but they are known to tens of millions of Westerners as iconic “tribal” people, through articles about them in National Geographic and many other magazines and through television shows about them broadcast on a wide variety of networks. Korowai live dispersed across several hundred square miles of lowland tropical forest. They grow and gather their own food, and they manage their social relations through egalitarian processes of direct give-and-take rather than political offices and a legal bureaucracy. Other attributes that media professionals have fixed on as making Korowai a perfect fit with Westerners’ stereotypes of “primitive” humanity are their spectacular “treehouses” (figure 1), their limited possession of factory-made commodities such as cotton clothing, and . . .

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