Academic journal article Oceania

Keeping the Network out of View: Mining, Distinctions and Exclusion in Melanesia

Academic journal article Oceania

Keeping the Network out of View: Mining, Distinctions and Exclusion in Melanesia

Article excerpt

In an earlier series of discussions on Melanesian property rights, (1) it was argued that Western ownership strategies tend to promote rights based on exclusion, while Melanesian strategies generally seek to expand the possibilities for inclusion. James Carrier (1998) rightly raised attention to the intellectual assumptions and interests that have shaped such distinctions: the enduring legacy of Maussian notions of gift societies that contain an inclusive model of property, that are compared with equally essentialised Western property constructs (cf. Carrier 1995; Gregory 1982). Marilyn Strathern's contributions have brought new light to bear on the relationship between different ownership practices and the ways that people construct and imagine social networks. Her argument is best articulated in her response to Bruno Latour's (1993) claims in We have never been modern. Latour argues that modern social networks are distinguished by their scale, whereas 'non-modern' social networks, apparently found in archetypically 'non-modern' societies like Papua New Guinea, are usually limited in length. But as Strathern argues, this neglects crucial differences in the ways that societies construct social networks, and ignores that fact that while 'technology might enlarge networks, proprietorship can be guaranteed to cut them down to size' (Strathern 1996: 531). That is, Western property claims usually require people to shorten or 'cut the network' in order to establish ownership. The division in terms of scale is largely contingent upon content: pure or homogenous networks, compared to heterogeneous or hybrid networks (Latour 1993: 11). The first instance falls within the domain of classical social network analysis, while the latter is an example of more recent actor-network theory, linking human and non-human entities. Nevertheless, network remains a relatively neutral phrase for interconnectedness. Moreover, when considered in relation to ownership, we find that all networks can all emphasise exclusivity over limitless incorporation.

Following Strathern's lead, Stuart Kirsch suggested that 'Melanesian social networks typically include all of the persons who have contributed to another's success, each of whom may later lay claim to their share of what ever is produced' (Kirsch 2004: 83). This abstraction drew upon events that occurred around the Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea, when Lihirian landowners claimed compensation from the mining company for environmental damages and the death of pigs. Supposedly when making compensation claims Lihirians, and other Melanesians, seek to keep the entire social network in view. This is contrasted with mining companies that often appeal to Western property rights that draw upon legalistic definitions and scientific explanations to shorten the network, limit liability and secure profits.

These distinctions, which we can place on a continuum of strategies, are intended to emphasise rather than essentialise difference; as Kitsch notes, both miners and Melanesians can adjust their social networks to suit contexts and desired outcomes (2001: 155). However, in such radically transformed circumstances this still potentially conceals important processes: as keen modernists, Lihirians have increasingly sought to limit ownership, particularly of the financial benefits and development associated with the mining project. Lihirians might include the company in their chain of implication when making compensation claims, or rely upon non-Lihirians for political and economic success--the strategic utilisation of an expansive network. But when it comes to actual ownership of any compensation, benefits, or achievements many Lihirians can now be guaranteed to cut the network.

Lihirians who receive royalties, compensation and other economic benefits would probably argue they have not severed their social connections in their attempt to control the flow of wealth (cf. Strathern 1979). …

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