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Dobu: Ethics of Exchange on a Massim Island, Papua New Guinea, by Susanne Kuehling. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8248-2731-1; xiv + 329 pages, maps, diagrams, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. US$44.00.

Susanne Kuehling is a German ethnographer who completed her training in Australia. She undertook eighteen months of fieldwork on the anthropologically renowned island of Dobu in the D'Entrecasteaux Islands in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Her new book reassesses the ethnographic record left by Reo Fortune (1932) [End Page 270] and later analyzed by Ruth Benedict (1934). Kuehling in turn offers an alternative analysis of Dobu social life, based on the multitude of named gift exchanges that Islanders identify in the course of their social interactions.

Kuehling's reassessment of the Dobu ethnography is of itself an extremely valuable enterprise. She is rightly concerned to correct Fortune's and Benedict's stereotypical treatments of Dobu people, as pathologically paranoid and homicidal, based as these analyses were on brief fieldwork and little or no grasp of the vernacular. Kuehling makes much of the depth of her ethnographic involvement, her knowledge of the local language, and the more detailed, sensitive data that this has allowed her to collect. Her work therefore takes its place with Annette Weiner's reanalysis of Bronislaw Malinowski's Trobriand Islands as a recapture of old field sites from great anthropologists. However, Kuehling goes further than Weiner in describing the process of her own work, its failures, as well as its successes. Her attention to the accidents of fieldwork is a very valuable component of her rich ethnography.

Kuehling's analysis of Dobu gift exchange is powerful and worthwhile. In making gifts and personhood the rubric of the analysis, Kuehling's work is clearly part of an established genre of Massim studies dating back to the late 1970s, which sees Massim socialities as mechanisms for reproducing persons, especially through the institutions of mortuary exchange events. However, Kuehling extends the scope of these studies to an analysis of the emotional aspects of gift exchange. She engages with "gifts" in all spheres of life, from the elaborate ceremonial exchange systems that characterize the region, to elementary transactions at the level of bodily interactions. Making use of this proliferation of locally recognized instances of exchange, she presents an "ethics of exchange" that involves social roles as well as "inner" states to suggest both the social necessity and the personal pleasures at the root of exchange activity.

Knowing "the name of the gift," as Kuehling puts it, means not only knowing what to transact with whom, but how to reveal and conceal particular emotional states. This is particularly effective in Kuehling's treatment of kula exchange. In this interisland system of ceremonial exchange in shell valuables, people compete for fame and renown. Kula has been the focus of much ethnographic and theoretical effort since it was first described in the 1920s. Ethnography of the kula to date is sociological in character and focuses especially on kula's capacity to reproduce and extend the influence of persons and social relations. Kuehling's emphasis on the emotive and tactile aspects of exchange, which she terms "ethical," offers a fresh look at kula exchange from a more intimate, subjective perspective that attends to the problems of managing others' and one's own feelings and their revelation. The concerns are not so much social as they are centered on the lives, relationships, and experiences of the parties to the transaction. Kuehling strives to provide a personal, actor-oriented account of the kula. Here Kuehling's approach sheds new light on a much-analyzed institution.

If the ethnography has a weakness, it is in relation to its inherent historical [End Page 271] aspect. Kuehling's objection to Fortune's work is that his description of Dobu Islanders made them appear as exotic others with an alien mindset. Her own data, more humane and less hierarchical (colonial) in its approach, reveals Dobu people who are less "other" and more comprehensible than Fortune portrayed them. What is neglected in her analysis, however, is history. Kuehling repeatedly takes Fortune to task over discrepancies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9464
Print ISSN
1043-898X
Pages
pp. 270-272
Launched on MUSE
2008-02-11
Open Access
N
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