The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 267-270
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Emerging Class in Papua New Guinea: The Telling of Difference
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.
Written by two established academic anthropologists with lengthy publishing records, this book is "our telling of the ways that class inequalities in contemporary Papua New Guinea have been convincingly, and with telling effect, told" (1 ). In other words, it is an account of what might once have been termed class formation and consciousness, now class happenings and class tellings.
Most of the research for the book was conducted in the country's fifth largest town, Wewak, with a population of about fifty thousand people. For nearly three decades, most recently during 1996 , the authors have visited the town for research. For this book, "88 of the more affluent of Wewak's middle-class nationals: 56 men and 32 women" were interviewed (19 ). Gewertz and Errington also "plunged into . . . middle-class life in a variety of contexts" (20 ). These included Rotary, golf and yacht clubs, churches, law-and-order political rallies, Chamber of Commerce, plus volunteer tutoring at the local, private, English-speaking International School. They also examined the activities of Sepik Women in Trade (SWIT), a small traders' organization.
In five of the six descriptive chapters that draw on this research, the authors claim to provide an account of how class as inequalities, as "distinctions of incommensurability," is "becoming lived" (20 ). Thus, chapter 1 introduces "a template of sociality embraced by Wewak's affluent as they engage with each other in such (largely) imported contexts as Rotary International" (21 ). The next four chapters in turn examine how "the grass roots became the poor," "the realization of class exclusions," "the hidden injuries of class," and "the problem(s) of the poor." Chapter 6 leaves Wewak behind, in an attempt to show how class awareness is becoming widespread in the country.
A driving force behind the account is disgust, at the emergence of a supposed "new Melanesian way," where class transgresses against a prior egalitarianism. The "new" condition is made more offensive because "nationals" are allowing, even propelling, the happening. Emerging Class becomes, by the authors' reckoning, "a book which many Papua New Guineans had hoped could never be written" (2 ).
If class "is emerging" in Wewak and the wider country, how should this be understood? Here the study of class is first considered by way of selective citations of significant works --works that provide signposts, not understanding. Gewertz and Errington's use of the Marxist historian E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class is particularly instructive, although similar points could be made about their use of others, including Max Weber.
The authors commence by noting with approval Thompson's proposition that class is a relationship. However they then feel no need to be constrained (informed?) by the Marxist [End Page 265] character of the proposition. For Thompson, as for Marx, "class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born--or enter involuntarily" (1964 , 10 ; emphasis mine). Productive relations as the basis of class determination do not guide this study, and the superficiality of the reference to Thompson soon becomes apparent.
For Thompson's Marxism to be of any real assistance, Gewertz and Errington would have had to form some understanding of how capital and labor, the two fundamental classes of capitalism, defined the space in which their supposed "middle class" operated. (Not one of the debates that have proliferated over the last three decades about the so-called middle class, whether "old" or "new," middle or a class, makes an appearance here either.)
That the authors could not "find" capitalism's central classes is largely due to their adoption of dependency theory, which still is influential in understanding "third-world...