ANTHY308-21A (HAM)

Many Worlds: Melanesian Cultures

15 Points

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Division of Arts Law Psychology & Social Sciences
School of Social Sciences


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Paper Description

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This paper is designed with two specific and interconnected aims in mind: (1) to give students a thorough understanding of the different cultures that make up Melanesia, the most culturally and linguistically diverse region in the world, and also (2) to foster an appreciation of the central importance that anthropological research conducted in this area, for so long characterised as 'primitive', 'savage', or 'exotic', has had within the discipline as a whole.

The cultural region of Melanesia exhibits an immense array of indigenous cultural variety that has been made even more complex by the introduction of western influences. More than any other culture area in the Pacific region, Melanesia defies any essentialist definitions, since it reveals the presence, co-existence and dynamic interplay of a range of political, religious, linguistic, moral, and economic systems. The paper aims to plunge students directly into this bewildering cultural mix, and covers both the traditional cultural areas that exist within Melanesia as well as how indigenous cultural configurations have been reworked, challenged by, and sometimes erased, by wider western spheres of influence.

The ethnographic research that has been undertaken in Melanesia for over a century, and the anthropological descriptions of Melanesian people and their customs that have resulted from this research, have exerted a massive influence within the discipline of anthropology and also acted to powerfully shape how the wider public view local Melanesians. To understand these influences, the paper gives students a detailed overview of the history of Melanesian ethnography. Beginning with the first anthropological forays into the region which were closely associated with colonial systems of domination, through to the rise of Malinowski's relativism in the Trobriand Islands, the post-war boom of studies into ceremonial exchange and warfare in the New Guinea highlands, and in to contemporary Melanesianist anthropology looking at the complex interaction between new and old cultural forms, students will get a comprehensive understanding of what anthropologists have done in Melanesia, what they have said about its peoples, and the academic and popular consequences of these representations.

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Paper Structure

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In terms of content delivery, the paper will be organised into two classes per week, all of which students are expected to attend. While physical attendance in all sessions is expected, there will be online options for those students unable to make class. The first session, Monday 3pm - 5pm, will be a 2 hour lecture within which the core content of the course will be delivered. In addition to the lecture, this session will also include the screening of relevant ethnographic films, and will also be utilised for spontaneous class discussions of lecture content, should the need arise.

The second session, Tuesday 3pm - 4pm, will be organised mainly around a thorough discussion and critique of the week's readings. For these classes, students are expected to arrive having completed the readings and should be fully prepared to enter into a productive and critical discussion about them with their peers. This class will also be an important forum within which different assessment items will be discussed and any queries about the course answered.

Regarding how the course content will be structured, each week will be dedicated to a different topic. The first half of the course will look mainly at the main culture areas throughout Melanesia, particularly Papua New Guinea, and will examine the foundational anthropological work that has been undertaken on these issues. The second half of the course will turn more directly towards contemporary Melanesian society and examine new forms of religion, politics, and economy, as well look at challenges faced by people throughout the region such as climate change and rising sea levels.

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Learning Outcomes

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Students who successfully complete the paper should be able to:

  • Appreciate the cultural diversity of Melanesia
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  • Understand how the traditional cultures of Melanesia have dynamically interacted with outside cultural influences
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  • Understand and challenge the primitivist stereotypes of Melanesians as 'savage'
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  • Gain insight into the highly problematic characteristics of contemporary Papua New Guinean society and be able to articulate a balanced view of the situation
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  • Articulate an understanding of the anthropological work undertaken in Melanesia and its centrality to the discipline of anthropology as a whole
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  • Show how and why Melanesia is a unique cultural area within the Pacific
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The course will assess students mainly on their ability to digest and synthesise lecture information, readings, and films, into pieces of clear, succinct analytical writing. The majority of the students' grade will come from the two essays, which together make up 50% of the overall grade. Students should thus make sure that they prepare and plan for these essays thoroughly, and allocate sufficient time to write and revise their work before submission. Students will also be assessed on their ability to maintain engagement with course content on a weekly basis, as manifest by the weekly reading summaries. These are short pieces of writing (one page) that students will produce each week to show that they are able to understand and reproduce the ideas and examples shown in each article. To encourage students to participate and attend all classes, a significant component of the assessment will be given to participation and attendance as well.
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Assessment Components

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The internal assessment/exam ratio (as stated in the University Calendar) is 100:0. There is no final exam. The final exam makes up 0% of the overall mark.

The internal assessment/exam ratio (as stated in the University Calendar) is 100:0 or 0:0, whichever is more favourable for the student. The final exam makes up either 0% or 0% of the overall mark.

Component DescriptionDue Date TimePercentage of overall markSubmission MethodCompulsory
1. Participation and Attendance
4 Jun 2021
No set time
  • In Class: In Lecture
  • In Class: In Tutorial
2. Weekly Reading Summaries
4 Jun 2021
No set time
  • Online: Submit through Moodle
3. Essay 1: The Primitivisation of Melanesia
9 Apr 2021
5:00 PM
  • Online: Submit through Moodle
4. Essay 2: Witchcraft and Sorcery in Contemporary Melanesia
4 Jun 2021
5:00 PM
  • Online: Submit through Moodle
Assessment Total:     100    
Failing to complete a compulsory assessment component of a paper will result in an IC grade
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Required and Recommended Readings

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Required Readings

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Provided is a list of the compulsory readings that students must complete before attending that week's discussion session and which will be covered in each week's reading summaries. Students who wish to learn more about any given topic are free to consult with myself for more readings and direction. All readings will be posted to Moodle for each week's topic.

Week 1: Melanesia as Culture Area

Thomas, N. 1989. "The Force of Ethnology: Origins and Significance of the Melanesia/Polynesia Division". Current Anthropology 30 (1): 27-41

Narakobi, B. 1980. The Melanesian Way. Port Moresby: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. Pages: vii-ix, 7-23.

Stella, R. T. 2007. Imagining the Other: The Representation of the Papua New Guinea Subject. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Chapter 2: 'Locating the Subject: The Indigenous Construction of Space', Pages: 29-46.

Week 2: The Beginnings of Melanesian Ethnography

Wax, M. 1972. "Tenting with Malinowski". American Sociological Review 37 (1):1-13.

Stella, R. T. Imagining the Other: The Representation of the Papua New Guinea Subject. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Chapter 6: 'The Subject as Savage', Pages: 124-139.

Week 3: An Anthropological Love Triangle in the Sepik

Dobrin, L. M. and I. Bashkow. 2010. ""The Truth in Anthropology Does Not Travel First Class": Reo Fortune's Fateful Encounter with Margaret Mead." Histories of Anthropology Annual 6: 66-128.

Palmer, C. and J. Lester. 2007. "Stalking the Cannibals: Photographic Behaviour on the Sepik River." Tourist Studies 7 (1): 83-106.

Week 4: Cargo Cults: Ancestral Communication Breakdown?

Worsley, P. 1968. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia. New York: Schocken Books. Chapter 4: The Vailala Madness, Pages: 75-92.

Williams, F. E. 1976. The Vailala Madness and Other Essays. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Week 5: The Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Macdonald, F. and J. Kirami. 2017. "Women, mobile phones, and M16s: Contemporary New Guinea highlands warfare". The Australian Journal of Anthropology 28: 104-119.

Weiner, J., McLeod, A. and C. Yala. 2002. 'Aspects of Conflict in the Contemporary Papua New Guinea Highlands'. SSGM Discussion Paper 2002/4.

Week 6: Children of Afek: The Min Culture Area

Jorgensen, D. 1996. "Regional history and ethnic identity in the hub of New Guinea: The emergence of the Min". Oceania 66 (3): 189-210.

Macdonald, F. 2016. "From Blood to Oil: Mining, Cosmology, and Human Sacrifice in Central New Guinea". Oceania 86 (1): 40-56.

Week 7: Music in Melanesia

Webb, M. and C. Webb-Gannon. 2016. "Musical Melanesianism: Imagining and Expressing Regional Identity and Solidarity in Popular Song and Video". The Contemporary Pacific 28, (1): 59-95.

Week 8: The Extractive Industries in Contemporary Melanesia

Teaiwa, K. 2015. Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Prelude, Preface, and Chapters 1 'The Little Rock That Feeds' and 5 'Land From the Sky', Pages: xi-xvii, 3-27, 94-112.

Week 9: Sorcery and Witchcraft in Melanesia

Eves, R. and M. Forsyth (eds.) 2015. Talking it Through: Responses to Sorcery and Witchcraft Beliefs and Practices in Melanesia. Canberra: ANU Press. Chapter 2: Cox, J. and G. Phillips 'Sorcery, Christianity and the Decline of Medical Services', Pages: 37-54.

Luker, V. and S. Dinnen (eds.). Civic Insecurity: Law, Order, and HIV in Papua New Guinea. Canberra: ANU Press. Chapter 11: Haley, N. 'Witchcraft, Torture, and HIV', Pages: 219-235.

Week 10: The Anthropology of Melanesian Christianity

Scott, M. 2005. "'I was like Abraham': notes on the Anthropology of Christianity from the Solomon Islands. Ethnos 70 (1)): 101-125.

Macdonald, F. 2018. "Back from the dead? Souls and the afterlife within Oksapmin Pentecostal-evangelical Christianity". Paideuma: Zeitschrift für kulturanthropologische Forschung (Journal of Cultural Anthropological Research) (64): 149-165.

Week 11: Climate Change in Melanesia

Readings for this topic to be set by Professor John Campbell and will be posted to Moodle.

Week 12: HIV, Sexuality, and Gender

Wardlow, H. 2006. Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press. Chapter 4: 'Becoming a Pasinja Meri', Pages: 134- 165.

Dundon, A. 2007. "Warrior Women, the Holy Spirit, and HIV/AIDS in Rural Papua New Guinea". Oceania 77: 29-42.

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Recommended Readings

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Any student who wishes to access more readings on a given topic within the course is encouraged to consult with the lecturer for suggestions.
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Online Support

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Moodle will be the principal medium through which readings, lecture slides, and assessment information will be disseminated.

Lectures will be recorded using Panopto and for students unable to physically attend tutorial sessions, a Zoom meeting option will be made available.

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150 hours in total
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Linkages to Other Papers

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Prerequisite papers: ANTH101 or ANTHY101 or ANTH102 or ANTHY102




Restricted papers: ANTH308

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