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  • The Power of Perspective: Social Ontology and Agency on Ambrym, Vanuatu
  • Lamont Lindstrom
The Power of Perspective: Social Ontology and Agency on Ambrym, Vanuatu, by Knut Mikjel Rio. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84545-293-3, xviii + 270 pages, figures, maps, photographs, appendices, glossary, bibliography, index. US $80.00.

Vanuatu’s Ambrym Island was a hot-spot for early British anthropologists hunting obscure kinship structure. W H R Rivers, in 1914, recorded an initial version of the West Ambrym kin term system that he collected from William Temar who was training to be a Presbyterian teacher at the Tangoa Training Institute, on Tangoa Island, off Espiritu Santo. The terminological system presented a puzzle in that Ambrymese apply the same kin terms to relatives of different generations such that men’s wives might, sometimes, also be considered their sister’s son’s daughters, their mother’s brother’s daughter’s daughter, their mother’s sister’s daughter’s son’s daughter, and so forth. T T Barnard and Bernard Deacon, Rivers’s students, visited Ambrym in the 1920s to confirm and augment his analysis. They, along with Anthony Radcliffe-Brown, reinterpreted Ambrym Island kinship to be a “six-section system” (rather than residual evidence of gerontocracy, as Rivers had proposed) in which two moieties, comprising three patrilineal groups each, spiral women across generations. Harold Scheffler, who had a look at the system in the 1960s, figured it was an anomalously patrilineal Crow type that merges agnatic kin of different generations (eg, one’s father’s father is also a classificatory brother; one’s mother is also one’s son’s wife). [End Page 490]

Unlike bilateral systems (which are more common in Melanesia, where marital and other exchange links two families, villages, sides, or moieties), Ambrym social structure is trilateral.

In the 1960s, Ambrym kinship puzzles found their way into an even more rarified arena when they served as anecdotal evidence in arguments between Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Lévi-Strauss. When Deacon visited Ambrym in 1926, a local man had graphed for him the island’s tripartite kinship and marriage system by drawing this in the sand, arranging illustrative stones that represented one’s own family, one’s mother-givers, and one’s sister-takers. Lévi-Strauss offered this diagram as evidence of universal abstract thought (a given in human nature), while Sartre, in a structural-Marxist phase, argued that thought must rather reflect practice.

Knut Mikjel Rio, who traveled to Ambrym in the late 1990s, takes up the anthropological obligation to describe Ambrym in its own terms, and according to local interests, rather than as mere grist for the mills of kinship analysis or French philosophizing. Rio proposes that Ambrym ethnographic fact might not just prove, or disprove, ruling kinship theory, or standing models of sociability, but may instead provide comparative understanding that will lead anthropologists, and even philosophers, to rethink our increasingly tattered notions of “person” and “society” and of the ways in which each of these terms implicates the other. This is an ambitious project that brings Rio to locate his Ambrym data both within middle-level comparative Melanesian ethnology and within more elevated theoretical arguments about the constitution of human sociability itself (hence the discussion of Sartre and the use of the term ontology in the book’s subtitle).

Rio conducted his field research in and around Ranon village in North Ambrym. He was partly drawn to this region because families there own rights to carve large slit drums, one of which Rio commissioned for the Bergen Museum. While Ambrym’s prominence within twentieth-century kinship and philosophy debate no doubt encouraged Rio’s own investigations into kinship structure and ceremonial exchange, such investigation was also driven by the enduring importance of exchange on Ambrym today. The book covers Ambrym kinship and marriage practice (the patterns of which Rio nicely reflects off local customs of sand drawing), yam gardening, the basis of leadership, the island’s (now defunct) grade-taking ceremonies, gift-giving, and a series of life-cycle exchanges that celebrate marriage, birth, circumcision, and death.

Rio does remark on the impact of modernity on Ambrym, including...