Academic journal article Oceania

Reto's Chance: State and Status in an Urban Papua New Guinea Settlement

Academic journal article Oceania

Reto's Chance: State and Status in an Urban Papua New Guinea Settlement

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Discussion of the engagement of the state and society in Melanesia has drawn recently on what has been called the 'state-in-society' model developed by Joel Migdal (Migdal, Kohli & Shue 1994). Constituent themes of the model are that states are almost never autonomous from social forces and have to be viewed in their social contexts (Migdal, Kohli & Shue 1994:2-3), that the overall role of the state in society 'hinges on the numerous junctures between its diffuse parts and and other social organizations' (1994:3), that the relative position of a social group within the overall social structure is not a simple determinant of the power of that group (1994:3-4), and that 'states and other social forces may be mutually empowering' (1994:4). Migdal's overall approach has thematic similarities with recent independently developed representations of Melanesian states as fragmentary or diffuse and socially contextualised (e.g. Filer 1992, Gordon and Meggitt 1985, Standish 1981 (1)), sometimes in relation to nationhood (e.g. Hirsch 1997, Wanek 1996). In this respect Migdal's representation of his model as intended to correct 'an unfortunate tendency in social science to treat the state as an organic, undifferentiated actor' (Migdal 1994:17) might overstate the tendency. Perhaps the pertinent function of Migdal's model, as far as Melanesia is concerned, is that it tidily encapsulates the kinds of indeterminacies explored by social scientists in particular local settings where the weakness of the state is a political given. The compactness of the model has made it a handy resource in a number of recent discussions of governance and, especially, social control in Melanesia (e.g. Claxton 2000, Dinnen 2001, Dauverne 1998).

It should be acknowledged, though, that institutions and ideas introduced by their colonizers have been creatively appropriated into Melanesian praxis since the beginnings of colonial intrusion and that these appropriations are as transformative of the institutions and ideas as they are of the lives of the indigenes. Thus, the late colonial state of the 1970s is reproduced in the contemporary Papua New Guinea state only partially, and in its ostensible structure rather than its substantive functions. In this respect, its organs appear to a conventional European gaze only nominally equivalent to those of a Western state. My query about Migdal's model, then, is whether its application in the Papua New Guinean context will allow a recognition of the appropriation of colonially and neo-colonially introduced institutions into the praxis (2) of local communities, and thus preserve a sense of the transformations both of the institutions and the social life of those communities. The particular focus of my interest he re is Migdal's observation that the engagement between the state and social forces may be mutually empowering in some instances and a struggle for agency in others, often marked by mutually exclusive goals (Migdal 1994:24). To this we could append the anthropological observation that the outcomes of these kinds of engagement in specific local communities are often reflective of the social permeability of localised elements of state, whose employees are likely to come from the communities they serve. This is an important contributing factor in the mutually transformative relationship between state institutions in Melanesia and local groups whose praxis is informed by exigencies of kinship and community. My concern is to maintain a dialectical view of the relationship which Migdal's model addresses. Ethnographically this article is a story of the quest for prestige and a measure of power among urban so-called 'grassroots' males -- little bigmen, so to speak. It provides an opportunity to explore the way a small element of the state has been absorbed into group and individual praxis in a settlement in Port Moresby.

The relevant element of state in my discussion (conceptualising the socially embedded state according to Migdal's model) is the Village Court system of Papua New Guinea, which had its ideational beginnings in the 1940s in the imagination of well-intentioned colonizers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.