2006: A very good year for Melanesianists

It is probably too early for us to begin discussing ‘best of’ lists, new years style, for anthropology in 2006. But since Strong mentioned Paige West’s book in his previous post on “the San Jose AAAs”:/2006/11/27/aaa-2006-late-observations/ I thought now would be a good point to mention what a banner year this was for anthropology in Papua New Guinea.

People who study Papua New Guinea love to kvetch that they’re misunderstood, that people assume that Melanesianists are obsessed with ‘exotic’ and ‘savage’ people, that the field’s image of Papua New Guinea was dipped in lucite in in the 1920s when Argonauts came out, and so forth. We worry that no one wants to publish books about Melanesia and that our discipline is in decline. I personally think a lot of these fears are overblown — as this years publications prove. In the past 12 months we’ve seen the publication of:

  • “Reverse Anthropolgy”:http://www.amazon.com/Reverse-Anthropology-Indigenous-Environmental-Relations/dp/0804753423/sr=8-1/qid=1164963153/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-0329361-8750447?ie=UTF8&s=books by Stuart Kirsch, published by Stanford
  • “Wayward Women”:http://www.amazon.com/Wayward-Women-Sexuality-Agency-Society/dp/0520245601/sr=8-2/qid=1164963170/ref=sr_1_2/002-0329361-8750447?ie=UTF8&s=books by Holly Wardlow, published by California
  • “Conservation Is Our Goverment Now”:http://www.amazon.com/Conservation-Our-Government-Now-Twenty-First/dp/0822337495/sr=8-1/qid=1164963187/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-0329361-8750447?ie=UTF8&s=books by Paige West, published by Duke
  • “The Meaning of Whitemen”:http://www.amazon.com/Meaning-Whitemen-Modernity-Orokaiva-Cultural/dp/0226038912/sr=8-1/qid=1164963201/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-0329361-8750447?ie=UTF8&s=books by Ira Bashkow, published by Chicago

Four great ethnographies of Papua New Guinea (I really do recommend them all to you) published by four of the most prestiguous academic presses around today. What does this tell us about the state of our disciplie? I lot, I’d say.

The first thing to notice is that Papua New Guinea as a country is simply not marginal to the contemporary ethnographic record. Young scholars are writing books about Papua New Guinea that are getting lots of attention from top university presses.

That said, in some sense many of these books are not ‘about’ Papua New Guinea. Paige’s book is about how a conservation area in Papua New Guinea is imagined by many people both in and out of Papua New Guinea. Ira and Stuart’s books are both about what ‘they’ think about ‘us’ in ways that are certainly not traditional. Holly’s book is about modernity, gender, subjectivity — hardly the ‘pigs and shells’ village ethnographies that we believe (incorrectly?) to be the typical subject of a Papua New Guinea ethnography.

Some people might point out that this marks a break from the past — although these books are ‘set’ in Papua New Guinea, they are not really ‘about’ Papua New Guinea the way things used to be ‘back then’. And this is true — the reason these books got published with the presses they did is, I imagine, the fact that they embrace theoretical issues that are hot in the discipline right now: gender and sexuality, whiteness and race, advocacy and environmentalism, political ecology, and so on.

But think for a second: people didn’t (and don’t) read Argonauts because of their inherent love for all things Milne Bay. They read it because of the way that it embraced theoretical issues that were hot in the discipline at the time: exchange and the ethnographic method.

It may be true that the glory days of mass academic publishing are over, and you can no longer just have your dissertation advisor tell Waveland or some other press to publish it. But I think this year’s extremely strong offerings from PNG indicates that Melanesia is a culture area that is still very much on the anthropological radar. True, we no longer have the luxury of producing ‘merely areal’ sudies and expecting publishers to snap them up (good thing we’ve got open access!). Yes — books seeking an audience (i.e. people to buy it) need to address issues that interest lots of specialists instead of just a few specialists. But perhaps this just means that there is nothing new under the sun.

Congratualtions on all the 2006 authors on the success of their titles — I’m delighted to see them all, and am confident this year will go down as a big one for PNG ethnography. Em nau!


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

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