Concepts of “the family” and changing familial norms among the Wampar, Papua New Guinea

von Prof. Dr. Bettina Beer, Ethnologisches Seminar

How do kinship relations and concepts of “the family” change in the context of rapid sociocultural transformations? What processes lead to new familial norms when general socioeconomic conditions are altered relatively quickly? We try to answer these questions in the context of a larger project on “International capital and local inequality: A longitudinal ethnography of the Wampar (Papua New Guinea) under the impact of two large projects (a copper-gold mine and a timber biomass energy plant) ”. The idea of a “resource curse,” whereby resource abundance generates social inequality and discourses about injustice, has caused much discussion in academic and political circles. While the precise mechanisms underlying this resource curse are controversial, there is no doubt that large-scale capitalist projects located in widely separate parts of the world have been associated with socially significant inequality at local, regional, national and international levels. This association gives rise to vexing moral issues and to political questions that challenge policy-makers, for it exists alongside the economic necessity to increase mineral production and resource exploitation, as world demand increases. This association is also apparent to holders of the view, strongly held in some circles, that transnational corporations, far from being a problem, could be a key part of the solution to poverty.

This general state of affairs poses challenging analytical questions to contemporary anthropology and its foundational commitment to ethnographic detail. The proliferating linkages entailed by globalization have produced conjunctures that make it ever more apparent that while capital and consumerist values flow globally, resources, labour power and the political and administrative institutions that regulate them remain local. Building on decades of ethnographic research among the Wampar, our current project aims to identify the micro-level interactions that define the networks constituting local, district and regional sociality. By tracing the processes of differentiation as they relate to these interactions, we aim to understand the development of inequalities that tend to become inter-generationally reproduced, out of a field of sociality in which they were once unknown. In addition, the project aims to contribute to recent efforts to establish an anthropology of corporate forms by showing how asymmetric linkages—across what were formerly largely separate social fields—are involved in the encompassment and reconfiguration of local cultures by wider national and international institutions. That such encompassment occurs is undeniable and consequential for future trajectories, including those characterising familial forms; how it achieves its effects in terms that are relevant to the scale of a human life, in a setting like Markham Valley, is less clear. The task of clarifying such processes is at the heart of our research.