History and Tradition in Melanesian Anthropology

History and Tradition in Melanesian Anthropology

by James G. Carrier

Melanesian societies, like village societies in many parts of the world, are frequently portrayed as existing in a timeless, traditional present. These seven original essays offer an alternative view, one showing that historical evidence can and must inform our understanding of contemporary cultures.

This collection brings together anthropologists and historians

…  See more details below


Melanesian societies, like village societies in many parts of the world, are frequently portrayed as existing in a timeless, traditional present. These seven original essays offer an alternative view, one showing that historical evidence can and must inform our understanding of contemporary cultures.

This collection brings together anthropologists and historians who maintain that the "timeless-traditionalism" approach of anthropology is inadequate. Life in the existing societies of Melanesia cannot be understood, they say, without examining how these societies are shaped by Western influences. The historical perspective that acknowledges ongoing political, economic, and social change results in less stereotypical descriptions of these traditional cultures. Historians and anthropologists of Melanesia and the Pacific will find here original and enlightening work that is sure to influence the theoretical orientation of Melanesian anthropology.

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Studies in Melanesian Anthropology Series
Product dimensions:
9.06(w) x 5.91(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

History and Tradition in Melanesian Anthropology

University of California Press

Copyright © 1992 James G. Carrier
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07523-4


James G. Carrier

Over the past decade and more it has become increasingly obvious that anthropology is in trouble. At the practical level, funds to support conventional anthropological fieldwork became more and more scarce. Those anthropologists able to get funds found it more and more difficult to gain permission to carry out fieldwork in the Third World countries that traditionally were their hunting grounds. And in those countries more and more universities were striking anthropology from the list of courses they offered.

This buffeting of conventional anthropology has occurred at the intellectual level as well. Anthropology has been criticized as being little more than an academic accessory of British imperialism. The spread of world systems theory has raised questions about the adequacy of the conventional anthropological focus on small village societies as relatively self-contained units of study. The spread of Marxist scholarship led many influential researchers to focus on aspects of the states in which villagers found themselves: colonization, urbanization, revolution, state formation, and the like have appeared to challenge the conventional ethnographer's understanding of how things are.

Within anthropology itself have come challenges to the very core of the anthropologist's method: fieldwork and ethnography. With the failing faith in the possibility of straightforward description has come a rising awareness that people in villages not only may have their own view of things but also may end up writing critical analyses of what the anthropologist publishes. Taking this as their justification, critics within the discipline have come to argue that fieldwork needs to be recast as a collaborative effort, in which the anthropologist no longer is the discoverer who imposes order on, and authoritatively presents, an alien society. Instead, the New Model Anthropologist is a facilitator, the recorder of divergent voices and viewpoints.

The various criticisms that have been made about conventional anthropology, from within and without the discipline, range from those that seem to suggest only minor modifications to the ways that anthropologists go about their business to those that demand the wholesale rejection of much of the discipline. The spirit of the papers in this collection lies at neither extreme. They do not reject anthropology as a discipline, and in fact they see much value in it. However, they do think there can be improvement in the ways that anthropologists think about and portray the societies and people they study.

The papers in this collection are about Melanesia, and certainly Melanesia has had its share of conventional ethnography. This is particularly true of its largest and most populous part, Papua New Guinea. For many, this is the last outpost of the primitive and isolated society, the place to go when Western influence is too obvious everywhere else, just as for many expatriates this was the last outpost of Empire, the place to go when African countries decided it was time to localize their civil service and university establishments. After all, Papua New Guinea is the place where Fredrik Barth found people who were never quite sure that the beings on the other side of the valley were human; the place where the notion of the discovery of a new "lost tribe" in the early 1980s was conceivable, even if improbable (see, e.g., Boyd 1989; Gorecki 1984; Research in Melanesia 1985).

Those who want to paint Papua New Guinea as I have just done can find much that appears to buttress their view. The country is full of small, isolated societies: its linguistic and cultural diversity are legendary and bewildering, and would appear to justify fully Margaret Mead's assertion that it constituted a natural laboratory in which one could study the range of human possibility. The central Highlands region, ringed by difficult, high mountains, was not even known to the Australian colonialists in the early 1920s, and it was opened to significant Western penetration only around World War II. The bulk of the population is less tightly tied to the outside world than seems to be the case in, for instance, much of Africa: the country is relatively unurbanized and most of the people still appear to fit the general category of subsistence producers. The reappearance of tribal warfare in the Highlands in the 1970s and 1980s suggested to many that colonial and national pacification of the core of the country was only partial, that the modern world lay lightly on Highlanders. Less obvious, but perhaps equally important, Papua New Guinea never had a national, anticolonial revolution of the sort that was so common in Africa and Asia (see Nelson 1982, chap. 24). This has meant that racial and political attitudes have not been fired to the degree that they might have been (for the region as a whole, see, e.g., MacDonald 1986). Perhaps as a consequence, scholars have not produced the spate of studies focused on colonial history, the towns, colonization, rebellion, and revolution of the sort that African scholars have written in the past decade or two (e.g., Ellis 1985; Peel 1983).

Thus, more than is the case in some other regions, anthropology in Melanesia has been able to ignore the criticisms that I have mentioned. It is true that some countries within the region, and some provinces within some countries, refuse to let anthropologists in, and some resident and national academics distrust anthropology. Nonetheless, anthropology departments in Western universities continue to send students to Melanesia to study village societies, and governments in Melanesia continue to grant the necessary visas and permissions. If the winds of change are blowing among anthropologists who study the region, they would appear to be breezes rather than cyclones.

This volume of papers is an attempt to freshen some of those winds somewhat. As I already mentioned, contributors to this collection do not seek the abolition of anthropology. Instead, they urge a continuation, and a strengthening of the rethinking that has been going on in the discipline, of the way anthropologists go about understanding the societies they study. And in particular, they challenge an unreflective acceptance of the tacit idea that anthropology in Melanesia can offer us the study of alien societies that are fairly untouched by Western social forces. Instead, as these papers will show, those societies are affected by colonial and postcolonial impact in subtle ways, and the anthropologists who would study them are affected by their disciplinary and cultural values in subtle ways.

As We Study Them

The charge made against anthropologists, that they tend to interpret and present the societies they study as if they were alien entities that are pure beings isolated from Western influence, is a charge that is made against most of the Western academic disciplines that study non-Western societies. And many of these charges can be made against anthropology in Melanesia. In this section I discuss two books that present criticisms that are relevant to the points made by the papers in this collection. Necessarily this involves ignoring some insightful criticisms of anthropological work done in the region. Selectivity is necessary, however, if this Introduction is not to grow into a book of its own. Necessarily also my discussion here implies that these criticisms apply to all anthropologists. This is not my intent. There are a number of anthropologists whose work does not justify the sort of criticisms that have been made of anthropology generally, some of whom are mentioned later in this Introduction.

Anthropology has been identified in many different ways. One identification seems particularly apt, however: as one of the disciplines by which Westerners study non-Western societies. Viewed this way, anthropology revolves around the juxtaposition of We and They, reporting to Us about how They do things Out There. That one part of our conceptual universe and activity should be concerned with such things is entirely unexceptionable. After all, just about everyone else worries about the same problem. Why should we be any different? Even though this concern with Them, with an Other, is routine enough and shared among many disciplines, the ways that this concern is embodied in research and writing can have consequences that are more problematic.


Some of these consequences are described in Edward Said's influential Orientalism, his analysis of Oriental Studies in Western academic life over the past two centuries. Oriental Studies is not anthropology, but the two disciplines face many of the same problems, many of the criticisms that Said makes appear to be pertinent to a discussion of anthropology, and his arguments have been reflected in criticisms made of the discipline. For these reasons it is appropriate to begin with his study of an important thread in Western intellectual life over several centuries, the concern with the Orient, as classically defined.

Briefly, Said argues that the modern Western discipline of Oriental Studies is the latest manifestation of the ancient concern with the nature of the Orient, and especially what we now call the Middle East, as distinct from the Occident, historically Western Europe. This concern took on a special urgency during the period of Islamic expansion, when it served to transform an alien and threatening set of people into a known and hence less threatening form. In the process, Said argues, Western intellectuals created the Orient. That is, they took a real, empirical set of people, situated in diverse and historically specific social and economic locations, and converted them into a single, unified and reified category: Orientals, who live in the Orient and who are fundamentally different from Westerners. He says, in other words, that Western intellectuals "Orientalized" the region.

For Said, modern Orientalism is not only a conceptual error. In addition it has a distinctly political dimension, because Western knowledge and construction of the Orient inevitably reflects political forces. Said argues that the rise of Oriental Studies as a scholarly field in the nineteenth century was embedded in, and thus necessarily reflected, Western imperial influence. As he puts it (1978, 11):

I doubt that it is controversial... to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact-and yet that is what I am saying.

(Of course, this issue has been thrashed out repeatedly in anthropology, especially following the publication in 1973 of Talal Asad's collection, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.)

While this power imbalance affected the substance of Orientalist studies and the uses to which those studies are put, it also affected the more fundamental ways that Orientalists learned about, thought about, and represented the region they studied. One such result is what Said calls textualism. He says that the Orient is a textual creation, that it arises from, and is contained in, the texts that intellectuals produce. This is so in two senses. First, Oriental Studies acted as the representative of the Orient: because European empire was so much more powerful than the Orient, it itself was reduced to silence. "Flaubert's encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself.... He spoke for and represented her" (Said 1978, 6). Consequently, "the Orientalist... makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West" (1978, 20-21). Second, and related to this, is what Said (1978, 92) calls "a textual attitude," the notion that, as the Orient is silent, its reality is in the text. In this, the proper process of investigation is reversed. The texts are not judged against the object described, but the object is judged against the texts. Those events and actions that do not accord with the texts are taken to be inauthentic, and so are explained away as Western corruptions, or else simply ignored as not worthy of serious investigation. Consequently, these "texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe" (1978, 94).

The point is not that these texts create the entity being described, the Orient, out of whole cloth. Rather, and facilitated by the impotent silence of Orientals themselves, it is that they define what is authentically Oriental, what is valid or real in the alien entity, what is worthy of notice, as distinct from what is merely accidental and insignificant.

As a result of this Orientalization, certain traits appeared in the scholarly work that Orientalists produced. Two of these are contained in Said's observation (1978, 96) that "Orientalism assumed an unchanging Orient, absolutely different... from the West," and I want to deal with them in turn.

The first of these traits is that the Orient became essentialized, came to be seen as eternally manifesting certain attributes simply because it was the Orient. Consequently, scholars wanted to show how specific acts or situations demonstrated this Oriental nature or essence, or were concerned to explain what factors blocked such a demonstration. Of course this made this essentialist view of the region almost unassailable. The result, according to Said (1978, 70), was a "self-containing, self-reinforcing... closed system in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical matter can either dislodge or alter." And as this ontological essence is timeless, the past and the present collapse into each other: "an observation about a tenth-century Arab poet multiplied itself into a policy towards (and about) the Oriental mentality in Egypt, Iraq, or Arabia. Similarly, a verse from the Koran would be considered the best evidence of an ineradicable Muslim sensuality" (1978, 96). This essentialism is made possible in part because of something I have mentioned already, the power of texts to constitute the Orient. In defining what is real and worthy of attention, texts also can impose their own transhistorical durability on those definitions. This makes the Orient itself, or at least the "real Orient" that Orientalist texts define, essential and timeless. The second of these two traits was a bifurcation of the world into the Orient and the Occident. The Orient was conceived of as an alien other, made exotic, romantic, repellent, and always different.


Excerpted from History and Tradition in Melanesian Anthropology Copyright © 1992 by James G. Carrier. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

James G. Carrier is the author, with Achsah H. Carrier, of Wage, Trade, and Exchange in Melanesia (California, 1989) and of Structure and Process in a Melanesian Society (1991).

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >