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Reviewed by:
  • Creative Land: Place and Procreation on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea, and: Papua New Guinea's Last Place: Experiences of Constraint in a Postcolonial Prison
  • Joel Robbins
Creative Land: Place and Procreation on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea, by James Leach. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003. ISBN cloth, 1-57181-556-2; paper, 1-57181-693-3; xx + 236 pages, tables, figures, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$75.00; paper, US$25.00.
Papua New Guinea's Last Place: Experiences of Constraint in a Postcolonial Prison, by Adam Reed. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003. ISBN cloth, 1-57181-581-3; paper, 1-57181-694-1; x + 197 pages, tables, figures, maps, photographs, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$50.00; paper, US$22.50.

In 1991 Lisette Josephides coined the phrase "the New Melanesian Ethnography" (in "Metaphors, Metathemes, and the Construction of Sociality: A Critique of the New Melanesian Ethnography," Man 26 [1]: 145161). It caught on quite quickly and came to stand for a particular strain of Melanesian ethnography, associated most closely with the work of Roy Wagner and Marilyn Strathern, that stressed the differences between Melanesian and Western assumptions about the nature of social life and the world more generally. Both Wagner and Strathern are powerful critics of anthropological practice, and in their theoretical work the status of "Melanesia" as a place and of "difference" as a phenomenon is complex and sometimes shifting. But as the New Melanesian Ethnography developed asa way to write specifically ethnographic works, it became identified [End Page 171] with approaches that asserted that Melanesians created their lives on thebasis of kinds of social thinking wholly alien to Western models, and that an anthropology adequate to their experience needed to start with their own kinds of social thinking rather than the Western ones that anthropologists had silently elevated to the level of universal theory. Key terms in the New Melanesian Ethnographic lexicon include "elicitation," "relationships" (same-sex and cross-sex), "dividuals," etc. Since many of these terms coalesced into a model that foregrounds the power of performed relationships to create momentarily reified persons and identities through acts of revelatory display and recognition, I have often thought of the New Melanesian Ethnography as a kind of ethno-ethnomethodology—a Melanesia-based model of how identities and, more strongly, people are created in relationships. But even if that reading is idiosyncratic, there isno doubt that what makes the New Melanesian Ethnography distinctive as a way of doing ethnography is its insistence that theory be made out of materials that one finds in the same place one finds one's data.

In hindsight, the rise of the New Melanesian Ethnography appears to have been a brave, final, and radical stand on the side of cultural difference in the context of an anthropology about to grow tired of detailed expositions of local symbolic worlds in all their particularity. Theories that saw culture and social life as reducible to the everywhere-similar play ofpower in social life, along with a rapid shift of attention to matters of globalization and modernity, were about to sweep the field. While by nomeans completely erased from most ethnographic accounts, "difference" became largely ornamental, not the focus of explanation or theoretical elaboration in itself. In the face of this development, the New Melanesian Ethnography has been something of aloyal opposition, keeping anthropology in touch with an important part of its own heritage. And inasmuch as the universalizing moment may now be waning, it is a good time to examine what that approach has accomplished while much of the anthropological world was busy looking elsewhere for theoretical inspiration.

The two books under review provide an excellent opportunity to undertake such an examination. First monographs by two young anthropologists who, working closely with Marilyn Strathern, were thoroughly trained in the New Melanesian Ethnography, these studies provide fine examples of the state of the art. Their successes as monographs point directly to the value of the approach they represent.

The first thing one notices is that the two books are based on research in two very different Melanesian settings, and that these settings presented their authors with somewhat...