Two Anthropologists, One Piece of Meat

A “while back”:/2005/06/14/cores-peripheries-and-bridges/#comment-301 Nancy wrote that:

A bridge is a bridge in a very concrete way, [and] social and cultural elements are not necessarily as tangible. The anthropologist is not just learning about an unchanging and concrete thing when s/he is learning about a social phenomenon. S/he is interpreting it as s/he is observing it and learning about it so that the very entity that s/he presents as “fact” or “reality” is already affected by her assumptions… Two people trying to understand the same social structure will understand it differently because of their assumptions.

Just how different do two anthropologists interpret ‘the same social structure’? At the time I thought this maybe wasn’t quite right (not that Nancy was mistaken somehow, just that the issue was more complex than the comment indicated). On the one hand, I felt that it was obvious that your research interests shape your focus, so of course two people with different focuses will look at the same thing differently. On the other hand, I strongly feel that cultural systems are sufficiently stable and coherent that they can be studied without giving into some sort of wishy-washy postmodernism on the one hand or vulgar positivism on the other. Culture isn’t as tangible as a bridge, but I still think it’s tangible enough — it’s telling, for instance, that refering to two interpretations of ‘the same’ social structure implies there is one ‘thing’ there.

This is a real issue for me — I did fieldwork at the exact same time with (roughly) the same ethnic group as as another anthropologist, my good friend “Jerry Jacka”: (who appears here with his permission). At first I think Jerry and I were a little nervous about this since this sharing a fieldsite can sometimes lead to trouble and strife so intense it is spoken of only in hushed tones over beer at hotel bars during AAAs. Lucky, Jerry and I got on famously and are good friends, and the only tales of fieldwork rivalry we talk about over beer are other people’s.

In fact, Jerry and I were often relieved to find out that we had discovered similar things about ‘our culture’ independently of one another. Although untangling the outlines of cultural structure in the field is hard (in our case only one other anthropologist had done fieldwork in our area) it was really gratifying to find the way we both came to recognize the prevailing themes in our area. “Did you ever hear about these spirit women?” I’d ask him. “Yu Angini Wanda? Oh yeah, people won’t stop talking about them. Have you run across these hired assasin/berserker types?” “Akali peyapeya? Sure.” This sort of thing.

So — just how different do two anthropologists (in roughly the same demongraphic, to be sure) interpret ‘the same social structure’? Well recently one of my “ASAO”: homies asked members of our email list to describe their experiences in Papua New Guinea with lambflaps, cheap cuts of meat from a sheep’s belly that are sold throughout the country. Jerry and I both replied to her independently of each other, without knowing what the other had written. This makes an excellent example of how anthropological accounts of the same thing observed at the same time in the same place (more or less) differ.

Here’s what Jerry wrote:

I have a lot to say about lamb flaps as I initially found them revolting (not being used to eating mutton), particularly the boiled variety, but within months developed an insatiable craving for fried ones.

Lamb flaps (or sipsip as they are known in Tok Pisin) have taken on a huge significance in the Seventh Day Adventist community in eastern Porgera where I worked. As John Finch noted, they allow SDAs to engage in pig-like exchange functions and SDA celebrations/marriages use both sipsip and chickens to replace pork.

Ipili women have created a cottage industry out of selling raw and cooked lamb flaps. Early every morning Dyna trucks leave Mt. Hagen with boxes of frozen lamb flaps (at least women told me they came from Mt. Hagen, they may be coming from Wabag) and stop at places along the highlands highway where women buy the boxes and carry them back to their home communities, some as far as 10 km into the bush. I think the standard box is about 25(?) kilos and makes for a rather unwieldy trek through the forest as the boxes are shallow and wide and women carry them in netbags across their foreheads.

Around May or June of 1999, the boxes sold for K65 apiece (exchange rate then was about 33 cents for one kina), but in July of 1999 they shot up to K90 apiece. Women weren’t sure why the price went so high in one month, but most of the women I interviewed averaged K20 to K70 profit per box, so for some of them, they had a very restricted profit margin (if any at all) after this raise. Interestingly enough, prices didn’t change for the consumer.

Cooked sipsip, either boiled with watercress or fried, had a fairly standard size for price ratio. A 50 toea piece was about one and a half inches by one and a half inches, and one kina pieces were about twice as large. At the sipsip shacks alongside roads and in hamlets, these are the standard sizes/prices. At tradestores one can buy larger pieces that have been cooked for more money.

Women will also sell larger hunks of raw meat for people to take home to cook. A K5 piece was about 8 inches by 8 inches (around 5 or 6 rib pieces). People tended to buy these rather furtively so that others wouldn’t know they were intending to have meat at home as you’re obligated to feed people that drop by during dinner time. As you can guess, I was pretty unsuccessful at being unobtrusive while buying sipsip and inevitably had someone come by to “story” with me shortly after buying meat.

Children, from what I could tell, would spend every last toea they could wheedle from anyone on lamb flaps. SDAs don’t have a lot of chances to eat meat (chickens sold for K20 per chicken) so the ability to get at least a little bit of meat for 50 toea was very significant. I can attest, as others have, that lamb flaps don’t have much meat, but people didn’t care as the fat seemed to be relished just as well. In fact, the fat comes off in a nice strip, crispy on one side, juicy on the other, which you can eat and then gnaw on the bone to get what little meat there is.

Women that had successful sipsip shacks on two occassions were targets of accusations of menstrual blood poisoning. In both cases, younger, unmarried women were alleged to have cooked sipsip while menstruating thus making men ill. One of the women had to pay K20 to the person who accused her and I don’t know the amount the other one paid. Far worse than the fine was the public shaming they received and neither one of them cooked sipsip for some time afterward.

And here’s what I wrote:

In Porgera — at least the bit where I lived — lambflaps were ubiquitous. As mentioned elsewhere, they were used by SDAs and tref-avoidant anthropologists like myself in group mumus they wanted to participate in, but without eating pork. They were more popular than slaughtering a goat. Most people found goats scary.

Whole cases were available for purchase at large stores at the government station, after having been shipped in via truck from Lae. Typically they were still more or less frozen when they got there. Individual tradestores with refrigerators would also sell ‘racks’ of unsliced lamb flaps to women. They then cooked individuals slices slowly in large low sided pans around the edge of the village square (ama). They thus fell into the same category as ‘palawa’ (flour — fried dough pancakes right out of Grapes of Wrath), betelnut, single cigarettes, and home made popsicles — pre-cooked food that women (often from migrant families) sold when they felt like it. It wasn’t something you’d get in a tradestore (which were more or less run by men, although there were exceptions). People would occasionally buy lamb flaps to eat at home when they had more money than a can of tinpis cost, but not enough for a whole chicken. Occasionally after very long and cold walks or trips (very common in Enga) we would buy lamb flaps to eat to get some energy into us ‘or else we’ll die’. Of course, at that point, the last thing I wanted were lamb flaps. There are ways to make virtue a necessity, but it is a very poor cut of meat for straight frying. Nevertheless, I ate them frequently since they were the only readily available meat I could eat, and it was common for people walking with friends to buy small things such as this for each other.

I suppose if your kink is liquified or semi-liquified pig fat, then lambflaps would seem a natural substitute for pork and quite tasty. If your idea of fun is a hanger steak with béarnaise sauce and a nice robust Bordeaux, they’re not really for you 🙁

What does this show? Well first, thre is probably a lot of stuff in there (Wabag, K50, etc.) that only make sense if you already know a lot about Papua New Guinea. But overall it seems to me that our accounts are remarkably similar. On the other hand, there are differences of style and approach. I was going to comment on what they were, but as I read through our responses I see that I don’t have the distance necessary to pull back and compare them – I’m too close to my data. So let me post it as a question instead — what are the differences in style, interpretation, and emphasis that you see in these two responses?


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

8 thoughts on “Two Anthropologists, One Piece of Meat

  1. These are fairly descriptive examples, with little in the way of analytic discussion, nor do they seem to describe “social structures.”

    Apart from some of the “wabag, K50, etc.” stuff which we aren’t getting, to what extent are these descriptions “anthropological”?

  2. The comparative reflection of these describtions is anthropological if it is done in regards of difference and similarity. 😉
    Thx for sharing.

  3. Orange. What I meant is that I find it difficult to compare and contrast these texts out of context. What are the larger points that each of these authors is trying to make? What theory of social structure or social change do these examples illustrate? Out of context it is hard to do more than make a stylistic comparison. Which isn’t to say they aren’t worth comparing. Just that I wouldn’t want to venture forward on the limited data provided here.

    Rex is making a point that I actually agree with to some extent:

    Culture isn’t as tangible as a bridge, but I still think it’s tangible enough—it’s telling, for instance, that refering to two interpretations of ‘the same’ social structure implies there is one ‘thing’ there.

    However, I don’t see these examples as really providing an account of “social facts” as much as observable facts that could be described independently of any theory of society.

  4. Kerim. Please show me where “these examples” are meant to “really provide an account of “social facts” as much as observable facts that could be described independently of any theory of society.”

    I respect your opinion.
    I anyway am curious on a textimmanent analysis of the examples given, which I consider as two pieces of textual source, written by two anthropologists who are both member of an email list, answering independantly from one another to the same subject.

  5. Orange. I agree. These two accounts are interesting in their own right – for the reasons you suggest. However, Rex clearly framed them as part of a larger discussion that has been running through several posts on SM, and I’m just not convinced they work in that way. At least not as they are currently presented.

  6. Kerim, I am taking part in the discussion you mentioned, so be sure I picked up the frame the examples are put in.
    I might misunderstand this entry considering it as an afford to get that discussion on a more substantial base.
    You are not convinced, ok. I am not, either.
    Notice, despite of you refusing to have a try because of missing contextual information, those sources simply are not presented yet.
    I agree these are not the most useful examples for clarifying or verifying the above mentioned discussion.
    I find more differences than similarities in the approaches of the authors, one tends to contextualize the thing within PNG society while the other rather articulates his own relationship to lamb flaps.
    The latter`s lamb flaps are nuriture, the former`s are rather presented as goods.

  7. OK. I was waiting to comment until I had time to read the whole post but having just gotten home from graduation (it’s 2:30 AM . . .yes, the teachers were the last to stay behind. . . free wine!!!) I figured I would at least clarify my earlier comments, which are used as an opener for the post. I will try to comment on the rest later.

    I had written “Two people trying to understand the same social structure will understand it differently because of their assumptions.”

    Rex wrote, in response: “cultural systems are sufficiently stable and coherent that they can be studied without giving into some sort of wishy-washy postmodernism on the one hand or vulgar positivism on the other. Culture isn’t as tangible as a bridge, but I still think it’s tangible enough—it’s telling, for instance, that refering to two interpretations of ‘the same’ social structure implies there is one ‘thing’ there.”

    I guess I have a few things to say to this and I will try to put it as coherently as I can given the time of day and . .

    OK, so there is one “thing” there according to the view of the, or several, anthropologists of what a “thing” is.

    Bur . . . Western assumptions (and let’s say that most anthropologist are either “weestern” or “western based”) about A) what are “things” in the sense of what qualifies as a “thing” that is noteworthy and B) what the meanings of those things could be shape the reporting and analysis of this thing, thereby shaping that very thing that is being reported.

    Let’s take the case of menstural taboos. We can say that’s a “thing” to a certain extent. At the surface level, two anthros will see the same thing: women in a special place away from men, women not cooking for men, women not entering a sweat lodge, etc.

    But let’s go deeper. To the male, or patriarchically (is that even a word???) trained female anthropologist, this might seem to be a “thing” that debases women, makes them powerless and so forth.

    To the person who listens to the women’s point of view (meaning the women who undergo the taboo), this “thing” might be something completely different: a thing that reaffirms the power of women’s “natural” purification process and men’s vulnerability.

    An “outside” observer of my fieldwork might have found it sad, for me, that I wasn’t allowed to enter a sweatloge (well, they wouldn’t have known . . . I chose not to enter after I was told of the taboo). But I, having been informed by the women of the household where I lived, knew of the harm that I could cause men in the sweatlodge because of the power that my menstrual state represented.

    Same “thing”? Or a different “thing” altogether?

    Let’s look at another example: hunting.

    Tons and tons of literature has been writing on hunter-gatherers, much of it looking at the sexual division of labour among H-G (or foraging) societies. In much of this literature, the process of hunting is taken as a straightforward “thing”.

    Now, ethnographic accounts (that I can dig up in time) of Northern Canadian aboriginals (Inuit, Cree, etc), call that assessment of hunting as a straightforward “thing” into question. Although a man is likely to be the one who is doing the physical acts of tracking and killing, acts which are usually taken for granted as constituting hunting as such, the wife’s actions often is essential to the process. By having certain dreamns, sewing certain patterns or by chopping wood, the wife may contribute to her husband’s success at tracking and killing an animal. So . . . the process of hunting here involves much more than what would be apparent at a surface level.

    So . . . when I talk about different anthropologists perceiving “things” or social structure or whatever, I am referring to the issue that one anthropologist might not question the straightforward assumptions about menstrual taboos and the hunting process while another might not only question it, but might actually go beyond what seems evident. Furthermore, all anthropologists are likely to miss something vital . . .because of the very assumptions that they have to start with.

    As I mentioned in another thread, everyone has a bias. I’m not saying that this is good or bad; I’m saying that this is why it’s important to be clear about one’s identity and positionality when doing fieldwork and when writing an ethnography. That way, potential biases can be accounted for.

    But I’m afraid that may fall into the “wishy-washy” PoMo to which Rex refers. But, hey, I’m the first to admit to having PoMo tendancies . . .I’m not ashamed. In fact, I think my ethnographic work is enriched by it. So I don’t consider it wishy washy . . .au contraire, it can give strength. But that’s another question of the interpretation of “what is a thing” and “what does that thing represent”.

    Will get to the rest of Rex’s post later . . .

  8. From what I read from the articles, they present two accounts of their observations in PNG. However, I don’t think Kerim should use these two examples as yardsticks to say what you’ve just said; that is the distinction between ‘discriptive’ and ‘analytical discussion’.. Rather, you should request for the two authors to provide you with a much detailed abstract of their observations only for you to understand. I, as a non-anthropoligist understand the two articles and the purposes they serve in these discussions.

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