Stealing people's names : social structure, cosmology and politics in a Sepik River village




Harrison, Simon Joseph

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The political life of Avatip, a community on the Sepik River in northwestern Papua New Guinea, revolves almost exclusively around disputes between descent groups over the ownership of personal names. The purpose of this thesis is to explain the value which personal names have in this society, and which makes them a focus of competition; to describe the manner in which these conflicts are conducted and resolved; and to examine their consequences for the political system of the community. Avatip is a large, but uncentralised and fractious community, and the most important mechanism which socially integrates it is that of exchange. The focus of the identity and unity of each social segment is its apical ancestor and a type of spirit-being called a ndja'am. The ndja'am of a group symbolises its status as a unit in a system of 'total' reciprocities, involving women, wealth, magical and ritual services, and esoteric knowledge. Of the group's exchange capacities, the most important from the villagers' point of view are its hereditary cosmological powers. The possession of these is a source of continual dispute between groups. These conflicts are both motivated by the idea of cosmological reciprocity and serve to reaffirm this idea. In these disputes, in short, groups contend for prestige and status within a consensus as to the ultimate basis of their solidarity. Each group possesses a distinctive corpus of personal names. These names, which derive from mythology, are held to be magically efficacious and are the basis of the group's magical and ritual prerogatives. It is these prerogatives which are at stake in disputes over personal names. A dispute of this kind is settled in a ceremonial debate, in which the two sides hold a formal context in knowledge of esoteric names and myths. These debates are the central political arena of the society; almost all competition between groups for status is waged in debating the ownership of names, and it is here too that ambitious men rise to prominence. To an outsider, the most important prerogatives held by Avatip groups are almost entirely immaterial. Much of this thesis is concerned with providing the background of social values and cosmological ideas from which these intangible entitlements derive their value. The general theoretical concern of the thesis is a problem which some authors have argued is central to social anthropology: the relation between the symbolic order and the order of political action and power. The particular ethnographic form in which I examine this problem is as follows: Avatip possesses an elaborate totemic cosmology ideally suited to the types of analysis characteristic of structuralism while, on the other hand, this scheme is continually manipulated as groups manoeuvre for status and political advantage within it’s framework.






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