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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 260-264

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Book Review

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.

Papua New Guinea left behind the indignities of colonial rule only in the 1970s. Yet, as Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington show in this ground-breaking ethnography, some of this new nation's citizens are now inflicting similar indignities on their fellows and busily building the ideologies and institutions of a kind of inequality unknown in Papua New Guinea prior to the colonial era. To produce their fine-grained picture of "the social and cultural work of creating new forms of distinction," Gewertz and Errington drew on their ties with the "grass roots," as the poor majority of Papua New Guineans are known. They also entered what remains the "last unknown" for many anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea, the private precincts of the emerging Papua New Guinean middle class. Gewertz and Errington show members of this new elite building a self-conscious community and assuring each other that they deserve their privileges. They also show the middle class giving the grass roots "a sentimental education in self-blame" and the pain and anger of grassroots Papua New Guineans who find their efforts to cross class boundaries or make traditional social claims on members of the middle class coldly repelled.

Gewertz and Errington are sharply critical of these developments. In fact, their book is unabashedly polemical. A strong statement on class is completely in order, and this one rests on solid ethnography. As I made my way through this book, however, two related points began to nag at me. First, the authors frequently compare the cruelties of class with indigenous social forms. They generally portray the latter sympathetically. This could easily lead a naive reader to romanticize indigenous Papua New Guinean society and take a one-dimensional view of the motives of those who wish to distance themselves from it. As the authors point out, a "strenuous egalitarianism" characterized much indigenous Papua New Guinean life. But so, too, did strenuous domination of men over women (of which the authors take note) and of old over young. Also, the indigenous systems of enduring reciprocal obligations among relative equals the authors describe were often fraught with contradictory demands and steeped in fear of sorcery or supernatural sanctions for failing to fulfill others' expectations. Of such things, Gewertz and Errington make only fleeting mention. This is consistent with their picture of the motives behind middle-class efforts to attenuate obligations to "their kin and co-culturalists," which focuses exclusively on the desire to shelter resources in order to enjoy affluence. Fully acknowledging the dark side of life [End Page 262] in indigenous communities, however, one can conceive of more mixed or varied motives. One can conceive of Papua New Guineans, for example, seeking affluence in order to attenuate traditional obligations as well as the reverse.

Second, Gewertz and Errington tend to treat every nonindigenous social and cultural form or impulse (such as a preference for freely chosen rather than kin-based social relations or a rationalist attitude toward traditional customs) only in terms of its contribution to class formation. It is important to show how such taken-for-granted western values as choice or rationalism can have class content. But is this so always and everywhere or is it a matter of historical context? I imagine that Gewertz and Errington are thinking of how these values function under the particular historical circumstances they found in Papua New Guinea, but they do not make this clear. If a reader assumed that they intended a blanket, nonhistorical criticism, it would reinforce a romantic view of indigenous society and an oversimplified view of the issues facing Papua New Guinea.

Only in their penultimate...