Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

War and Society in Sepik New Guinea

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

War and Society in Sepik New Guinea

Article excerpt

Introduction

Recently, several prominent students of Melanesian society have raised an intriguing charge: Western theories of human sociality and violence are fundamentally biased by the legitimizing ideologies of the state societies that produced them, and this has distorted our analysis of non-Western societies (Harrison 1989; 1993; Schiltz 1987; Strathern 1985; see also Brown 1988; Knauft 1990). In Western ideology, these critics argue, society is taken to be separable from nature and the individual, a conceptual split that permits the origins of human behaviour to be placed outside of society (Strathern 1985: 114-15). This facilitates an a priori assumption that individuals are asocial beings 'naturally' inclined to pursue unbridled self-interest at the expense of others, and a linked supposition that, left to exercise these 'natural' propensities, they would exist in a Hobbesian state 'of Warre, where everyman is Enemy to every man' (Hobbes 1957 [1651]: 64). Ideology thus presents as self-evident a basic human need for regulation, thereby legitimating state control and its suppression of violence (Harrison 1993: 1-3; Strathern 1985: 114-17, 128).

The problem for the social and legal sciences, according to the critics, is that this legitimating ideology has created a 'bias in Western scholarship, which has come to conceive of society in terms of its own history of centuries of state formation' (Schiltz 1987: 4). As among the lay population, social scientists have taken violence as 'natural', a primordial 'given', and a human need for social regulation as self-evident. In consequence, they automatically predicate their analyses of conflict on the assumption that, whatever their cultural stripe, humans constantly struggle to transcend violence and war by restoring ruptured relationships or extending the reach of their sociopolitical institutions (Harrison 1989; 1993: 21-2, 111; Knauft 1990: 266-7, 278, 295; Strathern 1985: 114-17, 120-2, 128). Social scientists thus consider the emergence and theoretical status of sociopolitical groups analytically unproblematic because they unreflectingly take them to be regulatory agencies (Harrison 1993: 22; Schiltz 1987: 4). Moreover, they approach the occurrence of violence as either a breakdown in the sociopolitical institutions meant to suppress it or as an asocial residuum that 'naturally' occurs in the absence of overarching regulation - i.e. in the interstices between sociopolitical groups (Harrison 1993: 146-7).

In small-scale societies such as those of Melanesia, the critics argue, these presumptions are misplaced. Melanesians have a qualitatively different view of social life and war, and Harrison and Strathern have gone on to sketch this view. Melanesians do not see violence as a breakdown of social relations that must be repaired. Rather, they view it as an end in itself, as thoroughly social action that may serve intrinsic interests such as communication, and may be valorized as such and enjoined as one of a whole range of forms of interaction (Harrison 1993: 25-7, 149; Strathern 1985: 120-2, 129; see also Brown 1988: 91; Schiltz 1987: 14). In Strathern's view, for example, violence is one of several aspects of social life (talk and wealth exchanges are others) that comment on, and adjudicate, other aspects. In a region where personhood is partible (Strathern 1980; 1985; 1988), where gifts of wealth (pigs, shells and so forth) and acts of violence are seen as interchangeable, wealth and violence enable clans to convert emotional states such as anger and pleasure into political acts (Strathern 1985: 124, 126, 128-9; see also Brown 1988).

For Harrison (1989; 1993), Melanesians view the individual not as 'naturally' asocial but as fundamentally sociable. They see relatedness, dependency and peaceability, rather than autonomy, independence and aggressiveness, as the essential attributes of the person. Consequently, Melanesians do not take a basic human need for regulation as axiomatic. …

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