Academic journal article Ethnology

Changing Constructions of Masculinity in a Sepik Society

Academic journal article Ethnology

Changing Constructions of Masculinity in a Sepik Society

Article excerpt

The last decade has seen increasing interest in the effects of colonialism on Melanesian culture and identity. Several excellent collections (Carrier 1992; Jolly and Thomas 1992; Keesing and Tonkinson 1982; Linnekin and Poyer 1990; White and Lindstrom 1993) have demonstrated that exposure to Europeans and to their ideas about Pacific Islanders has wrought changes in Melanesian identity and cultural practices, even those that appear to be most conservative (e.g., Carrier and Carrier 1989; Thomas 1992a, 1992b). Altered self-images and practices almost inevitably have political implications. Keesing (1989) and Babadzan (1988), for example, argue that national elites borrow romantic European images of Island cultures as egalitarian communities to mask inequalities within new Pacific Island nations. Conversely, other local groups draw on negative European images of Pacific Islanders as ignoble savages with moral failings to justify national and international inequalities.

Scholars have also suggested that colonization has transformed power relations within rural communities. Subtle alterations in gender identity (Clark 1989; contributors to Jolly and Macintyre 1989a; Jolly 1992; Kulick 1992; Lattas 1991) and in people's ideas about the qualities necessary to be a good person (Gewertz and Errington 1993a, 1993b, 1994; Keesing 1989; Kulick 1992; White 1991) have a profound influence on gender relations and on villagers' attitudes toward local and national leaders (Gewertz and Errington 1993a, 1993b, 1994; Keesing 1989, 1992; Kulick 1992, 1993; White 1980a, 1991).

This article examines the "politics of identity" by analyzing changing conceptions of person and community among the eastern Kwanga of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.(1) It is specifically concerned with a set of assumptions that distinguish two components of the personality: a stubborn, aggressive autonomy, on the one hand; and a sensitivity to the concerns of others, on the other. Ethnographers working in many areas of Melanesia have reported that ideas about these two personality traits shape attitudes toward gender and leadership (Harrison 1982; Kulick 1992; Read 1959; White 1978, 1980a, 1980b, 1991). Harrison (1982), for example, reports Avatip villagers of the East Sepik Province as saying that people are born with "spirit" and "understanding." Spirit is "the individual's life-force, an elan vital conceived as the source of growth and health, of self-assertion and self-will and, in time, of mystical powers over others" (Harrison 1982:117). When enhanced in males through initiation, spirit leads to "the development by the individual of autonomy from constraints imposed by others, with a kind of transcendence of the moral conditions of existence" (Harrison 1982:117) and allows men to be effective warriors who strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. "Understanding," on the other hand, "is the means by which an individual is aware of social conventions and apprehends them as having moral force. It is the source of sociability, compassion, respect, `amity' in Fortes's sense, and all the `Apollonian' virtues involved in the ethos of secular equality" (Harrison 1982:117).

Harrison argues that these assumptions about personality shape gender relations and leadership patterns. Women, who are thought to have an abundance of understanding, are valued for their nurturing and co-operative natures. But they are also viewed as somewhat lacking in spirit and, therefore, as weak and dependent (Harrison 1982:125). Many men, on the other hand, have an excess of spirit that enables them to defend the village; but the same personality trait generates a selfish lack of concern for others' autonomy and wishes (Harrison 1982:120). But some men have a special kind of understanding that allows them to curb their aggressive spirit in the interest of communal needs and this makes them good leaders, a characteristic seldom found in women. Read (1959) says that similar ideas about character shape attitudes toward leaders among the Gabuku-Gama of the Eastern Highlands. …

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