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30 December 2012


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It amazes me how some westerners can still make a profit from tarting up an account of different cultures and claiming this is new and sensational. Maybe it shows how gullible we westerners are. (See Krippendorf's Tribe).

Malinowski, Boas, Rivers, Haddon and others made a science out of Anthropology but it was hijacked from early days by adventurers and profiteers hiding behind the cloak of an academic reputation.

Drusilla Modjeska reviewed Diamond's book in last weekend's 'Sydney Morning Herald'.

She questions Diamond's central thesis that by looking at small-scale groups in places like Papua New Guinea we are, in fact, catching a glimpse of "yesterday" and ipso facto a range of things worth (re)learning.

She rightly points out that "Digicel mobile technology now covers much of PNG - is not 'today' also today there?" She says the "first hand picture of the human past" claimed in the book 'emerges as a conceit that, by its nature, cannot take us far'.

"My dismay is that when New Guinea is so rarely written about for a large audience with serious intent, 'The World Until Yesterday' perpetuates one of the worst aspects of "our" WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) thinking.

"It keeps "us", as always, at the centre of the frame, separated from "them" as not much more than relics of "yesterday", an opposition that makes little sense outside historical time, and is of limited use in the entangled present of the 21st century."

In other words, Diamond is ethnocentric, paternalistic and possibly racist.

Pulitzer Prize author to speak at UQ

The University will play host to a book launch and public lecture by visionary Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Professor Jared Diamond.

He will discuss material from his latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies.

Drawing extensively on his decades of work in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, he will explore how tribal societies approach essential human problems, from child-rearing to conflict resolution to health, and outline how we have much to learn from traditional ways of life.

The lecture will be held from 6pm–8.30pm on Tuesday, February 19, in the UQ Centre.

Hosted by the School of Social Sciences and Brisbane's Better Bookshops, tickets cost $25, $20 (concession) or $18 for bulk buys of six or more.

Tickets from:
-- American Bookstore, 195 Elizabeth St, Brisbane 3229 4677
-- Avid Reader, 193 Boundary St, West End 3846 3422

Another quote from 'The World Until Yesterday'. Tell us if you think this gives a fair picture of PNG life.

"For example, [Ross] you and I had never seen each other until half an hour ago, and in this half hour, I’ve not made a move to kill you and you’ve not made a move to kill me. In New Guinea, this would be unthinkable.”

Diamond recalls his friend’s experience, a missionary pilot in a remote tribe in New Guinea, who attended a gathering of clans that happens once a year:

“He said this occasion was absolutely terrifying. Here would come this strange person who you heard of, or that you saw once a year, and there was the person who killed your uncle, or there was the person who had abducted your sister’s cross-cousin.

"Every now and then someone would grab an axe and rush at someone else to kill them and had to be restrained by other people.”

Michael - That Guardian piece is basically a sensational promo for his new book and lecture at the Bristol festival. But it is lengthy and detailed and deserves further attention.

I take exception to this which is the first paragraph.

"Until the 1950s, newly widowed women on the island off New Guinea were strangled by their husband's brothers or, in their absence, by one of their own sons. Custom dictated no other course of action. Failure to comply meant dishonour, and widows would make a point of demanding strangulation as soon as their husbands had expired."

This has been picked up and repeated by many web sites - mainly to make the point of how 'primitive' PNG tribal societies are, although Diamond seems to be making the opposite point, which is that westerners have a lot to learn from tribal societies.

Pity he started the argument with a description of sons strangling their mothers.

I agree with Phil. This is pop anthropology, sensationalised to sell books and make Diamond a rich man.

What does he really care or do for the tribes and cultures he plundered (metaphorically speaking) for his source material?

And why to Papua New Guineans need a privileged western elite to explain their own customs to them?

Peter ... Jared Diamond's work is not without controversy. Like some other anthropologists he has been accused of making stuff up. ...

I spent some time with Jared Diamond in the West Sepik in the sixties. I can't say that I agree with all of his ideas but he did not strike me as the sort of person who makes stuff up.

Re the lawsuit, this is from today's Guardian:

... The case caused a flurry among science journals but has since fizzled out. Diamond blinks and looks pained when I mention the name Rhonda Shearer. "A distinctive person about whom I shall refrain from commenting," he mutters. "That was the first and only time I have been sued. I am happy to say the case was dismissed." ...

Actually, I think Jared Diamond is a geographer, not an anthropologist.

But I'll get a copy of Shankman's book and read it with interest.

I've had reason to consult Mead on a number of occasions, most recently on her work with Reo Fortune on the Sepik at Kinakatem in 1932. I also consulted Nancy McDowells's alternative analysis (1991). The differences are quite stark.

I met Mead around 1971 in Adelaide and she still had her forked stick. Maybe she needed it to help carry around her enormous ego.

McDowell makes some interesting observations about anthropology in the 1930s, particularly about bending data collected in the field to fit into theory - exactly what Jared Diamond is doing today. Thankfully, the insistence on absolutes seems to be waning in modern anthropology.

I also find it curious to see many anthropologists (and other professionals) spending inordinate amounts of time criticising each others work, although I guess this is just healthy rigour at work in the discipline. In that sense I wouldn't be so eager to write off Freeman's analysis of Mead.

In any event I would recommend that any anthropological work be approached with a great deal of caution. It is usually only one person's interpretation and things change rapidly.

And Barbara, the old patrol reports are lodged in the National Archives in Port Moresby. They microfilmed them all in the 1980s and copies of the microfiche are held in many places.

In Queensland the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland has a set (although someone has knocked off the Western District and Western Highlands microfiche).

The microfiche are copies of headquarters files and some of the data, like area studies, are sometimes not there. The copies come off the carbon copies that regularly went to Moresby and can be a bit fuzzy. You can get PDF copies and take them home and blow them up to a readable size however.

Phil mentions the old patrol officers reports.

I remember when I first went to Wewak in 1971 I was allowed to sit on the lawns in front of the Admin Offices and read the old Patrol Offices reports.

Where are they now? I hope they are in a safe place and can be used for research by anyone interested in PNG's social history.

They would be far more accurate than Diamond's writings.

Peter Kranz has made an important point. Jared Diamond has actually admitted "fictionalizing" substantial parts of that New Yorker piece. Details here: . The affair does not reflect well on Diamond.

New Guinea highlands society remains very lawless and violent (this is a place where holding the children of election officials hostage at election time is a routine tactic) but far less than it used to be.

Diamond just parachuted in, grabbed a few random anecdotes from a couple of locals, mixed it all up and made up the rest. This is of course neither anthropology nor journalism.

As for Derek Freeman's allegations that there was a "con perpetrated by the Samoan ladies on Margaret Mead," I advise reading "The Trashing of Margaret Mead" by Paul Shankman, which documents in exhaustive detail Freeman's long history of academic dishonesty and generally narcissistic behaviour.

Freeman's almost fact-free "takedown" of Mead rests chiefly on a highly leading interview with an obviously confused and senescent eighty year old woman who could remember almost no details of her involvement with Mead, and whose bona fides as an informant Freeman made no effort to verify.

Anthropologists now believe that Mead accurately documented adolescent sexual behaviour on her patch of Samoa, whereas Freeman never documented anything in his life (he refused even to provide a full transcript of the alleged "smoking gun" interview proving it was all a con.)

Jared Diamond is a pop-anthropologist, much like the pop-psychologists who publish their weird interpretations for one simple reason - to sell books and make money.

If you read "Guns, Germs and Steel' and watch his television programs it's easy to see where he's coming from.

But you are right, Peter; anthropologists are very good at making stuff up and misinterpreting what they are told.

By the same token I can remember locals in PNG cackling about the latest yarn they had spun the resident anthropologist.

Perhaps the biggest con was that perpetuated by the Samoan ladies on Margaret Mead.

It makes the work I do as a social mapper very frustrating.

I've found that the anthropological data found in old patrol reports is much more reliable. Which is strange because anthropologists love to disparage kiaps.

But I'll buy a copy of Diamond's latest effort for laughs

You realise that Jared Diamond's work is not without controversy. Like some other anthropologists he has been accused of making stuff up.

"Jared Diamond, author of 'Guns, Germs, and Steel', is being sued by two Papua, New Guinea, men who claim the award-winning science writer lied about their lives to prove that tribal culture is violent...

"The problem is that Diamond's notion of tribal culture is based on a fantasy of Diamond's own - one that was propagated by the New Yorker, which never fact-checked his story with the two men it featured as main characters. Wemp killed nobody, and Isum is not in a wheelchair - as you can see from the picture above.

"Indeed, the two men say they have never met and Isum has suffered no injuries at all. After the story went up online, Wemp suffered tremendously:

"He'd been accused of heinous crimes, which the men's lawsuit says he did not commit. Other mistakes Diamond made include extremely basic facts, such as which tribes the men are associated with."

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