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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 270-273

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Book Review

The Telling of Class in Papua New Guinea

Deborah B Gewertz
Amherst College

Frederick K Errington
Trinity College

Emerging Class in Papua New Guinea: The Telling of Difference, by Deborah B Gewertz and Frederick K Errington. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. isbn cloth, 0-521-65212-x; paper, 0-521- 65567-6; x + 179 pages, map, photographs, notes, references, index. Cloth, us$54.95; paper, us$19.95.

We begin Emerging Class in Papua New Guinea thus, "This book is our telling of the way that class inequalities in contemporary Papua New Guinea have been convincingly, and with telling effect, told. It is about the contexts and processes, both 'traditional' and 'modernist,' within which many relatively affluent Papua New Guineans were conveying to whole categories of their countrymen that the latter lacked viable and legitimate claims on significant resources" (1 ). We have tried, hence, to impart the ways that (culturally and socially positioned) Papua New Guineans have been talking to themselves and to others--including to us as anthropologists--about their lives, especially as they contend with new and changing definitions of worth and relationship.

To the extent that we have imparted these ways of telling about difference, we have told much--and in an experience-near manner--about a range of often conflicting Papua New Guinean views concerning the nature of their social world(s) and how it (they) should be dealt with. In our view, to repudiate these various tellings as trivial and inconsequential is to repudiate [End Page 270] the experiences and understandings of those whose tellings they are. To be deaf to such tellings would be a deafness to Papua New Guinean lives: It would be a deafness of sensibility--an impoverishment of empathy--regarding the way these lives are led, are contended about, prove satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Of these three reviews, two (Smith's and Zimmer-Tamakoshi's) are attuned to both the substance and nuance of Papua New Guinea experiences and understandings-- are listening to tales told--and one (MacWilliam's) is not.

MacWilliam's deafness is troubling because it is consequential: Tellings of difference--of class happenings--matter, and not only to Papua New Guineans but to those of us living often better positioned lives elsewhere (and we stress throughout our book that "our" lives and "theirs" are connected systemically). The aspect of class that matters greatly to them and to us concerns fundamental moral issues pertaining to relative worth: whom one associates with and in what ways. That class concerns such issues is, in our view, a primary (though not exclusive) reason why class should be a matter of analytic concern (especially in a place like Papua New Guinea with a strong tradition of [male] egalitarian values). In other words, class matters in substantial measure because class injures and demeans and because class confuses--by insinuating and obscuring. What we sought to do in our book is to convey these class happenings with full subtlety. E P Thompson has been significant to us in this regard, not because he attributes class differences largely to productive relations (which we venture he would not do if he were to confront the Papua New Guinean socioeconomic scene); rather, he has been significant to us because he thickly describes the social life of inequality.

Such an understanding of class as lived experience, importantly, enables us to understand what the links are, in particular places and at particular times, between differential access to resources (whether productive or other) and the ways that social life is conducted. After all, the manner in which inequalities are justified and understood constitutes an important aspect of how they are instantiated and perpetuated. In this regard, we find ourselves theoretically located between those who emphasize that capitalism has a global reach and those who stress that production, distribution, and consumption are variably shaped and interpreted in diverse cultural contexts. We insist, therefore, that in talking about class in Papua New Guinea (or elsewhere), one must attend not only...