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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 8 (2001)

Social Change in Melanesia: Development and History, by Paul Sillitoe New York: Cambridge University Press (2000), xx, 264 pp.


Reviewed by Jerry Jacka, Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon Eugene, OR

This book is a companion volume to Sillitoe’s 1998 book, Introduction to the Anthropology of Melanesia. It is intended for as a general introduction to Melanesian studies. The first book deals with "traditional" Melanesian social life, while this latter book looks at the changes that have come via "modernization." Those researchers who disdain the use of such terms and the obvious dichotomies produced by publishing the two different books, may find serious fault with Sillitoe's approach. Despite this, I think that the latter volume is a good book for the number of topics it brings up in attempting to cover the range of issues relevant to Melanesians today. I deal with the topics in greater detail below, but give a brief listing of them here (in the order they are addressed in the book): land tenure, community development, business and entrepreneurship, formation of class, mining, forestry, migration and urbanization, cargo cults, missionization, state formation, tourism, and custom and identity.

One of the strengths of the book is that each of the chapters that addresses the topics above uses a particular culture group or region to illustrate the ways that these processes of modernity articulate in that particular area. At the same time, though, some Melanesianists may be disappointed by the bulk of the examples coming from Papua New Guinea at the expense of the other Melanesian countries. West Papua, rather anachronistically called "Irian Jaya" throughout the book despite the name being changed in 1999, receives only passing mention. Only one chapter is devoted to the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu each, while Fiji and New Caledonia are only briefly alluded to from time to time. However, the particular case studies presented in each chapter could also be used by instructors to make comparisons and contrasts of the areas where they did their respective research to their students.

In general, this is a good book, but it has some faults that I found hard to overlook. The greatest of these is that at times Sillitoe slips into language that makes social change seem teleological or evolutionary. He sometimes mentions certain groups as "moving back towards their cultural roots" (p. 107) or as being at a certain "stage" (passim). But then a few pages later he will note that there is no unidirectionality to change. Some readers may find this confusing and take refuge in a more comfortable mode of thinking of change as coming in stages where the West is modern and the Rest are working towards that goal. Most of the seeds of confusion are sown in the fourth chapter of the book, entitled Technological Change and Economic Growth.

Sillitoe uses modernization theory as developed by W. W. Rostow (e.g., 1960) to talk about models of economic growth in Melanesia. Readers are subjected to discussions of "economic take-off" supported by two nearly incomprehensible graphs that attempt to show the relationships between labor and output in tribal versus capitalist economies. By the end of the chapter I was unsure as to whether he was critiquing modernization theory or defending it. But then he opens the next chapter by writing that sweeping universal economic theories are quite limited in real-life contexts. As a result, there is a danger that introductory-level readers may come away with an incomplete understanding of the issues surrounding economic change.

Another problem with the book is the model of social change that is presented. Sillitoe notes that there are three aspects to social change: technological innovation, social consequences, and indigenous rationalizations. While these in themselves are not problematic, what is troublesome about how Sillitoe deploys them, is that he argues that one leads directly to the other. In other words, technology changes society which changes ideology. Nowhere in the book is there a more dialectical approach to understanding the relationships among technology, social process, and ideology. Fortunately, this model is only present in the beginning of the book, and is not overtly reinforced in the latter chapters.

A final complaint I had with this book was the recommended reading list at the end of each chapter. This in itself was a good idea, but I felt that many of the readings could have reflected more recent writings on Melanesia in addition to the older classic ethnographies and monographs. Introductory level students are probably not going to want to tackle an entire book and especially one that was written in the 1970s if they want to read more about Melanesia today. Consequently, there should have been an inclusion of journal articles written in the 1990s. As it is now, the bulk of the recommended readings are books published primarily from the 1960s to 1980s. Additionally, there are numerous government (Melanesian) sources listed that may be difficult to obtain without the use of an interlibrary loan system.

I need to stress that in spite of all the criticisms I have just made, I would still recommend this book as an introduction to New Guinea, Melanesia, or Oceania. In the beginning of the book, Sillitoe juxtaposes a typical chronological account of the arrival of Europeans in Melanesia with an account that he collected from the Wola people he has worked among in Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. These two chapters do an excellent job of problematizing the way that histories get written and whose version of history becomes official. The fourth chapter begins with a discussion of technological change looking at the impact of steel tools among the Siane, who formerly had an economy based on stone tool technology. This chapter then moves into some of the problematic material mentioned above on modernization theory. The fifth chapter tackles the issue of land rights and community for the Tolai people of New Britain. Modern planners' and development agencies' attempts to nucleate communally held lands is a key focus of this chapter. Surprisingly, the protests of the mid-1990s led by students at the University of Papua New Guinea over land registration were not covered in this chapter.

The sixth chapter looks at big men and entrepreneurship. The area of coverage is the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. Sillitoe uses Finney's (1973) analysis of highlanders, especially "big men", as predisposed for success in capitalist markets. This is the only chapter that raises gender issues, a topical area lacking throughout the rest of the book’s coverage of contemporary issues. The seventh chapter examines the development of social stratification and inequality in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately, much of this chapter felt like an echo of the previous chapter as many of the examples referred to highlands big men. The next two chapters deal with the exploitation of natural resources, specifically mining and forestry. The mining chapter focuses on the Bougainville people, while the forestry chapter looks at the West Sepik area. All of the current issues relating to resource development are dealt with in these two chapters: issues of ownership, insurrections by disappointed locals, compensation, local knowledge of resources, environmental destruction, and the interplay of multinational corporations, the state, and local peoples. With the on-going development of the extractive resources industry, there is much in these chapters to compare and contrast with other areas of Melanesia.

Chapter 10 is on migration and urbanization in Papua New Guinea. The paradoxes of people living in tribal societies in their home villages, and in urban settings with their incipient class-like nature, is wonderfully detailed. The chapter also explores the processes of labor migration and the development of the wantok system in an ethnically pluralized society. The next chapter looks at the general development of cargo cults in Melanesia and uses as its case study, the John Frum movement in Vanuatu. Sillitoe does an excellent job in presenting the history of research on cargo cults and ties them to the millennial politics that the John Frum movement engendered in Vanuatu. Chapter 12 examines missionization and the missions' role in promoting social change in Melanesia. Many of the examples from this chapter are about the Methodist missionary George Brown and document his interactions with people in the Duke of York Islands and the rest of the Bismarck Archipelago. At the same time, Sillitoe ably details the role that other Pacific Islanders played in spreading Christian religion and the indigenous spread of Christianity, too. The remainder of the chapter looks at the role of the missions in establishing health and education services in the areas around which they operated, and the development of a Melanesian spirituality. The following chapter describes the problems of nation-state development in the region, although most of the examples are specific to Papua New Guinea. Corruption, elections, and law and order issues highlight this chapter. The final chapter in the book explores the relationship between custom and identity. The Kwaio of the Solomon Islands are the focus of the chapter.

Throughout all of these chapters, Sillitoe offers an insightful analysis of many of the tensions facing the people of Melanesia. Rapid technological and economic developments and incredible social transformations pose numerous challenges for Melanesians and Sillitoe relates the often creative means that the people use to meet these challenges. The book is a wonderful resource for instructors wishing to give beginning students of Melanesia insights into the complex issues that permeate this region.

References Cited:

Finney, Benjamin.

1973. Big Men and Business. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Rostow, Walter W.

1960. The Process of Economic Growth. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.