Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 18, October 2008
John Barker (ed.)

The Anthropology of Morality in Melanesia and Beyond

Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007
ISBN 978-0-7546-7185-5; pp. xxi, 235; price 55.00

reviewed by Christine Stewart

  1. Before I read this book, I had barely heard of Kenelm Burridge. Nor had I considered 'morality' to be a standpoint from which to view the manifold processes of change and modernisation in Melanesia. I read it simply because I wanted to understand more about the Christian missionary endeavour in PNG and its effect on Melanesian moral codes. In the process, I learned a lot more than I expected about Melanesian moralities, and about that exemplar and pioneer in the field, Kenelm Burridge.
  2. The first thing that struck me was the exquisite arrangement of the contributions (all but one originate from Papua New Guinea—Tonkinson's ethnography is drawn from the Jigalong Aborigines). They fit together, apparently seamlessly, to provide a picture of moral worlds somewhat removed from those conceived of in the West.
  3. Melanesian morality, I learn, seems generally to consist of the promotion of an amity based on the principles of mutual equivalence and respect, although the parameters for achieving this amity may vary from society to society. These principles pertain both in the worldly community and the cosmological realm, which in Melanesia form a whole, contrasting with the divide familiar to Western philosophical systems which, following the Christian schism between church and state, consign the ethical and the political to separate realms (p. 26). Whether or not morality equates with religion depends on the definition of 'moral' (and as is discussed in the concluding essay, it may also depend on the definition of religion).
  4. In matters of morality, of course, 'the gap betwixt tenet and behaviour' (p. 177) is always there. But less obvious is the fact that the defining goalposts may also be constantly shifting, and morality constantly redefined. Moral perfection probably cannot be achieved in this world (p. 370): or even if it is, the constancy of change will dismantle it. It is the point where these principles are modified, neglected or subsumed under others, with apparent lack of deleterious effect, which intrigues the writers in this volume.
  5. Much of the collection is concerned with the sands of morality which shift with the various impacts of modernity. With modernity come different processes of restoring, or appearing to restore, amity through the moral principles of reciprocity, equivalence and respect. Differences are emerging with the potential to create both obstacles and opportunities for asserting efficacy and worth. But are these ethical principles still enough in today's Melanesia? Influences of urban migration, commodities, cash, Christianity, education, class and the introduction of modern control mechanisms such as courts and Western political processes have reconfigured systems of moral equivalence. Whether it is a big man who fails to honour reciprocal obligations in favour of developing new ones, a sorcerer who acts as whipping-boy for the ills of society, the voluntary rejection by entire communities of patterns of equivalence in favour of a submission to hierarchical harangue, the culturally mixed community which appeals to new dispute-settlement processes and discourses to achieve traditional equivalence, seemingly inexplicable outbursts of hysteria which rupture everyday village life—these all intrigue and challenge the various writers. Why and how do these breaks from the norm continue to manifest a moral standpoint, or develop an acceptable new one? Sometimes such ruptures are irredeemable to the point of strain beyond accepted limits, and moralities must be adjusted, fine-tuned, maybe even transformed into a new set of equivalences.
  6. Meanwhile, what of the word that the Christian missions were dedicated to spreading? Christianity has by and large been taken up eagerly throughout Melanesia. But how true to the source is this new moral system, and to what ends is it deployed? Melanesian spirit mediums, ministers and nuns all embrace the new morality, engaging with Burridge's generalised individuality, entering into exchange relationships with the new deity, offering obedience and expecting honour and respect. But in the process, they may sometimes make it into something different. Too, much depends on the type of Christianity. Some denominations and their proselytisers are more remiss than others in accepting the variations of Otherness, being more narrowly concerned with salvation and rejecting presumptions of moral equality.
  7. Those seeking enlightenment as to the relationship of morality to gender may be disappointed in this collection. Only one or two authors confront the gendering of the issues and transformations of moralities. Bruce Knauft pays explicit attention to the way in which cultural ideologies which belittle women and displace male status insecurities onto them persist and change to new forms of female domination, recasting women as 'immoral' if they attempt to take advantage of the increased mobility and opportunities which modernity brings (pp. 72–73). Nancy Lutkehaus recounts how a Melanesian woman succeeds in transcending the classic role of wife and mother in village society, by becoming a missionary nun in Africa. In so doing, she adds a gendered dimension to Burridge's theory of the metaculture of missionary practice which gives rise to the 'New Man' of modernity (p. 168), and considers the development of the 'New Woman'. But this lack of emphasis on gender dimensions is hardly a shortcoming. After all, as is pointed out by Burridge himself in his Epilogue, to associate 'immorality' with matters of gender and sexual practices is decidedly old-hat (p. 209).
  8. Throughout the book, the ethnographers have insistently held up the mirror of Burridge's work. His theories and assertions on morality are exemplified, tested, refined. But not all are proven—some are limited, even directly contested. It is this process which makes the book so intriguing, and challenges the reader to adopt a different viewpoint—or template, as the concluding essay would have it.
  9. What have I learned, what can others learn, about Melanesian moralities from a reading of this book? I can say, I am glad I have reviewed it, because the process has obliged me to refocus my gaze upon anthropological writing about Melanesia. Some of it has been heavy going. Some of it I do not fully agree with, or simply do not fully grasp. Readers would be well-advised to peruse or to revisit, if they have already been there, some of the more significant of Burridge's works, and to judge for themselves.


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