Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Separateness as a Relation: The Iconicity, Univocality and Creativity of Korowai Mother-in-Law Avoidance

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Separateness as a Relation: The Iconicity, Univocality and Creativity of Korowai Mother-in-Law Avoidance

Article excerpt

'Mother-in-law avoidance' is an old anthropological topic, but one about which there are new and worthwhile things still to say. In this article, I examine the avoidance practices of mother-in-law/son-in-law pairs among Korowai-speakers of West Papua, the Indonesian-controlled western half of New Guinea. My findings bear not only on our understanding of avoidance institutions as such, but also on two very broad social theoretical problems. The first is whether there are qualitatively different human conceptions of what a 'social relationship' is and, if so, what might the important lines of variation then be. Examples of anthropologically canonical (if also controversial) statements on this problem include, to name just a few, Durkheim's famous typification of two kinds of solidarity Dumont's studies of European individualism and South Asian holism, Sahlins's related proposals in writings about the historical agency of Polynesian and Fijian political leaders (1985; 1991), and Strathern's model of a distinctiv e Melanesian sociality (1988). In this article, I argue that Korowai mother-in-law avoidance does indeed embody a qualitatively distinctive vision of what a social relationship can be. In particular, these avoidance practices enact a vision of social life as being built out of gripping, uncertain engagement with persons markedly strange to oneself. Korowai mother-in-law avoidance offers an instructive case study of how some people make 'difference' a positive basis of social connection.

The second theoretical problem addressed here is whether people are reflexively conscious of the logic and effects of their social practices and, if so, what the nature and consequentiality of that reflexive consciousness might then be. While mother-in-law avoidance is a classic example of what anthropologists once characterized as 'rule-governed behaviour', I argue here that such avoidance is a highly reflexive practice, in the sense that it is dominantly structured by practitioners' own notions of what they are doing when they carry it out. However, these reflexive notions are not primarily expressed in explicit exegetic discourse. In the latter half of this article, I show that, in their actual bodily practice, Korowai mothers-in-law and sons-in-law situationally manipulate the conventions of avoidance to create a complex gradation of qualities of mother-in-law/son-in-law bonds. More generally, though, I argue that all levels of the practice of mother-in-law avoidance -- such as the multiple forms of senso ry contact that people avoid, the negative emotional, medical, and political consequences that are thought to follow avoidance breaches, and the ways in which people link avoidance to the broader moral character of affinity -- are all informed by a single basic reflexive sensibility about the nature of social bonds. This is the sensibility mentioned above, according to which social bonds, and the mother-in-law bond in particular, are built out of close engagement with persons who are markedly separate and different.

An overview of the Korowai social landscape

Speakers of Korowai dialects number perhaps three thousand and live sparsely dispersed across about 500 square miles of dense lowland tropical forest, between 10 and 40 miles south of New Guinea's central mountain chain, between 50 and 90 miles west of the troubled Indonesia-Papua New Guinea border, and more than 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea to the southwest. Their landscape is a patchwork of hundreds of territorial homelands owned by named patricians. In the southwestern Korowai area where I have worked, the median size of these clans is about ten persons, and the maximum about thirty. Many extinct or near-extinct clans remain socially significant in memory, and in living persons' sorrowful orientations towards their dead relatives' empty lands. Men build elevated houses, typically on their own patriclan homelands, and men and women together clear and plant banana gardens around these houses. …

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