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Ascriptions of dependence in contemporary Oceania


Hoem Ingjerd, Keir Martin

Session presentation

Discussions about the nature of ‘dependence’ and ‘independence’ shape much political debate across the world, and the Oceanic region is no exception. These contemporary political discussions have historic parallels in the anthropological literature of the region in which ideas of ‘dependence’ have long been central to ethnographic understandings of leadership and social organisation (see Martin 2013, Hoëm 2015). For example, accounts of how gift-exchange creates leaders in the South Pacific often are built upon an analysis of the ways in which these circuits create people who are ‘dependent’ upon the men (and occasionally women) at their centre (e.g. Malinowski 1922:161, Sahlins 1963:292, Epstein 1969:223, Gregory 1982:51). In this panel we invite papers that explore the wide spectrum of evaluations of ‘dependence’ in contemporary Oceania. To what extent do socio-economic changes in the region mean that an exploration of different evaluations of ‘dependence’ also illuminates divisions of class, gender and generations within Oceanic communities? How do different evaluations of ‘dependence’ relate to and shape inequality more generally?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Do you want us to feed you like a baby: Ascriptions of corruption and dependence in East New Britain

Keir Martin (University of Oslo)

In this paper, I explore some accusations of wrongdoing in Papua New Guinea in the early 2000s. In so doing, I illustrate some of the ways in which these allegations point towards an ambiguous and simultaneous encouragement and discouragement of different kinds of perceived dependence as Papua New Guineans struggled with a growing disenchantment with their nation state and a realization that the future was likely to produce the withdrawal rather than expansion of state services and assistance. The paper explores the dynamics by which these accusations brought particular dependencies, cast as legitimate and illegitimate, in and out of view and compares these with other instances in other parts of the world. Ascriptions of ‘dependence’, are shown not only to shift with context but also to be highly performative, being a central means by which persons engaged in highly entangled interdependent relations attempt to re-shape the nature of those entanglements.

Interpersonal ‘dependence’, becoming personally independent, and emerging inequality from a vantage point of university education in Papua New Guinea

Ivo Soeren Syndicus (Maynooth University)

Based on ethnographic fieldwork at the University of Goroka in 2013-14, and a year as student there in 2010, in this paper I explore notions of interpersonal dependence and personal independence voiced by university students and staff, and how these articulate with experiences of social inequality and emerging divisions of class and generations in Papua New Guinea today. Staff at the University of Goroka frequently articulate the challenge for students to become personally 'independent' in light of relations of 'dependence' and obligations to kin networks. To many students, the idea of personal independence, however, appears as much desirable as morally fraught. Whereas many students regard assertions of personal independence that deemphasize obligations to kin as inappropriately ‘selfish’, some staff describe it as a ‘responsibility’ to look after their own nuclear family first before returning attention to pledges of wider kin in later stages of life. While related reflections are diverse among students and staff from different backgrounds, in this paper I explore some common threads of how the negotiation of personal independence vis-à-vis relations of interpersonal dependence articulates with emerging divisions of class, gender and generations in a broader context of increasing social inequality in Papua New Guinea.

The ‘three hearths’ of custom, church and government: aid programs and the spatiotemporal reorganisation of Asmat village life

Thomas Powell Davies (Cambridge University)

This paper traces the social implications of a moral dilemma faced by inhabitants of the Asmat region of Indonesian Papua: how to best reconcile the competing demands of the ‘three hearths’ of ‘culture’ (budaya), church and government in the collective life of a village. In a society where sitting around a single shared hearth is a key image of egalitarian belonging, the discordant image of a group gathering itself around three separate hearths at once is an apt metaphor for Asmat experiences of the fractures and hardships of modernity. Specifically, in the current period of massively increased levels of Indonesian state funding of village-level development programs, the local implementation of infrastructure grants such as the nation-wide ‘Village Funding Allocation’ (Alokasi Dana Desa) is creating new forms of dependency both within and beyond the village. Through their use and distribution of these funds, Asmat people actively cultivate relations of dependence that they hope, ironically, will yield money and goods that will augment their own strength and independence. This paper investigates how emerging forms of dependence and independence reshape the organisation of time and space in the social life of a village, thereby also reshaping the relations between the three primary ‘hearths’ of Asmat attention.

Anarchists for the State: Kinship and Political Change among Korowai of West Papua in the Era of Indonesian ‘Decentralization’

Stasch Rupert (University of Cambridge)

Until recently, Korowai of Papua objected to anyone bossing anyone else around, and they practiced forms of evasion toward the Indonesian state fitting Clastres’s, Graeber’s, and Scott’s images of anti-state anarchists. But now Korowai are embracing dependent bonds to regional elected Papuan government patrons, and are also embracing new hierarchical intra-Korowai divides between village leaders and their populace. Korowai do all this in hope of gaining money and other resources associated with the imagined material utopia of faraway city life. Their big goal is thus to improve their position in new structures of large-scale wealth inequality. This overall dynamic was encapsulated in the recent founding of a village called ‘Poverty’, in the hope that this name would further move government heads to aid its residents. Recent Indonesian policies of financial and administrative ‘decentralization’ have in fact made large disbursements of money a regularity of rural life even in the extreme periphery in Papua. My paper analyzes how these changes in the structural character of the state have interacted with Korowai norms about dependence in routine kinship life. Paradoxically, past Korowai strategies and sensitivities around subordination in everyday ‘egalitarianism’ are structuring the embrace of new relations of hierarchy, within changed macro-structural horizons.

State, Society, and Relations of Dependence over the Long Term in North Seram, Eastern Indonesia

Tony Rudyansjah (University of Indonesia)

This study examines changing historical constructions of ‘state’, ‘society’, and their interrelation in the indigenous community of Masihulan, located near the north coast of Seram in the central Moluccas of Indonesia. People of Masihulan have been involved in relations of dependence with a long succession of near and far sovereign powers, and they are surrounded by a landscape of many waves of immigration, economic change, and shifts in basic environmental conditions. I seek in this presentation to understand major forms of long-term continuity and transformation in political relations of dependence among Masihulan people themselves and in their relations with external centres. These historical continuities and transformations have been generated through contingent intersections of many different factors. In tracing these processes across a long time span, I attempt also to understand how at each historical step this community most of all struggled to overcome the political domination that they were experiencing in relation to states and ethnic hierarchies, and to define their niche in a world of long-distance interconnections. My study’s ultimate focus is understanding the ways Masihulan people are adapting to the current policies of the Indonesian state, which have involved dramatic increases in local-level government budget allotments and restructuring of local leadership offices.

Unequal Returns: Seasonal Work and Dependence in Vanuatu

Rachel E. Smith (University of Lucerne)

Distinctions between working for ‘oneself’ and working for ‘others’, working ‘for money’ and working ‘for free’, can assume conflicting moral evaluations according to perspective. In this paper, I draw on sixteen months' ethnographic fieldwork in a rural Vanuatu community undergoing rapid socioeconomic change, due to a high degree of engagement in New Zealand and Australia’s seasonal worker programmes. While there has been renewed interest in the development potential of temporary migration programmes (vis-à-vis foreign aid), such schemes have also been criticized for creating conditions for exploitation and fostering dependence. In this paper, I build on discussions surrounding dependence and independence through a focus on the Ni-Vanuatu ‘domestic moral economy’ of work. I discuss how seasonal workers actively cultivate enduring relations of reciprocal dependence with overseas employers. However, attention to conflicting and contradictory moral evaluations of work and dependence highlight the domestic divisions and inequalities that result from and sustain changing work regimes.

Land Grabs, Inequality and Relationships: Reassessing Gendered and Generational Values in Vanuatu

Tom Bratrud (University of Oslo)

Over the last 15 years, Vanuatu has experienced a dramatic land grab, with more than 10% of all customary land now being leased. This trend must be seen in relation to a series of liberal land laws introduced after independence in 1980 to attract foreign investors who could make the country develop economically. Land grabbing is the source of endless disputes in Vanuatu, including the Ahamb Island community in South Malekula around which three islands have been leased to foreigners in the last 15 years. Land disputes, of which many are (in)directly related to land grabbing, is setting families who should normally be engaged in productive relationships – that is, in relationships of interdependence – up against each other and create new forms of inequality. In the paper, I discuss the context for current land disputes in South Malekula, how the disputes have become associated with male values and qualities, and how many people’s resentment with the disputes has fuelled a Christian revival movement that emphasises a turn to what is seen as female and children’s values and qualities. In this way, I will discuss how particular configurations of (in)dependence on the national level can create new patterns of inequality on the local level, and further how these inequalities may shed new light on the morality associated with genders and generations and trigger a reassessment of the position of gendered and generational values in society.

Māori treaty settlements and the politics of hope

Fiona Elisabeth McCormack (University of Waikato)

Post-colonial treaty settlements in Aotearoa, a feature of the socio-political landscape for over three decades, are tied up with a politics of hope. This may manifest as a kind of future nostalgia wherein socio-economic parity, if not sovereignty, for indigenous people is presumed to flow from a strengthened and distinctive Māori economy, an economy that itself is perceived to be propelled by the largesse of Treaty of Waitangi compensations. While settlement assets are allocated primarily at a tribal level to mandated corporate bodies, they then are activated in wider capitalist markets in order, ostensibly, to ensure a trickle down of wealth to all tribal members, present and future. This ideal reflects, perhaps, an older mode of chiefly distribution and a traditional concern for intergenerational well-being. Yet, for many Māori, treaty settlements have made little difference to their everyday struggles: the socio-economic disparity between Māori and Pakeha remains large (increasingly so in some measures), and their dependence on a shrinking welfare system is disproportionate. Through the lens of the inaugural pan-Māori fisheries settlement, this paper explores the shifting coevality of different types of distribution and the contested evaluation of these as expressed through sentiments of hope.

Containing relations of dependence and independence in contemporary Tokelau

Hoem Ingjerd (University of Oslo)

In the mid-eighties, anthropologist A. Hooper, following E. Wallerstein’s theory, characterised the growing aid-driven monetary sphere in Tokelau as producing relations of dependency, and not generating locally sustainable growth. In the contemporary atoll societies, the monetary economy has resulted in steadily increasing material wealth, and also made overseas travel more accessible to many, if not to all. The tensions between what in Tokelauan is described positively, as relationships of dependence and mutual support, and more negatively, as independence and freedom, will be described and discussed in this paper. How these tensions are articulated in the institution of inati, a system of collective equal distribution of communally held goods, and through the classification of goods into commodities or gifts, will be the empirical focus of my presentation.