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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 264-267



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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.

Much has been written about inequality in Papua New Guinea. Its impact on politics has been visible as local leaders look to capitalist entrepreneurs and the educated elite to satisfy desires for greater material consumption among their more "traditional" supporters, and national leaders walk a tightrope between satisfying competing local constituencies and supporting policies that promote the economic development of the country. Its impact on social relations has been evident as young men of means contribute to higher brideprices and exchange payments resulting in bachelorhood for many men from less developed areas, greater incentives for urban migration, and participation in development schemes that promise high incomes but ultimately result in environmental destruction and the loss of subsistence; in the negative shifts in the conjugal relations of women "paid for" with exorbitant brideprices; and in the unequal relations of family members who must work for more prosperous siblings or children who have taken charge of family lands and destinies through their success in the new economy. Now, in their excellent ethnography on class in Papua New Guinea, anthropologists Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington show the often denied but inevitable consequences of long-term economic and educational inequality in a free society: class and its ugly stratification of individuals as "upper," "middle," or "lower."

Gewertz and Errington's book draws on their many years of field research in different locations in Papua New Guinea. Its ethnographic focus is on Wewak, however, one of Papua New Guinea's larger towns, and the lifestyle of those middle-class civil servants, politicians, professionals, and business persons who frequent Wewak's elite clubs and organizations. The authors immersed themselves in this exclusive world in 1996 . They spent a year doing participant observation as members of the Wewak golf and yacht clubs and the more exclusive Wewak Rotary Club. They attended local churches, formally interviewed 88 of the more affluent of Wewak's middle class (56 men and 32 women), and worked in other contexts such as Wewak's International School, where they volunteered as English-language reading tutors and interviewed many of the children and their parents. They also lived in a middle-class home complete with chain-link fencing and other security measures, none of which prevented them from being robbed and gaining yet another insider's perspective.

Armed with such insider knowledge of the workings of social class, Gewertz [End Page 264] and Errington show the ways in which differences of status are being created, experienced, and justified among the new elite. They also convincingly demonstrate the felt injuries of class exclusivity among the new lower class, who are more and more on the outside looking in rather than being part of "the party." In chapter 1 , "The middle class--the (new) Melanesian way," the authors describe the workings of the Wewak Rotary Club and how its members incorporate the ideology and organizational practices of Rotary International. Members support one another in practicing a diffuse noblesse oblige toward the larger community and wantoks, dedicating themselves to "self and service," assuming the role of "chiefs" in the new society, dispensing select charities and service to the grassroots while educating demanding wantoks of their (the new elite's) special consumption needs and priorities. A shared concern among the Rotary Club members and others in the new middle class is the fear of being brought down to the grassroots level by exorbitant demands for "reciprocity" and economic investments in their circle of wantoks.

Chapter 2 , "How the grass roots became the poor," is chilling. Here Sepik Women in Trade (SWIT) is introduced, a private organization begun by middle-class women in Wewak in 1996...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9464
Print ISSN
1043-898X
Pages
pp. 264-267
Launched on MUSE
2001-01-01
Open Access
No
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