Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Between Reproduction and Transformation: Ethnography and Modernity in Melanesia

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Between Reproduction and Transformation: Ethnography and Modernity in Melanesia

Article excerpt

Social Reproduction and History in Melanesia: Mortuary Ritual, Gift Exchange, and Custom in the Tanga Islands. ROBERT FOSTER. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; xxii + 288 pp.

Nation Making: Emergent Identities in Postcolonial Melanesia. ROBERT FOSTER, ed. Ann Arbor The University of Michigan Press, 1995; vi + 280 pp.

Children of the Blood: Society, Reproduction and Cosmology in New Guinea. BERNARD JUILLERAT. Trans. by Nora Scott. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1996; xxx + 601 pp.

The State and Its Enemies in Papua New Guinea. ALEXANDER WANEK. Cornwall: Curzon Press and The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 1996; xv + 332 pp.

It is by now commonplace to remark that theoretical positions within anthropology are often tied to specific ethnographic regions (Appadurai 1986, 1988; Fardon 1990). Less often considered is the question of what conditions must obtain in order for the theory attached to a particular region to appear important to those working elsewhere. Why do local traditions of anthropological work sometimes seem widely applicable? Why did African lineages become the model of social structure, for example, or South and Southeast Asia the places where so much of the initial theorization of issues of colonial domination and resistance was set?

I will not propose here a general model for the process by which local theoretical traditions take on a gloss that renders them of wider interest. I suspect that regional ethnographic traditions sometimes simply get lucky. The concerns of the discipline at large (often determined by things going on at home) play off of conspicuous features of local societies and then those societies come to serve as privileged cases for testing the theories that grow up around those concerns. Melanesian ethnography has often benefited from this sort of benign bestowal of interest. Initially, this was so because it dealt with small, late-contacted societies of the kind that anthropologists used to treasure as living laboratories or simply as places in which to document the diversity of human arrangements. Then, when symbolism was a matter of foremost concern, the elaborate ritual life and mythical traditions of the region kept it in the forefront of the discipline. Finally, and most recently, in the 1970s and 1980s, when much anthropological interest was directed at questions of gender, the salience of gender distinctions for Melanesians gave their ethnographers the resources with which to play an important role in the ensuing debates. Despite this history of centrality, however, during the 1990s the discipline has not reached out to Melanesianist work as it once did (Knauft n.d.; cf. M. Strathern 1990).

This is because the concerns of anthropologists have recently turned from documenting and interpreting differences between cultures to exploring how differences within and between cultures are concatenated and managed through practices that are broadly political in character. This shift in anthropological thinking, really quite epochal when cast in the perhaps exaggerated terms I use above, has left Melanesian anthropology somewhat out in the cold. To begin with, Melanesians have never gone in for creating stable identities for themselves-arguably, they do not think in terms of them. This is a theme that runs through Melanesianist anthropology all the way from the somewhat misconceived but nonetheless telling "loose structure debates" of the 1960s up through M. Strathern's The gender of the gift (1988). Engaged with the topic of gender, that book was the last Melanesianist work to succeed in gaining attention as a piece of "general" anthropology. But it was also widely held to be extraordinarily difficult. This is at least in part because it raises fundamental questions about the notions of identity that underlie so much of the contemporary anthropology of the creation and management of difference. Strathern's critique of the fit between Western notions of identity and the models of power and domination they underwrite, on the one hand, and Melanesian ideas, on the other, is widely considered important in Melanesianist circles. …

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