ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Within and between: change and development in Melanesia
Location Science Site/Engineering E005
Date and Start Time 05 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Rachel Shah (Durham University) email
  • Paul Sillitoe (Durham University) email

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Short Abstract

We invite ethnographically grounded papers which explore the experiences of Melanesian individuals who, through processes of social change, live with conflicting sets of concepts, assumptions and expectations. We ask what the consequences of this position are for them and their communities.

Long Abstract

Melanesia has seen rapid and dramatic social change over the last century and introduced institutions such as schooling, clinics, churches and government offices have been an important part of this change. There is also much evidence of Melanesian people resisting change and choosing not to adopt or adapt to foreign concepts and practices.

An important and needed insight into these processes of change is understanding the experiences of individuals, indigenous to the group in which change is being initiated or imposed, who adapt to foreign concepts sooner or more fully than others. Susceptibility, necessity and exposure - often through immersion in mission, NGO or government institutions - can all account for why this happens (Smith, 1982). The consequence is that these individuals are exposed to and have to deal with conflicting sets of concepts, assumptions and expectations. If, for example, they are embedded both in a foreign-run institution and in their own kin networks, they may find themselves living within and between seemingly incompatible cultural worlds.

This panel invites ethnographically grounded papers which explore the experiences and roles of such Melanesian individuals. How do they conceive of their position? What are the consequences of it for them, and for the institutions and communities they connect to? How powerful are the different influences on them? What kind of pressures do they face and how do they navigate them? What role has "development" played in their lives, and what in turn is their role in social change?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


No footsteps, what future?

Author: Paul Sillitoe (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

I shall offer some comments on the conference’s ‘Footsteps and Futures’ theme from a Was valley perspective. The markedly asymmetrical relation between indigenous and introduced technologies and socio-political orders challenges the theme, as do local concepts of time.

Long Abstract

This paper will offer some comments on the conference's 'Footsteps and Futures' theme from the perspective of the Was valley, Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. When they compare their ancestors' things with those of the industrial world, the Wola feel awkward and think they are poor. They are keen to move on. They are particularly anxious to avail themselves of manufactured goods unimaginable to their forebears and join the world from whence they come, and forget 'footprints' going back to what pertained previously (only a few elderly persons, for instance, know how to make many of the objects documented in Made in Niugini). The inappropriateness of the 'footsteps' metaphor is further evident in the previous Was valley view of time, which I liken to a tightly coiled spiral (hybrid of conventional linear and circular models). The extensive changes resulting from the intrusion of the outside world into their valley has stretched the spiral spring-like out of shape, so transmogrifying the idea of the 'future' too. The wish to change things outwardly and 'modernise' is straightforward, although people are largely thwarted in accessing many of the things they desire. But to change things inwardly, which concern inculcated values, is another matter. Participating in the world from which manufactured things come poses a paradox for those belonging to an acephalous order that values equality highly. What is the future? How can they engage more effectively with the hierarchical capitalist world order without compromising their non-authoritarian relations and egalitarian ethic?

'I am the leader of this group': planning for a resource extraction project as a relational quest

Author: Emilia Skrzypek (University of Queensland / University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the role of community leaders in the process of planning for a large scale resource extraction project at Frieda River, PNG, and puts to the test a series of assumptions about the nature of stakeholder relations at mining developments operating in indigenous territories.

Long Abstract

The Frieda River Project is one of the most contested proposed mining developments in the Pacific region. The exploration work in the area has been ongoing since it began in 1969, bringing together unlikely partners in a process of planning for a large-scale gold and copper mine. Although in a conventional sense the mine at Frieda does not yet exist, over the past forty-five years it has emerged as a productive social site through which relations are formed and negotiated, and through which the efficacy of those relations is assessed. Taking the stakeholders' shared expectation of a mine at Frieda as a starting point, this paper describes the process of turning the area's rich mineral deposits into "development" as an inherently relational quest. It looks at the role of community leaders in the planning and preparing for the Frieda River Mine, and uses their own words and narratives to describe how the leaders themselves conceive of their positions, alliances and responsibilities. The paper argues that the type of rhetoric which places them in a disputed space of dealing with conflicting cultural logics should also be applied to state and corporate representatives involved in the process of negotiating stakeholder relations at Frieda. It presents some of the ways in which Frieda's Impact Communities tried to embrace the seemingly foreign concepts and practices of the mining industry, and uses those to assess the claim of the incompatibility of cultural worlds brought together by the promise of mining development at the Frieda River.

The Sisters of the Anglican Church of Melanesia in the Solomon Islands: negotiations of kinship relations and marriage

Author: Xandra Miguel-Lorenzo (London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

I examine Anglican Sisters’ narratives of entrance to and permanence in Sisterhoods to analyse how the Sisters negotiate cultural contradictions resulting from belonging to a Sisterhood, focusing particularly on dimensions of kinship and marriage. They Sisters' shelter was funded by New Zealand Aid in 1998.

Long Abstract

The first shelter for abused women and children in the Solomon Islands is run by the two Sisterhoods of the Anglican Church of Melanesia: the Sisters of the Church and the Sisters of Melanesia. The shelter was funded by New Zealand Aid in 1998 and it opened its doors to the public in 2004. The Sisters are not only in contact with international aid organisations through their work at the shelter, one of the Sisterhoods (the Sisters of the Church) is an international organisation operating in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the Anglican Church of Melanesia belongs to the Anglican Communion. The Solomon Islands Sisterhoods are entirely operated by indigenous women, yet these women's everyday experiences as Sisters are determined by these international organisations which, in different ways, pursue developmental aims. In contrast to other women in the Solomon Islands, the Sisters do not marry and do not have children of their own. This means that they can care for people to whom they are not related, and in so doing fulfil their Sisterhoods' religious Ministry of caring for families. In this paper I examine the Sisters' narratives of entrance to and permanence in the Sisterhoods, which allow me to analyse how the Sisters negotiate cultural contradictions resulting from belonging to a Sisterhood, focusing particularly on dimensions of kinship and marriage. The negotiation of these contradictions ultimately allows the Sisters to work as single women in the shelter.

Bringing climate change home: Ni-Vanuatu climate advocates and the successes and dissonances of climate change communication

Author: Hannah Fair (University College London)  email

Short Abstract

How do Ni-Vanuatu individuals working in climate adaptation mediate between foreign and local understandings of climate change as a socio-political issue? Which concepts resonate with audiences or are transformed through the process of mediation, and what impact does this have upon the individuals?

Long Abstract

This research recognises climate change not just as an environmental phenomenon but as a potent vehicle for social change, that is already shaping government priorities, development agendas and community level initiatives across Melanesia. Based on ethnographic research conducted with Ni-Vanuatu individuals engaged in climate discourse and climate adaptation practice - through their roles in the government, NGOs or church institutions - I explore how they mediate conflicting understandings of climate change as a scientific and socio-political issue.

I trace the acceptance or rejection of foreign concepts and practices by these translators and their audiences. I explore the role of anger and antagonism in responses to climate injustice, the allocation of responsibility and blame, belief in the anthropogenic nature and existence of climate change as a phenomenon, and the place of local knowledge in adapting to it. This process of mediation does not just lead to acceptance of external ideas by some, but a transformation of the concepts themselves. As foreign and local understandings are placed in dialogue with each other, climate change can be seen as an opportunity for positive social change, as defined by and for Ni-Vanuatu.

The cost indigenous papuans pay for succeeding in education

Author: Rachel Shah (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

I argue that understanding formal schooling's relevance to everyday indigenous life in the Papuan highlands is less important than understanding the pressures that an expectation to navigate conflicting value systems requires of indigenous people who "succeed" in formal education.

Long Abstract

The potential irrelevance of formal education to the many Melanesian contexts it is introduced to in the name of international development is now well-established (e.g. Nichol, 2011), and tales of the non-success of education, symbolised for example in the figure of the school-leaver turned raskol in PNG (Maclean, 2004), are also ever-growing. However, this expanding collection of research into schooling for indigenous Melanesians has not yet provided an adequate analysis of what the consequences of success in formal schooling might be for indigenous people. This paper focuses on the expectations, pressures and compromises that lie at the end of a successful formal education. Data from 18 months fieldwork in the rural highlands of Papua, Indonesia with a community which has recently welcomed an active primary school in their midst suggests that children are able to become bi-educated in indigenous knowledge and school knowledge, attaining competence in both. However, the diverse values and concepts these different education systems employ may be setting them up for a future of incompatible expectations, which runs the risk of transforming their "success" into marginalisation. I argue that understanding foreign formal schooling's relevance to everyday indigenous life is less important than understanding the pressures that an expectation to navigate conflicting value systems requires of indigenous people who succeed in formal education.

A triangulation of incompatible worlds: contrasting experiences of educational differentiation within Papua New Guinea

Author: Ivo Syndicus (Maynooth University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses experiences of differentiation in university education in Papua New Guinea. Beyond the distinction of Western and Melanesian worlds, I draw attention to distinct regional identities that Papua New Guineans construct among themselves in the process of educational differentiation.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses experiences of educational differentiation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) based on ethnographic research with students and staff at the University of Goroka. Schooling could arguably be considered an integral element of the lifeworld of Papua New Guineans today. Yet, it is particularly the step of attending university, and potentially ensuing employment career, that cements a level of differentiation vis-à-vis kin that seems to trigger novel forms or heightened challenges in the navigation of kinship relations for a person. Often indeed explicitly conceptualized as negotiating incompatible cultural worlds, there is a diverse array of experiences behind heuristically deployed distinctions such as between the (Western) independent individual and the (Melanesian) dependent kinsperson. In this paper I outline some experiences of educational differentiation of university students and staff vis-à-vis kin networks or 'communities', also in relation to distinct regional sensibilities surrounding exchange and reciprocity, level of study or career, gender, and personal background more broadly. I do so by drawing on 18 months of ethnographic work in 2013/14 with a number of informants that I followed closely through daily campus life, on visits home, and conducted life history interviews with (partly with acquaintances already established while 12 months as student in Goroka in 2010). In conclusion, I draw attention not only to the experiences that underlie the conceptual distinction between putatively different Western and Melanesian worlds, but also to the distinct regional identities that Papua New Guineans construct among themselves in the process of educational differentiation at a PNG university.

Conversations with university students in urban PNG on self, belonging, and identities

Author: Karin Louise Hermes (Humboldt University Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper studies the self-identification of and sense of belonging for university-aged urban Papua New Guineans. The urban-educated youth in Papua New Guinea highlight the diversity of their cultural backgrounds as the defining character of their identities.

Long Abstract

In Papua New Guinea identity is customarily tied to the land your ancestors are from, so that social relations, norms, customs and traditions are all defined by the land. The distance placed between this land and the urban setting causes the urban population to have only little to no connection to their ancestral lineage and lands. This urban youth in PNG often grow up with an ethnically-mixed background, speaking English and the lingua franca Tok Pisin more conveniently than either one of their parents' tok ples of local languages.

In an urban setting their cultural identities become more fluid and multifaceted, with the youth promoting a more regional identity towards the provinces or sub-regions of PNG, or altogether taking on a national identity as Papua New Guinean. Identities vary or are accentuated according to affiliation, but a distinct collective identity of Papua New Guinean urban society is established. Travel and social media facilitate the broadening of social horizons, connecting PNG youth physically and virtually with other viewpoints. These other perspectives also help alter their perceptions of themselves as individuals and as Papua New Guineans, when seeing their cultures and their country through another lens.

A reflection by one of the informants on social change and development was "as generations pass while living in the urban, our cultures and traditions are dying". However, when asked what "being Papua New Guinean" meant to the students, the key words were always diversity, cultures, and languages, showing an immense pride in these descriptions.

Bringing it all back home: returning indentured labourers and gambling

Author: Anthony Pickles (University of Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

After WW2 indentured laborers brought gambling back to their communities in Highland New Guinea. It was enthusiastically adopted. To what extent did these practices actually conflict with traditional practices and how much of that cultural dissonance was actually the result of official approbation?

Long Abstract

After World War Two, more and more indentured laborers from Highland New Guinea were sent to work away from their homes for years at a time, mainly on coastal plantations. They usually returned with an array of durable goods, and increasingly with money. Most had also learnt to gamble secretly, because the practice was illegal and carried a heavy penalty. Nevertheless, gambling spread through Highland populations like wildfire once these pioneers returned. Those who developed a talent for gambling became wealthy and respected as 'win-men' in their communities, only to find themselves imprisoned or fined by police and Patrol Officers. This presentation looks at the reaction to gambling among return migrants' home communities, and the new lives that gamblers carved out. Gambling encountered traditional exchange practices, but to what extent did these practices actually conflict? What role did colonial and missionary officials and their representatives play in promulgating the idea that gambling was antithetical to both traditional forms of exchange and officially approved economic activity? The paper explores ethnographic material that reveals a complex relationship between adaptation and approbation, suggesting that conflicts resulting from social change are sometimes political as much as they are conceptual.

Changing leadership: a case from southern New Ireland, PNG

Author: Antje Denner (National Museums Scotland)  email

Short Abstract

I investigate the life histories and agency of leader figures who combine roles in Western-derived institutions and the customary ritual realm. How do they help to transform these domains, adapting them, keeping them up-to-date and effective? How does this change their concepts of leadership?

Long Abstract

Focussing on biographies and personal experiences of a number of leader figures on the Anir Islands, I explore how developments related to modernisation, (post-)colonialism and globalisation have shaped their lives and influenced their actions and aspirations, the perception of their role in their community, and of leadership in general. What consequences has this had? How have they, in turn, influenced and changed the set-up of the socio-cultural system they were born into and live in?

It has been argued that in the context of cultural change, Melanesians have come to regard spheres such as gavman (government), lotu (church) or bisnis (cash cropping, wage labour) as separate and, ideally, non-overlapping with kastam, and that this may result in a reduction of the influence of customary leaders (Foster 1992, 1995). On Anir kastam is primarily associated with a cycle of mortuary rituals which is the 'traditional' realm of bigmen, who gain and consolidate their status through successful feast giving. Tracing the life histories, views and agency of senior as well as younger, upcoming bigmen, I investigate how various persons have used and combined their part in modern Western institutions with roles in the customary ritual realm. I will examine how these individuals critically engage with foreign as well as indigenous concepts and practices and provide examples of how they use their experiences to reconcile seemingly antithetical domains. This, finally, will bring me to the changing concept of leadership and the way my interlocutors portrayed the new, 'ideal bigmen'.

Re-designing the nation: ideological equipment for a globalized era

Author: Priscila Santos da Costa (University of St. Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

The aim of this paper is to understand how individuals in Parliament seek to resolve tensions between tradition and modernity in the hope of creating a national ideology for Papua New Guinea. The concrete outcomes of their attempts has had great impact both nationally and internationally.

Long Abstract

In December 2013, the Speaker of the National Parliament of PNG, supported by his team and the House Committee, has decided that traditional wooden carvings that were placed in the building would be removed, because of their ungodly connotations. In April 2015, the group became visible once more, after accepting and solemnly receiving a donated 400-year old Bible, that was later declared a National Treasure. Their actions raised a lot of controversy, attracting attention from different social actors both within and outside PNG.


I did fieldwork in the National Parliament of PNG in 2015 and have worked with individuals involved in the "National Unity and Identity Program" (NUIP), under the Speaker's "Reformation, Restoration and Modernisation Program" (RRMP). The RRMP aims to promote change both in Parliament and in PNG as a whole, focusing on the way the Parliamentary Service works and on the impact of the institution outside its premises. However, part of my interlocutors' efforts also lie in contextualising and responding to changes faced by their country and its people, such as the impact of urbanisation and globalisation on a mainly rural nation known for its cultural diversity.


This paper aims to elicit the way in which individuals collaborating in the NUIP conceptualise the challenges posed by modernity and to show how, in order to face them, they articulate different sources of knowledge. Their search for an appropriate manner of positioning themselves offers a commentary on the way Christianity, development and modernity intersect in Melanesia.

Futuna fisheries: community project or personal business?

Author: Lucie Hazelgrove-Planel (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

This paper follows Simon’s struggles as President of the Futuna Fisheries. He finds himself caught between personal aims to build a profitable business and community aims of a project including and benefitting the whole community.

Long Abstract

Fishing on Futuna, a small outer island in the South of Vanuatu guides seasonal rhythms. The seas surrounding the island are rich with sea life, from teaming corals in the shallows to the giant wahoo and tuna in the deep and the vast shoals of flying fish dancing above the waves. In the past, fish were an important aspect of local kastom and important quantities were exchanged for crops between the different districts on Futuna: resources were shared and relationships cemented.

As many islands throughout the Pacific, the appearance of the cash economy has created difficulty locally as there are few opportunities to earn cash on Futuna. Futuna Fisheries was therefore started; a Futuna wide project designed to develop the local cash economy through resources and skills that form an integral part of the Futunese identity.

Simon, a skilled fisherman from the West of Futuna, became President of the project. He moved house to live at Ibau district in the North East of Futuna in order to be close to the island's airport where fish is exported by bi-weekly flights and in order to fully dedicate himself to developing the business. In doing so, he regularly encounters difficulties when his business objectives come up against local ideas concerning the nature of the community project. Tensions arise between Simon's goals to create a thriving business and local expectations of a project involving and of benefit to all members of the community.

Temporal dimensions of custom and conflict

Author: Marilyn Strathern  email

Short Abstract

A highly articulate approach to temporality is voiced by Papua New Guineans not just concerned about but responsible for modernizing the country's 'underlying law'. The individuals interested in discussing the conflicts they identify are, as much as the anthropologist, conflicted themselves.

Long Abstract

A highly articulate approach to temporality is voiced by Papua New Guineans not just concerned about but responsible for modernizing the country's 'underlying law'. They see incipient conflicts between the practice of contemporary law, whose external origins they acknowledge and thus keep alive, and custom, regarded as internal to indigenous 'groups', which morphs into 'customary law' when it is applied in the courts. The unfinished task of developing an underlying law, as envisaged by the makers of PNG's constitution forty years ago, was to find a customary counterpart for the position occupied by (the ex-colonial) common law.

Visions of how the future is made out of the past produce incompatibilities in multiple directions; the handful of individuals interested in discussing these overlapping conflicts are, as much as the anthropologist, conflicted themselves. Based on a seminar given to the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission in Port Moresby, this paper draws principally on the work of Andrew Moutu and Melissa Demian.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.