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14 December 2012


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There is a general assumption in the societies which have grown and which exist within the industrial-marketing-growth- means-prosperity ethos which rules a great part of human society, that logic is universal, fixed and determinate.

From this flows the concomitant, also deeply-imprinted assumption that ethics are fixed, determinate,universal, either good or bad in effect.

Those of us who have lived and worked within or close to tribal societies like those of PNG know that both these concepts, logic and ethics, are determined by the social and physical and existential environment of a particular group, tribe or society.

For one brought up in "western" ways of society it takes a conscious effort or a confronting situation for this realisation to occurr.

The traditional logic and ethics of PNG, based upon a society of small, antagonistic tribes and clans and extended-families is not that of the outsiders who come to work in any area in this land.

This is a lesson which has to be taught to newcomers of all sorts. But it is not. Among many things which remain not understood or appreciated.

For anyone interested here are the differences between Great Man and Big Man.

Like anything anthropological they are not hard and fast categories and sometimes cross over.

"Anthropologists have characterised what are essentially highland and lowland cultures into big man and great man societies.

"The contrasts between these cultures are outlined in the following table.

Domestic pigs.
Shell money.
No dual social organisation.
Bride Price.
Marriages contracted – ‘you marry who you fight’.
Leadership competitive and achieved through acumen and the possession and redistribution of wealth.
Strict land tenure systems with individual ownership and ‘parcels’ of easily identifiable land.
Inheritance and descent important.

Hunting and gathering.
Few or no domestic pigs.
No shell money.
Dual social organisation.
Marriages prohibited within sections.
Multiple leadership achieved through hunting skills, prominence in warfare or inherited ritual knowledge.
Diverse, multiple and loose land tenure systems open to frequent dispute.
Lineage systems important.

Thanks Phil, as I said I stumbled upon the description of Great Men societies and it was a light bulb moment.

All to often I've heard of Big Men societies but that never resonated with my own culture.

I believe these two narratives are significant in predicting/observing how things play out in various societies and whether one intervention may work or not.

Well written piece and equally good comment by Phil.

When I write a social mapping report I trot out the 'Big Man' versus the 'Great Man' spiel every time in almost exactly the way you have described it here.

It was first described by Maurice Godelier in 1982 when he was working with the Baruya in the Eastern Highlands. He elaborated on it further in his 1986 book 'The Making of Great Men' published by Cambridge University Press.

I reckon the theory has a lot going for it and, as you indicate, explains a lot about modern day PNG culture, including the political scene.

I'm currently doing some social mapping around Olsobip, where I was posted in 1970 as a kiap.

As a matter of course I've been looking at the literature generated around the development of the Ok Tedi mine and the theory is very notably absent in much of it, which leads me to believe that the developers might not have known much about the people they were imposing upon.

As you well know this is not unusual and can explain why many resource developers have problems down the track; even when they are told they seldom listen.

I try to provide social mapping reports written in plain English so they are comprehensible not only to the people being written about, to whom I give copies, but also by the bosses in the development companies.

I've found that one of the reasons no one reads social mapping reports is because of the anthropological jargon they contain.

I'm also an advocate in the community affairs process of explaining to local people how Europeans think, a sort of reverse social mapping approach.

It's amazing how many bush villagers do not understand capitalism and all the social mores it produces (like individualism and greed).

Many resource developers reluctantly go into social mapping not believing that understanding the local people can work to their advantage.

Local people similarly do not believe that understanding the developers will help them get a good deal.

Both groups are too ethno-centric for their own good. Other developers, like Exxon, just barge in and do it their way (the Texan way) anyway and wonder later why landowner issues have blown their project out by 2-3 billion dollars.

Anyone investigating corruption in PNG should also be aware of the theory.

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