Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Keir Martin - The Death of the Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots: Custom and Conflict in East New Britain

This is a fascinating anthropological study of a relatively small society in East New Britain, a province of Papua New Guinea. While the study is very focused, I would argue that Keir Martin's book is an important work that should be read by anyone interested in how societies transform themselves.

The Tolai people of Eastern Britain that form the focus of this study have been studied on a number of occasions previously. This allows Martin to both examine their current situation (his field work took place in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that had heavily damaged their traditional villages, and caused great upheaval) and show how communities like the Tolai undergo a constant process of change as a result of internal and external factors.

It would be very difficult in this review to give a detailed historic account of the Tolai communities. Martin himself acknowledges that his book represents a snapshot of their history and clearly at a point when enormous changes are taking place. Of particular interest to me were Martin's account of the way that the Tolai were changing their attitude to land as a result of greater integration into the global economy and the way that their traditional social relations where becoming transformed.

Martin's own words are much clearer than I can be in summarising the nature of community relations among the Tolai, so I will quote him at length:
Descriptions of the ways in which Tolai organise access to land have most commonly emphasised the role of the vunatarai in negotiating such access. The Kuana term vunatarai is used to refer to different types of descent groups, ranging from each of the two moieties into which the Tolai of the Gazell Peninsula divide themselves, down to village based lineage sections. These local lineage sections are commonly of the most relevance in discussing land rights. A man would acquire rights to lang by virtue ofhis membership of a matrilineage, often involving him moving to his mother's brothjer's hamlet upon marriage or his fathers death.This has never operated as a simple stable descent system however. There have always been a variety of different claims for both rights of access to land generally and membership of vunatarai specifically.
However this "matrilineal inheritance" system has been coming under pressure for "a long time" and Martin notes that Tolai themselves have been discussing a switch to a patrilineal system "for a century". Why is this?

When a society comes into contact with different social relations, or begins to transform its relations internally, new ways of organising social relations may become necessary. Martin notes (following earlier studies) that
changes in the material uses of land as a result of global economic integration are what spur people to look for new ways of organising access to land. These changes include the stewarding of cash-generating 'perennial crops', like cocoa, as well as investment in other 'assets' like permanent houses... that also further made land something to be fought over.
The question of land ownership intersects with wider questions of reciprocal interdependence between members of the community. Increasingly attempting to resolve questions of access to land are coming into conflict with customary obligations. Individuals and groups constantly have to alter and change how they relate to each other in order to meet obligations, but the demands of the external global economy distort this process. In part this is also because the authorities have attempted to undermine customary relations and emphasise non-customary (bourgeois) property relations. But this is also because individuals within Tolai society have been able to increase their own personal wealth and become a new focus within the community.

Thus the customs and traditions of the community which shape how individuals and groups judge each other, relate to each other and organise, are also in a state of change. As Martin explains
the position is not as simple as the resilience of traditional Melanesian kastom [custom]. Rather kastom itself is a king of shifting signifier whose meaning is fought over and whose changes in use and meaning reflect many of the changes in the ways in which social relations are being made amongst the dispersed Matupit community. In particular, the contextually shifting use of the term kastom in such disputes and discussions itself is a way in which the shifting boundaries of reciprocal interdependence and individual autonomy are marked.
Thus within disputes over land, or in relations between rich and poor, both sides can appeal to the same kastom and see justification for their actions in traditional relations.

At the heart of this is a very different approach to the question of ownership. The custom of buying land is known as kulia but this is not the same as the purchase of commodities under capitalism. Kulia, as Martin explains, is part of an ongoing cycle of customary obligations, not a single, isolated purchase. Historically it seems that land that was bought might even have reverted to the sellers after the buyer's death - in other words the original owners had an ongoing relationship with the land, even after it was bought.

This was breaking down by the 1960s when an earlier study noted that those controlling the land were "encouraged to think of land increasingly as a commodity" in part as a result of the large amounts of money tied up in the transfers, and as a result of cash crops which helped farmers see the land as a commodity. I was struck by the similarity of this with the processes described by Eleanor Burke-Leacock in her studies of Montagnais-Naskapi in north-eastern Canada whose entire social relations where transformed as a result of the use of traps to catch animal furs and those commodify both land and the animals themselves.

But Martin argues that the question of purchase land is neither a simple customary one, tied up with complex social obligations, nor is it one that matches the commodity exchange that we know in Western economies. He approving quotes the anthropologist M. Sahlins seeing "the distinction between fit exchange and commodity exchange... as the extreme points of a continuum". In other words kulia has been changed over several decades in the direction of increased "property/commodity terms". Crucially though, Martin does not see the Tolai people as naive in this regard. They are not passive victims of economic changes out of their control.
Papua New Guineans do not view land transfers as undergoing a historical process of inexorable commodification, nor as following an unchanging cultural logic of inalienability. Instead, people of this world region are as capable as any other group of people of judging that different kinds of transactions are morally appropriate in different contexts, and disputing about which transactions are appropriate in which contexts.
This seems to me a highly appropriate way to understand the social relations that groups of people create. Karl Marx pointed out that "Men make history... but not in circumstances of their choosing", but this does not mean that they don't attempt to understand and shape their world according to their own needs.

I've dwelt here very much on the question of land and customary relations. This partly reflects my own interests, but its worth highlighting that Martin's book explores the way that wider changes are understood by the Tolai people themselves. They understand the impact of the wider economy (and the role of colonialism) on their lives. It also arises in the awareness of the role of "Big Shot" individuals whose motives are more "commercial" in a way that is completely opposed to traditional "Big Men".

The role of Big Men seems to have evolved as a way of clans within Toali society protecting their own interests, as well as supporting and directing the clan within wider social situations. One way they did this was for the Big Men to use their position to encourage reciprocal interdependence. This can be contrasted with the Big Shots who use kastom for personal gain. Big Men seem to have to be constantly proving themselves to their community - Big Shots seem to like driving in nice cars and living a better life. The changes here brought to mind wider discussions in Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus' recent book The Creation of Inequality.

As is inevitable with such a detailed book, I've not scratched half of the fascinating detail that Martin has written about. I hope I've given a flavour of his work and would encourage others to read it. While this is also an academic study, Martin has written an accessible work that the general reader should be able to enjoy. It's also amusing (I wonder how many similar works use the takeover of Manchester United as a comparative example to the people of East New Britain) in places and the insights into the work of an anthropologist and Martin's time in Papua New Guinea are of interest themselves.

I also found it useful that Martin tested the ideas of wider thinkers, such as Marx and Engels, against his theories. I think they'd have approved in particular of his conclusion which points out that at a time when mainstream, Western, capitalist economics has once again failed us, understanding different ways of organising exchange within societies has never been so important.

Related Reviews

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Engels - Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Evans-Pritchard - The Nuer
Evans-Pritchard - Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer

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