Jared Diamond’s ‘Light Elephants’ and Dark Revenge In The New Yorker: The Problems of Amateur Anthropology


p align=”center”>The Pig in a Garden: Jared Diamond and The New Yorker series:

StinkyJournalism.org and SavageMinds.org are simultaneously cross-publishing on both web sites, a series of essays on the controversy surrounding Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article, “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance is Ours.” The essay series titled,The Pig in a Garden: Jared Diamond and The New Yorker, is written by ethics scholars in the fields of anthropology and communications, as well as journalists, environmental scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists et al., and edited by Rhonda Roland Shearer, Alan Bisbort and Sam Eifling. Each contributor’s mission was simple: To examine Jared Diamond’s article, and The New Yorker’s decision to publish it, through the lens of their own discipline. We think you will agree that these issues will not soon be put to rest. As Nancy Sullivan writes in her contribution, part of the reason for this series is to reclaim some of the ground among general readers lost to “experts” like Jared Diamond. With this series, StinkyJournalism.org and SavageMinds.org seek to capture that wider general audience for writings about anthropology.

This piece is by Nancy Sullivan, Director, Nancy Sullivan and Associates, Ltd. She does anthropological consulting, qualitative research, survey design, report writing, training and workshop design for a range of private and public entities. The field teams consist of DWU graduates from the Department of PNG Studies (former students of ethnographic research methods]. In 2009, she served as Team Leader, Karawari Cave Arts Expedition, The National Geographic Society Magazine, March 2-28, covering the cave art project National Sullivan & Associates have been conducting since 2007 with National Geographic and Guggenheim support.

I am an anthropologist who has lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for more than twenty years, most of these in the highlands. In 2002 I also taught a course in PNG war and peace, so the concept of Melanesian vengeance is not unfamiliar to me, either personally or academically. My understanding of Jared Diamond’s point in the piece “Vengeance is Ours” is that revenge is natural. It’s a Hobbesian message for the twenty-first century: humans are hardwired for revenge and require a social contract to prevent madness and mayhem. Savages are rational, because they also have rules to obey and urges to forfeit for the greater peace. But because tribes are such small units, Diamond seems to say, their rules lie closer to the human impulse.

Apparently the Melanesian social contract is somewhat thinner than the European one, superficially veiling the urge for revenge and permitting its satisfaction in controlled acts of  “payback.” People like Daniel Wemp, for example, live but a step away from the pre-Leviathan Eden, where all men were islands and under no social constraints. Diamond invites us to see the difference between Wemp’s smug vendetta and the lifelong frustrations of Diamond’s father-in-law, who could never experience revenge for his family’s murder during the Holocaust. The modern state fully thwarts our urge, whereas tribal edicts do not — presumably even tribal societies within the state of Papua New Guinea. In an interesting anti-sentimental twist, Diamond also tells us that tribal people are ultimately happy to submit to a state apparatus, if only to be freed at last from the cycle of violence and payback.

If indeed Papua New Guineans are so eager to throw off the shackles of tribalism and finally live in peace, Daniel Wemp can now thank Diamond and The New Yorker for alerting the state apparatus of his crimes.

No one will ever find ‘Daniel Wemp’

I want to make three points here. First, that Diamond has seriously endangered this subject, whom he identifies by real first and last name, by claiming his responsibility for a series of murders. Beyond the Nipa tribe and the Southern Highlands Province is a thoroughly modern state of Papua New Guinea for which these acts constitute murder.

The second point follows from the first. The field of anthropology has a code of ethics that includes “informed consent” — a not-incidental notion that if you use people for research purposes, they must know the risk involved, the nature of the project, how the data will be used, and how it will be publicized. In short, they should have the choice to remain anonymous. In a pinch, when these conditions cannot be met, you have to mask the subject’s identity.

But we know that Diamond’s piece does not actually come from the “annals of anthropology,” or at least not professional anthropology. That field has a distinct method, something called the ethnographic method, coined by Brownislaw Malinowski in New Guinea ninety years ago to prod the discipline out of the armchair and into the field for a minimally required period of time.

Informed consent has been an important topic to anthropology since Margaret Mead sat down for a chat with young women in Samoa (and Derek Freeman told us she got it wrong). But none of us would be discussing this now if it hadn’t been for Mead’s savvy decision to publish her first book with William Morrow, for a general audience, and thus bring cultural relativism into living rooms across the English-speaking world. Americans were especially blessed by her Redbook columns, where we learned that childhood, adolescence and even gender roles are not, as had been imagined, biologically determined. It was Mead who first taught the wider public about the tenaciousness of culture.

But it is our fault as anthropologists that no one has picked up the ball Mead dropped, and produced enough popular cultural anthropology in recent years. Jared Diamond is just filling the vacuum we left. No one seems to realize anymore that the field is not about making generalizations about humankind, but about describing the defining differences between cultures. It is not about expanding biological knowledge, nor defining the line between culture and biology, but about understanding the diversities of what is manmade, what is not natural after all. Anthropology teaches us about the power of world views.

Diamond has been fantastically successful at bypassing particulars for the single European worldview of history, a worldview that professes to treat all societies with equal respect, but which, in fact, takes a remarkably Victorian approach to culture. Much like armchair anthropology, Diamond’s anecdotal evidence of other peoples is used to support an evolutionary view of culture, where social progress and moral growth bring us to a somewhat imperfect (but more advanced) present. We miss the idyll of a tribal past, but we are too sophisticated now to ever return.

Though we might wonder how Daniel’s society came to revel in killing, ethnographic studies of traditional human societies lying largely outside the control of state government have shown that war, murder, and demonetization of neighbors have been the norm. Modern state societies rate as exceptional by the standards of human history, because we instead grow up learning a universal code of morality that is constantly hammered into us: promulgated every week in our churches and codified in our laws. But the differences between the norms of states and of Handa clan society are not actually so sharp. In times of war, even modern state societies quickly turn the enemy into a dehumanized figure of hatred, only to enjoin us to stop hating again as soon as a peace treaty is signed.

There are whiffs of L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Campbell, and even Jeffrey Sachs to this logic. Great masters of the sonorous single narrative, by which all manner of irritating complexities are put to rest. In the end, dear readers, it’s a small world after all.

Excess and restraint

This brings me to my third point. Diamond gets it wrong. Any thesis based on Melanesian justice as being retributive in the Western sense is absolutely wrong. It is solipsistic simplification.

Anthropologists most frequently define groups and their borders by whom they fight. There has been a long history of anthropologists studying conflict in Melanesia as a means of describing group identity, governance, and the social contract that is community. C.H. Wedgewood made the first stab at synthesizing this material in 1930, arguing that warfare in Oceania serves to integrate and knit together a community by defining the enemy – the Other. But the watershed years for studies of warfare in Papua New Guinea (PNG) really were the 1970s, when a cadre of anthropologists produced seminal ethnographies on the causes, forms and function of violence, especially across the highlands (see Barth 1975, Berndt 1971, Brown 1978, Hallpike 1977, Koch 1974, Meggitt 1977; Scaglion 1979, Schieffelin 1979, Sillitoe 1978, Strathern 1977, Vayda 1976, e.g.).

The triggers and causes of inter-tribal conflicts are never the same. Any pretext can initiate a fight, but this may be only a superficial altercation. It is the older, submerged reasons that make the blood boil and really sustain a war. Only the most assiduous research can tease these out of the gossip, bragging, historicizing and campaigning that surround warfare everywhere. Ronald Berndt’s 1962 classic of highlands warfare, Excess and Restraint, is more about excess than it is about restraint, seeming to imply that there are far more fights than strategies for keeping peace. Similarly, Ryan’s 1959 work on the Mendi (near Daniel Wemp’s region) calls inter-clan fighting volatile and chronic (1959: 268), and Glasse (1959) says the nearby Huli are hell-bent on continuous war. It can all look pretty rogue and bloodthirsty from the outside – like Homo sapiens in some pre-modern state of self-interest. But none of these writers would suggest that this is the whole story.

In the words of one Melanesian expert:

“[N]o worthwhile comment can be made on the cause of a particular [inter-clan] clash without inside knowledge of the longterm relationship between the contesting parties, or about the bearing group memories have on the conflict. Empirical accounts of the formal procedures, frequency, weaponry, and strategy of war, what is more, have only partial value in explaining conflict if little can be said about consciousness and underlying beliefs. There is no better introduction to this cognitive side to the matter than through analyzing notions of revenge. Killing was not carried out for the sheer love of it; it was virtually always an act to repay or satisfy some material grievance. But vengeance against enemies, in particular, was almost invariably backed up by appeals to legitimacy. Whether taken at the socially acceptable moment or not, it was normally sanctioned by those helping, perhaps paying the killed, or by those sharing the drive to assuage the sense of loss in ongoing ‘revenge warfare’ (Trompf 1994: 28-9).”

Even when war attracts hotheads and loose cannons (and Diamond tells us “The New Guinea Highlands are full of aggressive men seeking revenge for their own reasons”), and even when warriors seek unsanctioned revenge, there is still the distinction between legal and illegal bloodshed. Violence must have social legitimacy greater than one’s own personal ambitions. It is hard to glean whether Diamond knows this or not from comments like the following:

Daniel was proud both of the aggressiveness displayed by all the warring clans of his Nipa tribe and of their faultless recall of debts and grievances. He likened Nipa people to “light elephants”: As Diamond quotes him in his New Yorker article, “They remember what happened thirty years ago, and their words continue to float in the air. The way that we come to understand things in life is by telling stories, like the stories I am telling you now, and like all the stories that grandfathers tell their grandchildren about their relatives who must be avenged. We also come to understand things in life by fighting on the battlefield along with our fellow-clansmen and allies.”

Berndt also recounts some of the most fantastic and improbable boasts of war (see Knauft 1999: 118).

If Diamond would have us understand that a revenge culture in highlands PNG is also rule-bound and rational, closer to a Babylonian law or the Torah than a modern state, we must also assume that it cultivates a system of punishment intended to end a conflict. This is consistent with an evolutionary view of culture in general, where an eye for an eye emerged in response to the endless personal vendettas posing a threat to the social fabric. In the earliest forms of statehood, defining tit for tat was a means of finishing warfare rather than perpetuating it. But again, listen to the highlands experts. Glasse says of the Huli that they have no idea of lex talionis. A man tries to inflict a greater injury than that which he has suffered. Moreover, the people who suffer as a result of vengeance do not accept their injuries as just or appropriate; they too seek counter-vengeance, and the conflict is unending (1968: 68).

This is precisely why there are so any young highlands men willing to do battle. As Glasse tells us, “nearly every [Huli] man nurses a grievance that can precipitate war” (Ibid: 88).

Revenge in the Western sense simply does not exist in the highlands of New Guinea. Outsiders are constantly left dumbfounded by the open-endedness of the system. But the Melanesian worldview is no simple subject to tackle, even for battle-hardened anthropologists. Payback killings and apparently indiscriminate acts of revenge are as common as prodigious (even self-destructive) acts of generosity, gifts without promise of comparable return, and infinite strategies of deflecting blame. None of these conundrums is separable in a Melanesian worldview.

Behind the Melanesian pidgin term “bekim” (payback) lies the presumption that life, punctuated by dangerous feuding and competitions, colored by the excitement of reciprocities and trade, is to be apprehended as a continuous interweaving of gains and losses, giving and taking, wealth and destitution, joy and sorrow, vitality and death (Trompf op cit:1).

Smoke in the Hills, Gunfire in the Valley

Rosita Henry has a particularly apt 2005 Oceania article  (Henry 2005) by this title about the Nebilyer fight in the Western Highlands that broke out in 1990 and ran for almost a decade. It also serves to illustrate Trompf’s point above, about the inevitability of violence as part of – not a rent in – the social fabric. Outsiders know the Nebilyer war from Connolly and Anderson’s third film in the First Contact trilogy of films, Black Harvest, which was shot while the couple lived  on Joe Leahy’s plantation and bore witness to the opening salvos of the fight. I would assume Diamond himself is familiar with the film. Henry deals explicitly with peacemaking strategies and the complexities of negotiating compensation throughout a conflict, and she walks us through some of the event analyzes provided by participants themselves. That is, she cites the explanations they give for paying certain parties, and not paying others, and for electing certain causes of the conflict while ignoring others.

It’s an excellent paper that rings true to me because I was living in Mt. Hagen with one of the participant clans, the Penambe, at the time; I am familiar with some of the folks’ quotes; and I was a business partner to the person whose song lyrics form part of the title. Maggie Leahy Wilson’s plaintive song says: “There’s smoke in the hills / Gunfire in the valley / A woman is wailing / A loved one is killed / My heart is aching / My Heart is aching.” It’s about heartache, Henry reminds us, which always makes highlands violence regrettable, especially to women, even if we concede that it is integral to the warp and woof of highlands life. She goes on the demonstrate how, like it or not, peace compensation strategies during and after warfare are as important to the community as traditional exchange ceremonies. Along with Rumsey, Merlan, and M. Strathern, Henry argues that warfare is not a mark of social degeneration (sensu Hobbes) but a structural component of highlands society, even as it is bemoaned and avoided by most highlanders.

Alan Rumsey (Rumsey 1999), Francesca Merlan (Merlan and Rumsey 1991) and Marilyn Strathern (M. Strathern 1972) all have written about peace negotiations in the Western Highlands as highly social events, as layered and important as moka exchanges, funerary feasts and bride price ceremonies. But moka wealth exchange partners are never the same people you oppose in battle, so the relations defined there are very different. In battle, for example, direct and primary enemies never compensate each other; they compensate their allies and their minor enemies who may have lost lives and property. In some cases this seems counter-intuitive (to people like Diamond), but it is part of a strategy to ensure future alliances, and not to seal an absolute peace. Special transactions can secure longer-lasting peace, however, and help settle a matter more conclusively. These transactions require lengthy discussion, in which every trigger event, and then every secondary cause, is re-examined for latent significance and hidden motives. First the key causes are revealed to the communities and left to percolate in gossip for awhile, to accumulate variant recollections and memories of past causes. It’s what we call “planting the seed” in tok bokis or euphemistic tok pisin: a proposition is placed on the table for a while, and public conjecture accumulates around it. Finally, the best orators from all sides will reap the fruit of this and present it in a formal debate, literally redefining the terms of the fight as they do so. Their eloquence can weave insinuation into clever parables that may, if successful, satisfy all parties while leaving acceptable loopholes for the future. Consensus, and definitely not emotions, seals the conclusion of these peace negotiations. People like Daniel Wemp might walk away with one interpretation, and his enemy may take away another, but neither view shakes the tree of consensus.

In the Nebilyer fight, for example, one of the trigger events was a mistake. A Ganiga man shot dead his clansman, a security guard, after a theft on Joe Leahy’s coffee plantation. Initially, the Ganiga assumed a Kulka had shot the guard, and they retaliated against the Kulkas. But they actually chopped up a Kulka ally, a Poi Penambe man, and this elicited a fierce alliance between Kulkas and Poi Penambe. In turn, the Ganiga brought in the Ulka as their allies, re-activating a series of debts and obligations between these sometimes-allies. Ultimately, the internal compensations were labyrinthine: Ulkas paying each other, Ganigas paying Ulkas, Poi Penambe paying Kulkas, and Ulka Kundulge paying the Ganigas (because it turns out the man who shot the security guard was not Ganiga but Ulka Kundulge after all).

In the midst of all of this, Henry cites the Poi Penambe man who was chopped up by the Ganigas and survived. His complaint is clearly made in the hope of eliciting sympathy from the listener, fully aware that his problem is “unjust” at some level, but knowing that the social contract, and not his personal emotions, will prevail.

The Kulkas are putting the pressure on me and my tribe you see, because I was axed. I was axed and the fight started. Probably about 30 or 40 men were killed, Kulkas. And the pressure is on me now, May father and my small tribe, Poi Penambe, you know. They’ve been given pigs and money and all that thing, and they’re still putting pressure on us today…They want cash now. I have to initiate that by putting in a couple of grand, which I haven’t got. They [Kulka] sort of feel that because they [Ganiga (Ulka)] chopped you and we supported you and we lost our men in the fight and then you’re still alive, we should be compensated by you for our men (Henry 2005: 438).

This is “restorative” justice, or what Alan Rumsey prefers to call transformative justice (Rumsey 2003) – and it has nothing to do with either personal or collective revenge. It is about finding a way forward, as painful as that may be. Indeed, I imagine the Poi Penambe man still harbors resentments from that period.

In addition (and this has to do with the Daniel Wemp case) these analyses are made all the more complicated by new factors of the cash economy: a cash crop income (coffee, in this case) and the resentments over whose land is used for cash crops, and the obvious jealousies of an emergent class system. Some people are vastly wealthy in the Western Highlands today, while others are modern peasants. Any substantive discussion of Wemp’s story, and his gloss of events,  must take these factors into consideration. Like the Western Highlands, the Southern Highlands context involves the segmentary politics of clans, and the new hierarchies of cash.

Swallowing half-truths

The problem is that Papua New Guineans are more and more likely to describe warfare in ways that Europeans prefer to understand it.

When hostilities break out between two sides, the outsider is apt to regard the situation as arising de novo. And when Melanesians are asked today why given fights have occurred, they themselves are prone to give deceptively simple answers, to do with land-grabbing, for example, theft of pigs, rape or perhaps sorcery. Rarer reasons are known to have been voiced: such as women stealing, elopement, jilting a marriage suitor, threats to a trade specialty, or even insults directed at gardens by a visiting tribal leader. Perhaps the most common type of response, though still simplistic as it remains, is to give a narrative account, an informant telling how A was angered by the actions of B and led a raiding party to kill B or one of his associates (and did so in a way worth telling), the deeper or long-term reasons behind the act of revenge being barely touched. After years of interaction between “subject” and “ruling” peoples, these replies to outside researchers have taken on a stereotypical quality…[and] such replies have been absorbed into pre-existing explanatory frameworks to vulgarize the already dissolving subtleties and complexities of traditional perspectives. When it is blithely accepted, however, that Melanesians view human conflict in terms of disconnected, separate episodes, with acts that require revenge, followed by acts of vengeance (or satisfaction), supposedly forming a self-contained unit of affairs, only a half-truth has been swallowed. (Ibid: 32) (emphasis added)

Traditional justice in New Guinea is not based on the Western model of retribution, but on that of restoration. Restorative justice is far from the eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth blood-lust Diamond attributes to Wemp and would wish for his father-in-law; it has more to do with repairing the social fabric. Restorative justice as the tribal dispute logic is also being increasingly formalized in PNG’s statutory law. In village courts it has always been the leading form of jurisprudence: Whatever custom makes the best peace is the best option. But even the greater legal apparatus of PNG has more and more customary law folded into it these days.

For women in particular, it continues to be a very unsatisfying form of peace. As traditional clanswomen were subject (rather like Sharia law) to their husband’s whims, and more likely to be thrown in as part of a compensation payment than avenged for injury, they are beginning to seek more equable status in the courts these days. None of this has been easy (see Garap 2000), and some of it has been remarkably successful in recent conflict resolution cases (see Rumsey 2000, 2003). But it continues to resist the Judeo-Christian concept of a bounded and autonomous individual before the courts – someone wholly responsible for his or her action – because that product of Western civilization simply does not exist in Melanesia.

Women are struggling with this across the developing world, and anyone familiar with non-Western worldviews would be able to appreciate the steeper uphill battle of feminism outside the Western world. Not long ago, for example, a young woman from the Southern Highlands of PNG, not far from Daniel Wemp’s home, took her own father to court to establish her jural individualism (and won): It was determined that she could stay at university in the capital and not, as her father and clan had determined, be part of a compensation package to an enemy clan.

Restorative justice

Let me try to explain restorative justice with a personal example from the Western Highlands. In 1993, I was kidnapped in Mt. Hagen (which is about 60 km from Nipa) by a gang of young men who were members of my hosts’ enemy clan. I was living with the Elti Penambe, and these were Kopi clansmen living just next to Penambe clan boundaries on Kuta Ridge, outside of Mt. Hagen town. The gang held up a car carrying me and two tourists on our way to town, as we passed through their customary land. We were really just caught up in traditional Penambe-Kopi tensions made more fraught by the nearby Nebilyer fight. Our kidnappers did not target us per se, but as accessories to the Penambe cause. The tourists were an Australian father and son visiting from Port Moresby, and I was a familiar Penambe resident at the time. In the course of the day we walked through the bush, were held at gun and knife point, and finally, after threat of a gang rape, fought the captors, after which I ran away and was molested by one of them

During the year of court proceedings that followed the incident, clansmen and friends did what they could to dissuade me from pursuing the case, not so much because they couldn’t understand my anger, but because they said it would jeopardize the inter-clan peace. How could I be so selfish? Even when the enemy tried to substitute one young man for the culprit (someone who could do the jail time because he wasn’t in school), I was (for some reason) dogged in my need for retribution. The kid who put a knife to my neck was going to be the kid who paid the price, I insisted.

As my clansmen hammered out their own precarious peace, including an exchange of pigs and money that never involved me, I went back and forth from the courthouse in town with sympathetic cops from the lowlands who openly despised Hagen people and made no bones about roughing up the young man in his cell.

Eventually, a public prosecutor helped me apply a new restorative justice law when the young man was convicted: In exchange for the detention time he had served, I would accept a collection of kina compensation from the clan. This new restorative clause seemed fair to me, because the kid had spent a year in detention anyway, and I was in fact angry at the clan for harboring the gang and not assisting us to bring it in.

By the time a conviction was made, I was thoroughly disgusted with my “host” clan as well as these neighbors, and entirely on the grounds of Western “fairness” I had deeply internalized. At one point, while still living in the village, we’d put out word that there was a reward for some of the cargo stolen from the tourists, in particular their video camera. When the gear came back, at the hands of one of the culprits himself, I snickered and told them I’d lied, there was no reward – and my hosts were furious with me for the deceit.

They had not been angry in my behalf at the lies we were continually told by the clan representatives (that they had no idea who these kids were and no notion of where they might be hiding). And they were not appeased in the least when we found the gang had left in the camera a home video that, when played, revealed the clan representative to be part of the gang and pledging, in local language, that the next time they kidnapped me they’d kill me after all.

During this period, as a bushfire in the enemy land grew out of control and threatened to cook our gardens, I was told to leave the clan land for fear, with the fire, of starting a renewed war. Joe Leahy (himself deeply embroiled in the Nebilyer fight) offered me safe haven in one of his town flats.

I distinctly remember two offenses I took very personally during this period, even as I knew better than to do so. At one point, the enemy clan leader was accompanied by a Peace Corps volunteer, a very nice young man working in the region, when he came to visit one night and plead for me to drop the case. I had by now seen him in a home video (and still keeping this fact secret), so when I grew impatient and accused him of lying, the Peace Corps volunteer quite disingenuously came to his defense, asking, “Don’t you think you’re being little culturally insensitive, Nancy?”

At another time, my business partner and host, with whom I had written several grant proposals for women’s projects, told me I was aggravating clan tensions and putting the poor accused lad’s family in great distress by not dropping the case. So much for female solidarity, I snarled.

Finally, when the young man was convicted and returned with the clan counselor on the designated day, with the agreed-upon fine, there was no one to receive him at court, and the two walked back to the village, never to be pursued again. I took churlish satisfaction to find the young man repeatedly re-offended afterwards, and was pleased to hear he was caught for robbery and thrown into jail sometime later.

But every time I passed the rest of the gang on the streets of Hagen, for years afterwards, they would wave and shout friendly hellos to me like we were old pals. And I’ll never forget one afternoon when I waited in the courthouse for our hearing and the young man was led past me in handcuffs. “Hey Nance, yu orait?” he said, or some such unaffected greeting. I stood there for a long time trying to understand how he could be so friendly, so impersonal about his arrest.

In the end, it was this depersonalization that got me through the ordeal, because every Hagen woman I might have commiserated with preferred to say “Get over it,” and “What makes you special?” I was a cipher in a group war, and nothing, not even the assault, was a personal gesture.
The fact that I was a woman only further diffused my “rights.”

It hit home one day, several months into the trial, when the lowlands policeman assigned to my case came to pick me up for the proceedings. He had the case file on the seat beside him, under his holstered gun, and I took a quick look out of curiosity. He was a nice guy; I liked him, even though he had been among those who relished bashing the kid when he was first picked up. (The most disturbing instance I saw came when they pulled him out of the cell, for my benefit, and stood him before a low desk, where they lay his penis and gave it several boot whacks – certainly not to be confused with an expression of feminist solidarity.) When I opened the case file I noticed that the charge against this kid was “theft,” and nowhere did it mention the attempted rape. “What?” I must have asked. The cop told me yeah, he’d forgotten, and they’d tack that on afterwards when they got a conviction.

Ultimately, I learned what the Poi Penambe man interviewed by Rosita Henry knew too well. I could cry forever about my personal wounds, but I’d evoke no sympathy until I worked for a larger social reparation.

Patterns of aggression

In conclusion, I would say that anthropologists are not the only elephants who remember past injuries. Conservationists and development workers in PNG have similar memories. In 1992, for example, World Wildlife Fund US, on whose board Diamond sits, sponsored an eco-forestry project in the Kikori Delta region of PNG. Chevron was then drilling for oil in the region and had become concerned about publicity surrounding its environmental effects, so they enlisted the help of the WWF to green up their image.

Internal Chevron documents at the time suggested that “WWF will act as a buffer for the joint venture against environmentally damaging activities in the region, and against international environmental criticism.” The eco-forestry project would be an alternative to the industrial logging made possible by laying Chevron’s oil pipeline, and would be additionally supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. State Department and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

The problem was, however, they did not source their timber from the logs felled by Chevron, but instead from a local company that was known to be harvesting mangrove forests. Unfortunately, harvesting mangroves is illegal in PNG, for conservation reasons. When the sawdust hit the fan, though, WWF US proved unrepentant. Apparently (in a remarkable foreshadowing of this debate) the state of Papua New Guinea did not mean much to the project sponsors.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “Jared Diamond, a WWFUS board member and Pulitzer Prize winner … says that what is happening at Kikori is ‘sustainable logging of mangroves.’ Diamond adds that, regardless of whether it is illegal ‘if it can be done on a sustainable basis then by all means do it’” (Rowell 2001).

Enough said.


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Rappaport, R.A. 1967. Pigs for the Ancestors. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Reay, M. 1959. The Kuma. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Rowell, A. 2001. “No way to save trees.” Sydney Morning Herald, 02/03/2001.

Rumsey, A. 1999. “Social segmentation, voting, and violence in Papua New Guinea.” The Contemporary Pacific 11(2):305-333.

—–2000. “Women as peacemakers–A case from the Nebilyer Valley, Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea.” In S. Dinnen and A. Ley (eds), Reflections on Violence in Melanesia. Leichhardt, NSW: The Federation Press, pp. 139-155.

—–2003. “Tribal Warfare and Transformative Justice in the New Guinea Highlands.” In Sinclair Dinnen, Anita Jowett and Tess Newton (eds.) A Kind of Mending: Restorative Justice in the Pacific Islands, Canberra: Pandanus Press, pp. 79-93.

Scaglion, R. 1979. “Formal and Informal Operations of a Village Court in Maprik.” Melanesian Law Journal 7(1): 116-29.

Schieffelin, E. L. 1976. The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Strathern, A. 1977. “Contemporary Warfare in the New Guinea Highlands: Breakdown or Revival?” Yagl-Ambu 4 (3): 135-46.

Strathern, M. 1972. Women in Between: Female Roles in a Male World: Mount Hagen, New Guinea. London: Seminar Press.

Trompf, G.W. 1994. Payback: The Logic of Retribution in Melanesian Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wedgewood, C.H. 1930. “Some Aspects of Warfare in Melanesia.” Oceania 1:1ff.


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

82 thoughts on “Jared Diamond’s ‘Light Elephants’ and Dark Revenge In The New Yorker: The Problems of Amateur Anthropology

  1. Interesting series of points. Unfortunately, Ms. Sullivan is not the most reliable of sources. For one thing, she describes herself, on her own website, as having “PhD anthropology with specialization in PNG media production (abd)”. On Ms. Shearer’s site, she seems to waver between admitting she hasn’t written the dissertation, and claiming that it’s just undefended. In either case, calling yourself a “PhD (abd)” is borderline fraudulent — like calling yourself an “M.D. (just without the medical degree)”.

    Would any of you list your credentials in the same way? If not, why not?

    The way I remember it, a PhD (abd) is properly called an M.A.

    I bring this up, not to suggest that what Ms. Sullivan says is untrue. I merely want to point out how often people fudge things to make themselves look better. If Diamond can be called out for it (and I think he should be), then Sullivan has to answer to the same standards.

  2. I was going to remark on this issue as well, but someone beat me to it. To take up some of Johnso’s points:

    I was, for an unrelated reason, looking at her website yesterday, where she refers to herself as “Dr. Nancy Sullivan” with a PhD that is “(abd).” On Shearer’s website, she is quoted as saying, “I have a PhD abd, all but dissertation. This simply means it is an un-defended PhD.” That, my friend, actually means that it is not a PhD at all. From what I understand, by word of mouth, she was a graduate student at NYU or some NY school, went to PNG, and just stayed, thus ending her graduate career (in the 1980s).

    I mean, I don’t think she is unintelligent, I think she makes some good points, and I think she definitely does have relevant expertise (having lived in the country for 20 years and having some sort of anthropological background), but in misrepresenting her credentials (how good is that for the brand?), she isn’t helping anyone.

    As someone who is in a PhD candidate, I would never refer to myself as “Dr. C.J. McFakename , PhD (abd)” or anything like that. It is fraudulent, in my opinion, and in Sullivan’s case, unethical, since she appears to be using this title as some sort of soap box, and probably for financial gain (teaching and consulting gigs) to boot.

    On an unrelated note, I am confused as to why her references section has entries that she does not actually reference in her essay.

  3. Indeed, one sign of her, let’s say, distance from the norms of anthropology is how much time she spends talking about herself. About a third of the piece, I’d guess. I would have thought that most “real” anthropologists frowned on that sort of thing.

  4. Johnso,

    She is using her own example in two important ways: 1. As a foil, contrasting western notions of individual rights and justice with PNG notions of collective rights and justice, and 2. as ethnographic data, drawing on her own “participant observation” in one case. Whatever her credentials (Rex makes it clear she is not working as an academic, but as a consultant), I consider this to be an excellent use of personal experience in ethnography, and not unlike many classic anthropological texts which have done similar things (i.e. Geertz in Bali).

  5. Fair enough. The way I remember Geertz, he was a little more…focussed, let’s say, and also detached. When he writes about being in danger, for example, he does so with a sort of amused self-skepticism. His ‘I’ is more abstract. I don’t recall him revealing anything like the emotional investment that Sullivan displays. But perhaps this is just carping: I admit the strategy has its uses.

  6. Actually, this is better than Geertz, which really isn’t a very good example as he mostly uses the “I’ as a dramatic hook. It ultimately has little to do with his actual analysis. However, there are many other better examples which one can find.

  7. I disagree: the paragraphs at the end of Part II of “”Native’s Point of View”: Anthropological Understanding”, seem to do pretty much the same thing Sullivan does, — use the accumulation of experiences to introduce or explain his theoretical or analytic conclusions. He just does it gently — he doesn’t write like a narcissist (though he may have been one).

  8. As you can imagine from my previous unwillingness to give Diamond a hard time about his institutional background, I’m not particularly concerned about Nancy’s. I will say that I know her and have a tremendous amount of respect for her knowledge of PNG. Its about the knowledge, not the license.

    But for the record: ABD is different from an MA. ABD means ‘all but dissertation’ which means that she completed all the requirements for graduation except the defense of her thesis. This typically includes being admitted to a Ph.D. program (not something everyone with an MA can claim), a comprehensive exam to demonstrate expertise in an area, sometimes additional coursework, a proposal hearing, fieldwork etc.

    She didn’t finish her dissertation. She says so. This is misrepresentation how?

  9. Well, it’s not an utter fabrication, but I think it is a misrepresentation, yeah. I don’t much care about institutional backgrounds, either, which is why I don’t mention mine, here or elsewhere, but if you’re going to mention it, it seems to me that you ought to be straightforward about it. I left grad school 20 years ago, myself, having completed all my coursework and exams but, like many people, leaving my dissertation unfinished. I would never dream of describing myself as “Johnso, PhD (abd)”. It’s pretentious and dishonest, the more so since I haven’t been enrolled in the program in two decades, and have no intention of finishing. (‘CJ’ suggests this may be true of Sullivan, too, though I don’t know if it is.) Yeah, I was admitted to a PhD program, but unfortunately, you don’t get to change the letters after your name for that. So if anyone asks (and no one ever does), I say I have an MA and leave it at that. If I went further, I’d be pilloried.

    And, of course, ABD is grad students’ shorthand — it’s not a category that any university recognizes.

    Besides, you offer up the same ambiguities she does. In my experience, ABD does *not* mean that someone “completed all the requirements for graduation except the defense of her thesis”. It usually means someone hasn’t finished (and sometimes hasn’t started) their dissertation — as, indeed, you describe Sullivan’s situation in your last paragraph. But, as I’m sure you know, these are quite different achievements. Writing a dissertation takes years; defending one, while it may take some prep, is over in a day, and in many departments is a formality. So which is it? Is her dissertation written but not defended? Or is it unwritten?

    Either way, the letters PhD don’t belong anywhere near her name, nor is it at all appropriate for her to call herself “Dr. Nancy Sullivan.” (Nor, by the way, does she list the institution at which she’d supposedly ABD.)

    Finally, “she says so” only after someone calls her out on it on Shearer’s site.

    I’m the first to admit that in the larger context of this debate about Diamond, all of this is trivial. Sullivan has interesting things to say. So why can’t I leave it at that? Because much of Shearer’s argument, and Sullivan’s, rests on just this sort of nitpicking and lack of proportion. I mean, Shearer spends thousands of words describing how some linguist shows through complicated data analysis that Diamond recasts Daniel’s quotes into standard English, when — come on, of course he rewrote quotes. Everyone does. Few English speakers, of whatever station in life, regularly speak in full and coherent sentences. So you fix that. I could have told her as much, without dragging in all sorts of linguistic analysis, which I then display as it was some overwhelming feat of scholarship. It’s like calling in NASA to get your cat out of a tree. Sure it looks impressive, but why do you want to look impressive?

    And Sullivan makes heavy weather out of such non-issues as the fact that The New Yorker ran Diamond’s piece under the heading, “Annals of Anthropology”, a format they use for all sorts of things — Annals of Show Business, of Finance, and so on, without implying that the people who wrote the pieces are, themselves, actors or economists. And she also wants to look impressive, with her (unearned) Dr., and her long list of references that she doesn’t actually reference.

    You’re right, of course, it is about the knowledge, and not about the license. So why fake the license? If you’re going to pick nits, you’d ought to be nit-free yourself.

  10. ABD is a category that Universities do recognize. Let’s not make claims for which there is evidence to the contrary: ABD is a job classification associated with certain pay, it is often a hiring requirement (search ABD on Chronicle’s job ads) and many graduate catalogs spend time defining what it means to be ABD. No, it is not the same as PhD, but we know that.

    Everyone, (to pick at a silly nit) does not rewrite quotes. Misquoting someone is unethical at best, and subject to a lawsuit at worst. This is part of Diamond’s problem here.

    Sullivan does ‘real’ anthropology by any measure of the word. Diamond does not. I personally don’t see how Sullivan’s post could be summarized as an:
    “Interesting series of points. Unfortunately, Ms. Sullivan is not the most reliable of sources”.
    She is a recognized authority on PNG and little in this discussion seriously considers the merits of her points. Did Diamond misrepresent his informant? Does his comparison between his own sense of justice and that of Daniel Wemp adequately deal with cultural differences in the conceptualization of vengeance? Those are the questions here and I am intensely concerned that sidestepping them does a further disservice to Daniel Wemp and his case.

  11. 1. All right: if ABD is a category that universities recognize, then I’m wrong. I still don’t think people who have them should call themselves ‘Dr.’

    2. When I say “everyone rewrites quotes” I didn’t mean that everyone fabricates quotes. I meant everyone — well, all journalists, anyway — takes spoken English and renders it into something readable. This is not “misquoting” in the usual sense of the word. It’s taking:

    “Um, so I went down, you know, over there, to the river, there, down over that way, on — Sunday? Yeah, it was Sunday, because I remembering seeing, oh, never mind, but I went down there…”

    And changing it to:

    “I went down to the river on Sunday.”

    3. Why do people insist on bringing up lawsuits? It’s a schoolyard threat. One more time, now — lawsuits are silly, counter to the 1st Amendment, and very, very rarely won by plaintiffs.

    4. “Recognized authority” — recognized by who? Isn’t that what we’re trying to figure out here? Recognized by a University? Which one? As a Doctor? I don’t think so. If she just wants to present herself as someone who’s spent a lot of time in PNG and has thought and read a lot about this stuff — hey, that’s fine by me. It’s when she calls herself “Dr. Nancy Sullivan, PhD (abd)” that I get suspicious.

    5. Did Diamond misrepresent his informant? I don’t know. I, like the rest of you, haven’t heard from Diamond about this. He might have; but people often claim they didn’t say something that in fact they said, when it comes back to bite them. Happens all the time. If we retracted every quote that someone claims they didn’t make, or says was taken out of context, or whatever, half the morning paper would be corrections. I’m not going to believe Diamond or Wemp until I have more information.

    Did Diamond “adequately deal with cultural differences…”? Adequate by whose standards? It was probably inadequate by most standards, but not severely so by many.

    I’m just trying to provide a little balance, here. Poor exploited PNG guys vs. rich white Conde Nast, is just too good a story. Everyone’s going to side with the PNG guys, everyone likes a David and Goliath story, everybody in the west who cares about this is going to want to atone for colonialism. I want to. That’s part of what I find suspicious: the whole story is just custom-made to appeal to people like me. I don’t like having my sympathies played. And indeed, when I looked at Shearer’s research, much of it seemed to fall apart, almost immediately.

  12. This is moving way off topic, but I wanted to comment simply that at every university in which I’ve been a student or taught (6 of them by now…), the ABD category is an informal designation. The official status of students in that phase is ‘admitted to [PhD] candidacy.’


  13. One earns a degree and the title it confers as the result of successfully completing a program of study. I don’t doubt Nancy Sullivan is an expert on PNG, but she doesn’t hold a PhD and should not refer to herself as “Dr.,” as she does in her CV, or as having earned a PhD, as she does in the brochure on her website, which says: “We are an anthropologist (PhD New York University, BA Princeton University) and trained ehtnographers and students . . .”

  14. Wow, hate to bring up a sore subject, but isn’t there a certain irony that all of the grumblings and debates about public intellectual figures and “faux” anthropologists like Jared Diamond focus on a narrow set of issues that only really concern a limited audience? Meanwhile, Diamond, as a writer, attempts to provoke discussion and ideas among a much wider audience—and even that is a bit of a stretch, considering that most people stereotype the New Yorker audience as pretentious and liberal (admittedly, I enjoy the New Yorker, though sometimes reluctantly). Nancy Sullivan has written an insightful and intelligent essay here, but the frame of reference is clearly anthropologists, and a sub-section of us, at that.

    I think there is a perception out there in the public that anthropologists sit around debating the qualities of human nature all day. And when I read Jared Diamond’s essay, it was that sense of wonderment that he was clearly trying to touch on—spurred on and shaped, no doubt, by a New Yorker editor. What, at base, are humans made of? That’s a question that New Yorker readers, and many, many other humans, want to answer, for a wide variety of reasons. At the same time, it’s a question that anthropologists, myself included, find deeply problematic. I imagine Jared Diamond thinks that he can’t please anthropologists, so he’s not even going to try. Instead, he wants to try and engage with this broader audience who won’t present as many hurdles and will end up buying a lot more books. I might just be stating the obvious here, but do we really understand what’s going on?

  15. bq. …anyone want to comment on the substance of her article…?

    Well, it would help me as someone who knows a lot about the study of social organization but very little about the specifics of the ethnography of PNG if she would give me a working definition of ‘clan.’ Because there’s a word that is abused by professional anthropologists and laymen alike every bit as much as the term ‘tribe’ is.

    bq. As traditional clanswomen were subject (rather like Sharia law) to their husband’s whims, and more likely to be thrown in as part of a compensation payment than avenged for injury, they are beginning to seek more equable status in the courts these days. None of this has been easy (see Garap 2000), and some of it has been remarkably successful in recent conflict resolution cases (see Rumsey 2000, 2003). But it continues to resist the Judeo-Christian concept of a bounded and autonomous individual before the courts – someone wholly responsible for his or her action – because that product of Western civilization simply does not exist in Melanesia.

    My knee can’t help but jerk a little when reading this. PNG clanswomen = Sharia law is about as uncontrolled a comparison as you can get, and I am not really convinced that the concept of a bounded and autonomous individual is the product of Western civilization.

    If you already know a lot about the ethnography of PNG I suspect you read Sullivan’s piece and shake your head emphatically “Yes!” a lot. But I’m not one of those people, so I am kind of with Michael’s post on this one.

  16. Nice piece. Your strongest points come from recognizing that Diamond is no anthropologists–and a key element of this is that he doesn’t get and doesn’t care about anthropological ethics, and this is the real root of his problem.

    But you do riff off course a bit when you write: “No one seems to realize anymore that the field is not about making generalizations about humankind, but about describing the defining differences between cultures. It is not about expanding biological knowledge, nor defining the line between culture and biology, but about understanding the diversities of what is manmade, what is not natural after all. Anthropology teaches us about the power of world views.”

    Seems rather narrow and totalizing to me, and while you are not interested in “making generalizations about humankind” you seem to walk away form the truce enacted 15 or so years ago when there emerged the agreement that there could be multiple anthropologies, so long as these remained connected by and committed to ethical cores, the peace could be kept.

    Just because making generalizations or looking for constants isn’t your project, doesn’t make it “not anthropology.”

    What Diamond does “isn’t anthropology” less because of what his degree is in, than it is because of his relationships to and commitments to those he studies; and ethics are a vital element in this.

    But this is a small point compared to your larger, strong, arguments.

  17. Michael:

    “[W]hen I read Jared Diamond’s essay, it was that sense of wonderment that he was clearly trying to touch on…. What, at base, are humans made of? That’s a question that New Yorker readers, and many, many other humans, want to answer, for a wide variety of reasons.”

    That’s all fine and well — and as the post notes, this is a ball anthro as a whole has dropped, at least as far as public engagmentis concerned — but it’s hardly adequate here. It’s lovely and even honorable that Diamond wants to share interesting and meaningful observations about human nature with the mainstream public, but that doesn’t excuse him from being actually *right* about something. What we have here is a situation akin to Castaneda’s — however meaningful his work might be to his audience, they make a piss-poor guide to the lives of the people they purport to describe, which raises serious questions about whether they offer any sort of “truth” about human nature or if, instead, they offer the kind of palatable non-truths that fit easily within the Western mindset of their primary audiences. I suppose I’m asking, is Diamond just part of a new generation of Orientalists, for whom PNG is his reflecting pool instead of Morocco or Persia?

  18. Good lord….

    Anyway. What I appreciate about the post is how distinctly anthropological it is. Surely we’ll hear a lot more about the factual inaccuracies of Diamond’s account, and the ethical violation of so endangering an “informant.” That stuff is really i mportant, and I plan to use it to teach about fieldwork ethics and IRB the next time I teach a methods class.

    But the situation does raise a more complex issue about cultural difference and representation that Sullivan deals with very well. The fact that Highland violence, even when it’s real, in no way matches our common-sense Euro-American notion of vengeance or punitive justice. I’m not sure if the idea of restorative or tranformative justice, as political theorists discuss it, necessarily applies either. But it’s much more important to point out the non-commensurability of the moral models at work here.

    What these previous commenters have completely missed is the place of Sullivan’s very personal account in understanding this complex problem. Her experience, and her emotional responses, are a perfect illustration of how the competing models of justice collide – it is well-narrated, compelling, and analytically sound.

    So not only does it make an important point, it also illustrates that the usual canard i.e. “Okay Diamond’s not an anthropologist and he’s hopelessly reductionist; at least he’s communicating to the masses!” Sullivan’s piece demonstrates that it’s perfectly possible to communicate incommensurability and complexity, even to lay audiences. We can’t keep giving Diamond a pass because he’s popular – he also needs to be right, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

  19. I don’t think anyone missed that, since it occupies a good chunk of her essay. And, you seem to have missed that most posters were not talking about the substantive issues in her essay, but about other issues.

    Anyways, I’m not quite sold on the idea of restorative justice, really. The group with whom I worked in PNG participated in endemic warfare that was very much of the quality that Diamond discusses. Between these certain groups, there had always been violence, for as long as anyone had ever known. “They killed us, so we kill them” type of thing. There was never an effort at reconciliation, there was no way forward other than anticipated violence, and some of the peoples in the area were essentially wiped out and assimilated into other ethnic groups.

    This was years ago, but when I talked to the oldest men about their fights, they were explicitly trying to inflict pain and damage on their enemies in recompense–and they most certainly did–with no sense or possibility of ever achieving peace . The only reason violence ever stopped was because kiaps locked the men up and then they all converted to Christianity. One of the reasons they took Christianity to be true was because it is what has kept the peace.

  20. bq. What these previous commenters have completely missed is the place of Sullivan’s very personal account in understanding this complex problem. Her experience, and her emotional responses, are a perfect illustration of how the competing models of justice collide – it is well-narrated, compelling, and analytically sound.

    I didn’t miss it, I just didn’t care. I can understand how Sullivan’s piece works quite well as an essay about culture contact and problems of translation (among other things). But I was reading to find out something about the basics of conflict and legal process in PNG. Say what you will about Geertz’s style, but he could have done that, used the first person pronoun, and still have finished up with an essay that was about the situation and not about Clifford Geertz.

    bq. Sullivan’s piece demonstrates that it’s perfectly possible to communicate incommensurability and complexity, even to lay audiences.

    Really?? Because I am not a member of a lay audience and I don’t feel that I was communicated to particularly well. I reiterate—I get the sense that Sullivan has written a very good essay, but one directed at non-area specialists. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it only is convincing to a more general public insomuch as it piles on the facts, facts that they themselves aren’t in a position to check without gaining a much deeper foundation in the material.

  21. I’ve pointed this out elsewhere. At the risk of annoying everyone, let me reiterate: anthropological ethics may call for anonymity, but journalistic ethics almost always require that you use real names. It would be hard to argue that one approach is more objectively ethical than the other. In any case, the New Yorker is a magazine of journalism.

    I would also like to suggest that while Sullivan’s invocation of ‘restorative’ justice might be accurate, it doesn’t qualify as a ‘fact’, the way, for example, the atomic weight of cobalt is a fact — or even, the date of the Battle of Hastings is a fact — that is, as something about which everyone with knowledge of the field agrees, and which any journalist writing about the matter should be expected to get right.

    Finally, it’s worth pointing out that, while Sullivan doesn’t go so far as to name individuals in her account of her own kidnapping, she certainly names clans, and I suspect anyone familiar with the clans involved would know exactly who she’s talking about. If this is your idea of preserving anonymity, it seems pretty nominal to me. How exactly is her practice different in kind than Diamond’s? I mean, if you really think there’s a difference between referring to “the kid” — you know, the Kopi one, the one who kidnapped the Anglos and videotaped it, but got off because he was still in school, but was later convicted of other things, the one who got roughed up in jail on her behalf …– and referring to ‘Daniel’, well, these strike me as niceties without much real weight.

  22. Damn, she does claim on her website that she has a PhD from NYU.

    One of the things that’s distressing about stories like this is that they’re so toxic — there’s so much collateral damage. Here’s Nancy Sullivan, who seems to be a good sort, caught up in a small scandal and suddenly exposed as some kind of academic fraud.

    I know I sound hypocritical, and I fully accept that I’m as responsible for this kind of poison-creep as anyone. I don’t think all this is any reason not to pursue matters like this. I just want to acknowledge how ugly it can get.

  23. Alex just alerted me to this discussion, so I thought I’d weigh in briefly. All these points are valid and worthy of discussion, but I would note the irony of it all is that the story I tell in this piece—and it is the first time I have told this story publicly–is the reason why I am abd. Along with the tourists’ bags and videocamera, my bag and computer were also stolen in the incident. No back up, no data, nothing left of my dissertation. Such is life. But it hasn’t been a professional issue as I live and work here in PNG, as a consultant, and have not been in the academic market. The other point I would make is that by naming these clans I am not the first to make known the details of the event; the newspapers were pretty explicit at the time.

  24. “I know I sound hypocritical, and I fully accept that I’m as responsible for this kind of poison-creep as anyone. I don’t think all this is any reason not to pursue matters like this. I just want to acknowledge how ugly it can get.”


  25. Sorry, but embellish, inflate–whatever word you want to use–people who have claimed degrees from universities they attended but from which they never graduated used to be viewed as, well, unreliable. Frankly, I find it bizarre that Jared Diamond is being tarred as having violated journalistic “ethics” and the “ethnographic method” by anyone who misrepresents his or her academic credentials. It just helps undermine credibility of the claims that intense scrutiny of Diamond’s work is honestly motivated by concerns about ethics and science.

  26. Johnso: Journalistic ethics does not require that you use real names – there is a convention of issuing a disclaimer “names and places have been changed to protect…” or “Amy [not her real name] claims she steals clothes at least once a week…”

    What Sullivan does regarding anonymity is not comparable to Diamond’s use of real names. Sure some locals may suspect who ‘the kid’ is but that suspicion relies on their own inference and knowledge, not anything she has claimed. It would be they who identified the person, not her. Not only that but she is writing post-court case – in which she employed the legal process of accusation, and ‘the kid’ was determined by the court to have been guilty. As such, according to most legal conventions she could name him if she wished, but does not. How on earth can this be compared to libel? It is bizarre to me that you think lawsuits are silly, but keep bringing up the issue of doubt about claims, counterclaims and authority, when it is exactly the province of the court to adjudicate such matters.

    Also, I would imagine that the accusation of murder against Wemp is only one aspect of his concerns – the mis-assignation of persons to tribal or clan groupings is just as serious in contexts where property rights derive from such things. One thing Anthropologists have come to realise in such situations is that anonymity is crucial in order to avoid published accounts creating new ‘official’ truths, and being used as evidence in land court cases etc. Ethnographers know that informants may attempt to promote their own version of history, genealogy and the like, in order to authenticate it via publication.

    But, anyway. On to Sullivan’s response. I really enjoyed reading this. But I am wondering about the relationship between warfare as an enduring structural part of social life, and the role of compensation and alliance – can balanced exchanges of like valuables ‘end’ things? Or does that only happen at the level of the group (Sullivan’s “larger social reparation”)? Or to think about this another way – what does Daniel seek to achieve in his court case against Diamond? Is he conforming to Western forms of justice, or using their structure to pursue a local sense of justice?

  27. bq. Or to think about this another way – what does Daniel seek to achieve in his court case against Diamond? Is he conforming to Western forms of justice, or using their structure to pursue a local sense of justice?

    You could always ask him.

  28. “Here’s Nancy Sullivan, who seems to be a good sort, caught up in a small scandal and suddenly exposed as some kind of academic fraud.”

    Well, that hasn’t actually happened. A couple of people doing silly nitpicking on a blog is neither scandal nor fraud.

    and as for this:

    “Frankly, I find it bizarre that Jared Diamond is being tarred as having violated journalistic ‘ethics’ and the ‘ethnographic method’ by anyone who misrepresents his or her academic credentials. It just helps undermine credibility of the claims that intense scrutiny of Diamond’s work is honestly motivated by concerns about ethics and science.”

    No, it doesn’t. You can find it bizarre if you like, but only someone reading in bad faith would question Sullivan’s motivation on such a piddling basis.

    srsly, with such an interesting and valuable topic this is the discussion y’all want to have?

  29. “Well, that hasn’t actually happened. A couple of people doing silly nitpicking on a blog is neither scandal nor fraud.”

    I’m sympathetic to her work and her argument. But, I’m sorry, she has absolutely fraudulently represented her credentials. She has credentials, just not in the form of a PhD. Does this undermine what she is saying? I don’t think so. However, if other people want to bring this up because they think it speaks to her trustworthiness – an important issue given that a good chunk of the article is about her personal experience in PNG – then I think they have the right.

    I hope this post is interesting enough for Adam Henne. Srsly.

  30. Ms. Sullivan: I’m not sure which is more startling, how busted you are, or how little you seem to realize it. Can I give you some advice? Change your website, remove anything that says ‘Dr.’ or ‘PhD’, and then hope for the best. Contact NYU and apologize to them. More broadly: don’t ever lie about your academic credentials, especially to a room full of academics. If you’re caught, it’s all over — nothing you say will be believable. You’re a fraud. You are outside the conversation.


    Now Tim: You say, “there is a convention of issuing a disclaimer “names and places have been changed to protect…” or “Amy [not her real name] claims she steals clothes at least once a week…” The first thing to note about these is that they’re are all kind of cheesy,and most big newspapers don’t allow them. Indeed, the first slogan is from early 60s TV show Dragnet, not the first place I would turn to for instruction on how these things are done.

    Some reporters can get away with using anonymous sources, usually someone like Seymour Hersh, who covers the intelligence community, or other reporters who have strong ties to one or another government agency. But on the it’s whole it simply isn’t accepted. Especially after Judy Miller. An unnamed source in government or finance has to have a good reason to use pseudonym, and has to explain to the reader why he’s doing so. Everyone else has to come up with real names whenever they can.

  31. “No, it doesn’t. You can find it bizarre if you like, but only someone reading in bad faith would question Sullivan’s motivation on such a piddling basis.”

    StinkyJournalism.org and SavageMinds.org have formed an alliance and arrayed an army of “journalists, environmental scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists et al.” to examine the alleged ethical transgressions of Jared Diamond and his New Yorker article. The project’s first piece is written by someone more than qualified to comment, whose knowledge is deep and experience vast, but who misrepresents to the public her academic credentials. All I’m saying is, that is an unfortunate oversight by the editors and does not make for an auspicious beginning.

  32. Johnso, my examples are cliches but they are options recognisable by all. They may not be used by ‘most big newspapers’, but the New Yorker is not a newspaper and the article in question is not a news report. You claimed it was ‘almost’ a ‘requirement’ of journalistic ethics that sources be named. This is unnecessarily dogmatic, and basically untrue – journalistic ethics (reflected in the codes journalists working in various jurisdictions, markets, media etc. adopt) recognises many instances where anonymity is desirable – including cases where harm may befall the source, journalistic integrity might be eroded by breaches of confidentiality etc. And indeed there are many recognised forms of attribution agreement, from ‘on the record’ to ‘unattributable’ to ‘off the record’ and so on, which negotiate levels of anonymity. The fact is that there has been a long standing, ongoing debate in journalism about the balance of transparency and anonymity, and opinion and practice continue to fluctuate. You are adopting a reductionist and extreme position. Good luck with that.

    Moving on. In response to MTBradley – I was probably not being very clear, and my question was sort of rhetorical. I am interested in the basic message in the accounts of Diamond and Sullivan about justice. Diamond wants to argue that we have lost a sense of natural justice when we abdicate the power of retribution to the state,and that in societies where the state is weak or non-existent persons can own their revenge and feel satisfied. When I first read Diamond’s article I thought he failed to make his case because of the contingencies in his examples (you can read “my comments”:/2008/05/04/vengeance-is-his-jared-diamond-in-the-new-yorker/#comment-326079 on Rex’s original post), and thought an appropriate response would be to “make some ethnographic points about the reproductive role of Reciprocity in some societies (e.g. PNG), and the role of the Individual in others (e.g. Europe)” Which is pretty much what Nancy Sullivan has done. In her account justice in highlands PNG is not retributive but restorative. The difference between Western State authored justice and restorative justice in PNG is that the primary focus is on the Individual in the former and on the ‘social fabric’ in the latter. So while Diamond contrasts his relatives failed attempt at justice via the impersonal state with Daniel’s satisfied personal retribution, Sullivan compares her personal use of the state to seek retribution, with the PNG mode of depersonalised (or non-individualised) restoration! So my question to Sullivan, Diamond, Rex or anyone else with knowledge of PNG, is how do we view Daniel’s lawsuit against Diamond given these interpretations – does it seek retribution or restoration? Isn’t it deeply ironic that he is using Western law given Diamond’s argument and use of him as a supporting example?

  33. Tim, again, the assumption is that we should try to get real names in whenever possible, though there may be occasions where it is necessary to use anonymity. The assumption in anthropology is we should try to keep our sources anonymous.

    Here is the AP Stylebook: “Use anonymous attribution only when essential and even then provide the most specific possible identification of the source. Simply quoting “a source,” unmodified, is almost always prohibited.”

    Here is the Times Policy:

    “Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality.

    The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation – as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.”

    In routine interviewing – that is, most of the interviewing we do – anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source.”

    Whenever anonymity is granted, it should be the subject of energetic negotiation to arrive at phrasing that will tell the reader as much as possible about the placement and motivation of the source – in particular, whether the source has firsthand knowledge of the facts.”

    In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.”

    We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available.”

    We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack.”

    And so on.

    I don’t know what the New Yorker’s policy is, but I suspect it’s quite similar to those two. Yes, as I have already said, there are exceptions to these rules, but there aren’t many of them.

    More generally: journalism defaults to using real names, though it can occasionally be pushed to anonymity. Anthropology defaults to anonymity. — And an anonymity that seems more for show than a bulwark.

    Consider, again, Diamond’s piece. His sin was naming Daniel (and perhaps a few of the others). Suppose youu agreed to let Daniel remain anonymous: can you name the clans, the dates of the battles, and where they were fought? If so, they’re going to know who Daniel is pretty quickly, so we haven’t hidden him very. Maybe if we give pseudonyms to the clans as well, and while we’re at it to the battlefields, that might get us closer to protecting Daniel, rather than pretending to. But then you don’t have much a story — you’ve got a man, A, from a tribe Y, attacked a man B from the Z tribe, somewhere on PNG. That ain’t much. In fact, it seems, you have to choose between including so many details that Daniel can be identified, and excluding so many details that the whole thing becomes pointless.

    In many people’s methods, this sort of report is going to be quite impossible to write — unless you can manage to comfort yourself with the belief that merely changing Daniel’s name will keep him out of trouble.

  34. Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code:

    >>”Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”

    No attempt was made to contact Wemp, Isum or others named before publication. New Yorker and Diamond were unaware if accusations against Isum, etc were true or even if they were real people. It is irresponsible and negligent on its face to publicly accuse people of heinous crimes when you have not verified it is true. We contacted police, public officials, tribal leaders–all the people Diamond or The New Yorker could have also contacted.

    More from SPJ Code…
    >>”Minimize Harm
    Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

    >>”Journalists should:

    >>”Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with… inexperienced sources or subjects.”

    Wemp et al are private people. They have never spoken to a journalist. Diamond was a scientist doing bird research. Wemp was not told he was a journalist doing a article in The New Yorker. either when he last spoke to Wemp May 2006, in the Oil Search dorms, or in 2001-2002 during bird watch car rides.

    >> “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”
    >> “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”

    >>”Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.”

    >>”Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.”

    Wemp et al were convicted of heinous crimes by Diamond and The New Yorker without benefit of a trial and jury –and worse of crimes they did not commit.

    Wemp and Isum are seeking justice in the courts to clear their names. The court case is a direct result of The New Yorker and Diamond, thus far, refusing to investigate their errors, correct the record and apologize.

    Finally, Nancy Sullivan’s essay is excellent…speaking of pseudonyms.

    Do let an anonymous troll who got caught and banned from StinkyJournalism.org, hijack comments here with hyperbole nonsense. He used multiple pseudonyms (sock puppets) to fake a larger set of critics (instead of one person) than actually existed in StinkyJournalism.org comments.

    We have new rules thanks to “JL” aka “JohnSo” (are more pseudonyms here?) who all share the same email address (SavageMinds admin– you might also check).

    From StinkyJournalism.org comments:

    “Warning: No Sock Puppets: If you pretend to be two different people, using two (or more) different pseudonyms, when you are actually one person (presumably to give the false appearance that more people than one is commenting) your comment(s) and pseudonyms will thereafter be blocked.”

    It is rude, uncalled for and out-of-bounds to name Nancy Sullivan a “fraud.” I did not use such name-calling even of Diamond.

    If you want to call names, man-up and use your own name.

  35. Diamond is neither a journalist nor an anthropologist. If titles and degrees are so important, maybe he should stick to physiology. The fact that he teaches in geography, suggests that if anything he knows, or should know, and practice academic and not journalistic conventions.

    Part of the larger accusation is that in Daniel’s case, man A did not in fact attack man B in the way that the physiologist, working as a geographer, writing a journalistic piece on anthropology describes it. Now, I don’t have any problem with the multiple positions from which Diamond presents his research, and appreciate the academic mobility, but lets be clear. He is not a journalist. I don’t recall my reading on ethnographic ethics as permitting flexibility when I write for different audiences.

    Johnso, one does not simply change the name of the informant. One also uses some common sense about what should be written and what shouldn’t be written. That goes for academics and journalists.

  36. To clarify, The New Yorker’s main defense against any notion of their or Diamond’s wrongdoing in this case, has been that Diamond was a writing for The New Yorker as a “journalist” not as a scientist. They assured me that I was the one who was confused.

    In an email to me, The New Yorker editor wrote Aug 15 2008:

    “I suspect that the problems you see, and we don’t, arise from the fact that you are confusing academic conventions with journalistic ones. Journalists don’t always get written consent from their subjects and sources.”

    Right from the horse’ mouth.

  37. To clarify, The New Yorker’s main defense against any notion of their or Diamond’s wrongdoing in this case, has been that Diamond was a writing for The New Yorker as a “journalist” not as a scientist. They assured me that I was the one who was confused.

    In an email to me, The New Yorker editor wrote Aug 15 2008:

    “I suspect that the problems you see, and we don’t, arise from the fact that you are confusing academic conventions with journalistic ones. Journalists don’t always get written consent from their subjects and sources…”

    Right from the horse’s mouth.

    (Sorry to post twice. Fixed important typos)

  38. All: The strike-throughs are because of the Textile formatting engine we use on this site – if you use two dashes to make an emdash, Textile takes that as a strikethrough. Sorry, but it’s a balance between ease of use (using Textile means we don’t have to require commenters use HTML to add formatting) and occasional awkwardness.

    Johnso and others: The AP and NYT standards don’t quite apply, since Diamond isn’t reporting news. But even there, journalists regularly conceal the names of victims of alleged crimes, especially rape, and occasionally of alleged perpetrators. Even if you argue that as Diamond’s “source” or “informant”, Wemp should have been named, the naming of his alleged victim (who we know wasn’t a victim, but whatever…) seems pretty egregious — he clearly never spoke to a “journalist” and seems to have a pretty clear expectation of privacy.

  39. Johnso et al have the right to complain about Sullivan’s PhD if they want to, at least until the SavageMinds editors have had enough and cut them off. But no matter how much they complain, it still doesn’t constitute either scandal or fraud, and saying it does is plain silly. Sullivan’s use of “PhD (abd)” on her own website is a little confusing and unusual in the context I’m familiar with, but it’s not actually fraudulent or a big deal. Arguments about how “_I_ don’t think it’s a big deal, but _someone else_ will” are the same kind of tactic political spin experts use to manufacture scandal in the media – see Sean Hannity on Obama’s ‘fake’ birth certificate, for example. It’s what I mean by bad faith.

    And truly, it just ain’t as interesting as the content, which we don’t seem to be discussing much. If a comment thread on a scholarly blog turns into a miasma of silly allegations and sockpuppetry, that seems like a wasted resource to me – the internet has one or two other places to go for such a thing.

  40. bq. In response to MTBradley – I was probably not being very clear, and my question was sort of rhetorical.

    I assumed as much and my question was a cheeky way of trying to point out that Daniel will probably end up reading this thread at some point. One way to typologize anthropologists is a division between those whom write assuming that members of the source community will read their work and those that write assuming that members of the source community will not. I find it odd that one spin on the suit brought against _The New Yorker_ is “The subjects have started reading the ethnography of themselves now!” because there are plenty of places in which that has been the case for decades now.

  41. What’s all this fuss about vaguely claimed nondegrees diminishing ones credibility?

    J. Anderson Snagwhistle, Esq.
    Nobel Laureate, ABP*

    *All But Prize

  42. The sock puppetry charge is silly. I did post under two names (two different computers with two different autofill memories). Within seconds of doing so, before anyone else could have noticed, *I myself* posted a comment pointing out that they were the same person, and apologizing for the confusion. This hardly indicates an attempt to deceive.

    Sullivan is still a fraud, and Shearer is still an hysteric (sorry for the gender stereotype, honey, but if you can use “man up”, I can use ‘hysteric’), who has used this nonexistent issue to prevent me from posting perfectly reasonable doubts on her own, supposedly ‘transparent’ website (i.e., if Wemp didn’t realize he was being interviewed, why did he think Diamond was taking copious notes on everything he said?).

    Note Shearer’s increasingly desperate, melodramatic tone. “Wemp et al were convicted of heinous crimes by Diamond and The New Yorker without benefit of a trial and jury…” Come on: if I guy tells me he and his brother killed someone, I can, and should print, “He says he and his brother killed someone.”

    Rex, are you sure these are the people you want to throw in your lot with?

  43. Adam, You think it’s “nitpicking,” but executives in the corporate world can and do lose their jobs for committing resume fraud precisely because such actions undermine a company’s commitment to ethics and ethical leadership. As far as I know, the same generally holds true for most institutions of higher learning. While it’s true that a fair number of people today embellish to varying degrees their work histories and or educational backgrounds, CV deception that claims an unearned academic credential is still flat-out wrong. People who claim degrees from universities they attended, but from which they never graduated, are engaging in a misrepresentation that violates the virtue of integrity. “Dr.” and “PhD” are buzz credentials that increase the likelihood that a prospective employer will pay closer attention to your CV. CV deception is unfair to serious educational institutions that credential academicians and is unfair because it takes advantage of equally deserving and more deserving applicants for the same job. The dark irony is that Nancy Sullivan has impressive knowledge and skills and doesn’t need to pad her resume.

  44. JohnSo aka JL writes:

    “The sock puppetry charge is silly. I did post under two names (two different computers with two different autofill memories)…”

    Here is the data from StinkyJournalism comments admin…

    05/05/2009 09:08:35 JohnSo writes….

    05/05/2009 08:49:51 JL writes….

    “…Within seconds of doing so, before anyone else could have noticed, I myself posted a comment pointing out that they were the same person, and apologizing for the confusion. This hardly indicates an attempt to deceive.”

    I noticed. And no such apology was received.

  45. Dustin: Once you tell me — confess, or actually, in this case, brag — that you killed someone, you cease to be a private citizen. As long as you’re not obviously mentally ill, or, say, 7 years old, there’s no reason not to print it (you’re not saying PNG people are the equivalent mad, or children, are you?). Wemp was a truck driver, not a caveman; it can be assumed that he knew the rules of the game, roughly. I mean, I don’t see how you can argue both that (a) this sort of western media makes its way into PNG all the time, and really they’re not so isolated from and different than us; and (b) we can’t treat them the same way we treat our immediate neighbors, because they are so isolated from and different than us.

    And since when is it ever ‘egregious’ to name a victim? — Except in rape cases, where the taboo on sexual violation comes into play. If Wemp told Diamond these stories, and Diamond printed them, I don’t see how Wemp can object. If the stories he told turn out not to be true, Diamond owes an apology — but not to Wemp, to his readers.

    adamhenne: I understand the Hannity comparison, but I think it’s off. I was willing to give Sullivan the benefit of the doubt as long as the facts were not in. I think many of your readers felt this way. If she had, say, turned in her thesis and was going to defend it in a month, I would have had little or no problem. But when it became clear that she had dropped even the ‘abd’ part in her sales documents, that she had forthrightly claimed to have a PhD from NYU, that she hadn’t even written her dissertation, and that she hadn’t been enrolled in 16 years, that benefit disappeared. I no longer think she’s a “good sort”, and I no longer think this is even potentially irrelevant.

    In fact it makes other parts of her story ring false. She says her computer was stolen during the same incident she describes. She says that now, anyway: she didn’t say it in her initial account. Stolen “on her way into town”. Really? Computers in 1993 were pretty big: who carries one around in their car? Is there even electricity on Kuta Ridge? (There may be: I honestly don’t know.) They “walked through the bush”. — Yeah? Was one of them carrying the computer? With a monitor? (This was 1993, remember: laptops were around, but comparatively bulky and very expensive.) And after it was over, she couldn’t get the computer back? They got back the video camera (and presumably the car), but not the computer? They offered a fake reward for the video camera, but not the computer that had all of her work on it? Work she had presumably spent a lot of time on, but hadn’t backed up, anywhere? All of which very conveniently explains why she lied about having a PhD?

    No, at this point, without ambivalence, I can say, I don’t believe any of it.

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