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Session Detail (plenary)

Sir Raymond Firth Memorial Lecture: The Capitalism of Chambri Cosmology

Session presentation

Deborah Gewertz, Amherst College, and Frederick Errington, Trinity College, USA

Raymond Firth’s Presidential Address to members of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland was entitled “Social Organization and Change” (1954). It concluded with this advice (in paraphrase): To understand social change, whether in “structure” (such that basic elements of society alter) or in “detail” (such that social action, though not merely repetitive, does not alter basic social forms), it is necessary to study closely both the social setting and the results of individual choices and decisions. It is necessary, in other words, to look carefully at social organization. Indeed (as stated earlier in Firth’s address), although structure provides a framework for action, circumstances may lead to “fresh choices” and “fresh decisions” with results that “ripple” throughout a structural framework and, sometimes, beyond it. When this departure from a structure becomes permanent, the result is social change. Over the course of our long-term fieldwork among the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik Province, we have noted numerous of these rippling effects. These have included the recognition by Chambri that they could make fresh choices and decisions which themselves created ripples: ripples, as it turned out, that opened the ontology and logic of Chambri totemism to the possibilities of capitalist-inflected choices and decisions. Our concern, hence, is with the capitalism of Chambri cosmology as an historical process, one arising from a conjuncture with the “cosmologies of capitalism,” to refer to Marshall Sahlins’ important discussion (1988). Along the way, we appraise the fate of ontological purity at a period in Chambri life when the wrong sorts of persons may be making for-profit choices and decisions about the actions of the increasingly obstreperous elements of wind, water, and fish.