Agency, Kinship, and History in North Ambrym

By Patterson, Mary | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Agency, Kinship, and History in North Ambrym


Patterson, Mary, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Theories of agency have a long and complex history in philosophy and the social sciences and, of late, a certain prominence in anthropology. Built into the genealogy of the term is its dual nature as effective action in the world and a 'patient' quality representing not action itself but the grounds, limits, and situated possibilities for action. While attempts to see agency as a kind of bridging concept that will solve the perennial problem of the relationship between the individual and society have led to a number of famous and popular solutions, they also commonly end up privileging one or other of agency's antinomies, appearing either too voluntarist or overly determined by structure.

In his recent article 'Discussions around a sand-drawing: creations of agency and sociality in Melanesia', Knut Rio (2005) offers one such solution, emphasizing an existentialist (more specifically a Sartrean) notion of agency and arguing that certain kin relations in the island of Ambrym in Vanuatu are afforded a 'totalizing' role in sociality. Like the person executing a sand-drawing or illustrating his kinship system to an anthropologist, they tie up the 'loose ends' of social life.

The disappointing absence in Rio's stimulating article, in my view, is the ethnographic context in which this agency is operative. In the case of North Ambrym, this context includes over one hundred and fifty years of varied engagement with the labour trade, Christianity, colonialism, decolonization, anthropological interest, the revival of kastom, tourism, and a rapidly increasing population in an island with limited resources and an active volcano at its centre.

There are numerous instances in Rio's article where I might take issue with his generalized representation of Ambrym notions of place and kinship, but it would be tedious to list them all here. Instead I deal with two examples of missed opportunity to contextualize historically the Sartrean totalizing agency that would demonstrate more effectively its role in transforming and constituting sociality in contemporary North Ambrym.

The first example is the case of the sand-drawing that is said to 'totalize' its accompanying narrative (see Fig. 1). Now this drawing is not the most common kind of sand-drawing found in Vanuatu, being a story commemorating an actual event and in this case a risque one at that; it is a bit like a 'dirty joke'. The interesting thing about this drawing is its history. A much more elaborate version was collected by French ethnographer Jean Guiart in North Ambrym in the late 1940s (see Fig. 2). When Kirk Huffman showed it to a West Ambrymese in 1978, he was told that the design, called long opwer (taro pudding), and story originated with a man named Maru of Wou, a bush village in North Ambrym (Huffman 1996: 249).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The design depicts a woman holding a messy grated tuber above her head so that she does not leave tell tale-marks on the back of the man with whom she is having sexual intercourse (Huffman 1996: 249). As in the story recounted to Rio, Huffman was told that the couple was observed but also that the observer (Maru) made the drawing.

Rio's totalizing informant offers a drawing pared down to a graffito and linked not with the simple adultery story but with a version of a myth widely known and reported in north central Vanuatu. An important part of the mythic narrative involves knowledge of a design, executed in various different ways, but the telling of the myth has never been reported to be accompanied by a sand-drawing featuring this design. The central features of the narrative are always the same. A man's wife has sex with his younger brother after the husband has left her protected in some way by a design drawn either on the ground outside the hut, on the hut's door, or on her genitals. Finding the design disturbed, the cuckolded husband tests the men of his place. When the younger brother is the only one to reproduce the design accurately the husband knows that he is the adulterer, takes him to the garden on the pretext of digging up a yam, clubs him to death, and buries him in the hole. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Agency, Kinship, and History in North Ambrym
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    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.