Mako John Kuwimb and Paul Sillitoe on Diamond’s “Vengenace” piece

Stinky Journalism has launched the latest in it’s still-ongoing criticisms of Jared Diamond’s Vengeance piece in The New Yorker. While we haven’t covered all of the SJ columns on this blog, I do think it’s important to direct people’s attention to this one. Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait: What Tribal Societies Can Tell Us About Justice And Liberty is the lengthiest, most competent, and most incisive account of the short-comings of Diamond’s article. Indeed, it looks to be the definitive last word on the subject. This is the one to teach along side the Diamond article.

The piece is co-written by Paul Sillitoe and Mako John Kuwimb. Paul is recognized pretty much worldwide as the expert on the area where the events in Diamond’s story take place. More than that, however, he has a reputation for scrupulous, scrupulous ethnographic work. I heard him once say that he was an “ethnographic determinist” — meaning that he believed in “putting facts on record”. He has not only produced decades of publications, but all of his work shows an exactitude and rigor which is astonishing and, frankly, a little intimidating. Famously, his book on Wola agriculture includes descriptions of Wola attitudes to worms, that is how complete the guy is (in fact, if you are looking for a good ethnographic description of pre-contact highlands PNG for an intro class, I’d recommend his Grass-clearing Man. But be warned — you are going to learn a lot about giving pigs away). I’ve never met Mako John Kuwimb, but his bio — which includes time working for the well-known Australian legal firm Warner-Shand — is impressive and, best of all, he is a Papua New Guinean from Southern Highlands talking about his own people and his own experiences.

In sum, the piece is by 1) the top expert the area and an anthropologist renowned for his empirical rigor and 2) a highly-educated Papua New Guinean from the area under discussion. It’s no surprise, then, that the piece is so thoroughly put together. It is, in essence, an account of what actually happened in the conflict that Diamond described, complete with timeline, pictures, and a detailed description of events. Interspersed throughout is a wider account of how people manage conflict and reciprocity in areas without much governmental presence. Thus the article is a double repudiation of Diamond’s piece — it not only sets the facts straight, it points out the flaws in his theoretical account of ‘vengeance’ in ‘primitive societies’ as well. As someone who lived not too far from this area not too long after the events recorded in the story, this account rings very very true to me.

There are, of course, things one could quibble about in the article. A major thrust of the piece is that Papua New Guineans live freer lives than people in highly-governed first world countries. This is something I hear frequently when I visit the highlands: that Papua New Guinea is a “free country” where you can “eat free and run free” without external government forces or the induced poverty that a cash economy creates. At the same time, however, I know many Papua New Guineans who long to be free of the web of obligations and reciprocity that goes along with life in the highlands, and to live without the sometimes-crushing anxiety and concern for status that drives people to participate in exchange in order to not be seen as rubbish men. Perhaps the piece invites us to think more carefully about what justice and liberty really are, rather than simply accept that the correct answer to this question is an inversion of the one Diamond gives.

Overall, however, the biggest impression one gets after reading is this piece is: this is ethnography (or perhaps, ‘this is journalism’?). We have often talked on this blog about how Diamond’s work uneasily spans several genres. With Kuwimb and Sillitoe’s piece, we finally get to see what the situation in Papua New Guinea really  is, what high-quality work looks like, and what the public really deserves from their experts.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

11 thoughts on “Mako John Kuwimb and Paul Sillitoe on Diamond’s “Vengenace” piece

  1. This dispute over Jared Diamond’s errors and misinterpretations is rather small fry in the larger intellectual arena, where such misinterpretation is rampant. People outside of anthropology typically have very wrong ideas about life and order in tribal societies; we all know this. But rather than just complaining that people should pay more attention to anthropology, perhaps anthropologists have an obligation to take our knowledge to the clueless. By “clueless” I refer to a number of prominent and influential economists and political scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Douglas North. These people have models and theories for human society that assume a violent and chaotic (Hobbesian) situation in non-state societies. These models are far more influential than just about any anthropological account in realms such as the broad field of contemporary social scholarship, the views of the public, and public policy. Although Diamond is guilty of a serious lapse in this particular instance, on the whole many of his ideas are far closer to the truth than are these other scholars.
    The essence of what I am calling the clueless position is that prior to states and elites, life was violent and awful. In the model of influential political scientist Mancur Olson (Olson 1993, 2000), society was plagued by “roving bandits” who terrorized the countryside. Then the bandits decided to settle down (to become “stationary bandits”), collude with one another by exploiting farmers, and thus the state was formed. Property rights could be enforced, bandits got richer, and economic growth ensued. Everyone benefitted! In Douglas North’s version, the development of states and elites began with “a world of endemic violence in which the population is made up of many small groups with no organized governments” (North et al. 2009b:59); for a fuller treatment, see (North et al. 2009a). Without elites, life was chaos and no progress could happen. When North expressed these ideas in a lecture at ASU a couple of years ago, I called him on this, pointing out that if a century of ethnography has taught anthropology anything at all, it was that people all over the world have done just fine without states or elites. But North replied to the effect, no, I must be mistaken, he knew better about tribal society.
    Economic historian Yoram Barzel published a theory about the origin of states which is remarkable (to this archaeologist at least) for its lack of any data at all on early states (Barzel 2000, 2002). Like Olson, North, and others, he prefers to imagine what he thinks tribal society and early states were like rather than look at any data from ethnography or archaeology. The current issue of the Annual Review of Political Science contains another clueless model (Boix 2010). For these economists and political scientists, tribal life was violent and awful, so the development of elites and states was a logical and natural process of progress and improvement. Sound like anthropology over a century ago?
    While I don’t want to detract from the importance or timeliness of Sillitoe and Kuwimb’s paper, or other works critical of Jared Diamond, I do want to suggest that anthropologists should consider publishing authoritative and eloquent papers of this type in journals of political science or economic history. Scholars in those fields aren’t going to take Anthropology 101 (where they might learn something about tribal peoples), so perhaps anthropologists should take the argument to the other fields. A solid paper in a journal like the American Political Science Review could have a larger impact on the world of scholarship than all of our in-house anthropology writing. My guess is that scholars and editors in those fields would welcome solid papers from anthropologists.

    Barzel, Yoram
    2000 Property Rights and the Evolution of the State. Economics of Governance 1:25-51.
    2002 A Theory of the State: Economic Rights, Labor Rights, and the Scope of the State. Cambridge University Press, New York.

    Boix, Carles
    2010 Origins and Persistence of Economic Inequality. Annual Review of Political Science 13:489-516.

    North, Douglass C., John J. Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast
    2009a Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge University Press, New York.
    2009b Violence, Natural States, and Open Access Orders. Journal of Democracy 20(1):55-68.

    Olson, Mancur
    1993 Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development. American Political Science Review 87:567-576.
    2000 Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships. Basic Books, New York.

  2. A solid paper in a journal like the American Political Science Review could have a larger impact on the world of scholarship than all of our in-house anthropology writing. My guess is that scholars and editors in those fields would welcome solid papers from anthropologists.

    These people have models and theories for human society that assume a violent and chaotic (Hobbesian) situation in non-state societies.

    I just don’t know. I feel like one of the reason people choose to become economic anthropologists is because they want to engage with economists and the discipline of economics. As for political scientists, there’s a word for political scientists who think you can’t pretend to seriously study politics in the absence of cross-cultural data and time depth and that word is ‘anthropologist.’ I am sympathetic to your argument but would an editor really accept a paper that shows up his or her discipline? Because I do believe that any solid anthropological contribution to a political science journal would do just that.

  3. My reason for suggesting this is based on my experience in a different realm — ancient urbanism. I found that scholars in geography, planning, and architecture are very interested in archaeological data and ideas on early cities, and I have recently published 3 papers in journals in these fields. Now I am not treading on entrenched, politically-charged, notions held by top scholars who may feel threatened by my findings. But my recent experience in crossing disciplines suggests that scholars and journals are eager for solid and authoritative relevant information from related disciplines. My own view is that reaching out to influence other disciplines is just as important as reaching out to the public, and it is worth trying.

    The subdiscipline of comparative politics is a big field now, although to an anthropologist the limitation to nation-state comparisons seems pretty parochial. I sent around an email to some urban geographers, taking them to task for trumpeting the broad benefits of “comparative urbanism” while ignoring cities before the industrial revolution. In response, the journal Urban Geography invited me to submit an editorial (which was published) and two geographers invited me to a panel on comparative urbanism at their annual meeting. So I think reaching out to other disciplines is useful and certainly worth the effort. It sure beats sitting around complaining that no one takes anthropology seriously.

  4. Michael Smith,

    Consider my mind blown. I thought that what you were talking about must be from decades ago, and then you listed dates and then, mind blown.

    There is so much in anthropology about the evolution of the state, with solid data, that these guys would have to literally go out of their way not to run into it. I mean, I took a seminar on public policy by anthropologists, and many of the theories and models we used were from political science. The fact that they ignore the one field that is supposed to represent the study of sociocultural evolution over time, is a special kind of arrogance.

    To be honest though, I’ve never heard of these guys, so they really aren’t on the big Anthropology radar the way Diamond is.

  5. Michael,

    Can you give us the link to the published critique in the urban geography journal. That’s very close to my field and is something I’d like to read.

  6. I found that scholars in geography, planning, and architecture are very interested in archaeological data and ideas on early cities, and I have recently published 3 papers in journals in these fields. […] So I think reaching out to other disciplines is useful and certainly worth the effort. It sure beats sitting around complaining that no one takes anthropology seriously.

    Maybe, but when a scholar who says things to the effect that ”[w]ithout elites, life was chaos and no progress could happen” can be taken seriously within his discipline the first thing I think is not “They need what anthropology has to offer!” but rather “They don’t want it.” People identifying themselves as working within geography, planning, and architecture often show themselves to be open to the discipline of anthropology (and have something to offer in return, I think) but political science seems to me to be generally antithetical to anthropology. YMMV, of course.

  7. I think this may go back to the old idea before the Nuer ethnography that non-state societies didn’t have law, because they didn’t have anything that is easily comparable to what a lawyer would recognize. I think poli. sci. folks kind of gloss over non-formalized, pre-literate systems on their way to the study of complex bureaucracies. There is no structure, because there’s nothing that can be deductively encapsulated within that set of theory.
    The field is called “political science,” which isn’t really organizational science unless there are formalized politics happening. This also shows us why we should pick a single set of things to study the way other disciplines do, because you simply leave too much out and you’re likely to find what you look for.

  8. “This also shows us why we should pick a single set of things to study”

    That should say [why we shouldn't.]

  9. Just a note to express appreciation for Michael Smith’s valuable note about stereotypes of low-tech human societies held by political scientists. There is a parallel need for data and solid insight from ethnography among evolutionary psychologists: there is still literature there about the ‘EEA’ (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or something similar), a mythical ancient past for which we are supposed to be designed by evolution. No one, of course, has a clue about what that EEA might have been.

    Henry Harpending

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