Describing Papua New Guinea, 1945-1975
Interviews on the History of Ethnographic Description (Transcripts)
With few exceptions, the thirty-eight people interviewed were anthropologists, linguists, or geographers, working in an academic environment. Most did their initial (usually post-graduate) research in PNG in the years between 1945 and 1975 – the last decades of Australian colonial rule over the area. In many cases, revisits were made to the areas studied or to other locations in PNG. The interviewees came from Europe, Australia, and Northern America. Twenty-nine of these interviews are reproduced here verbatim.*
Focus of the interviews
While each individual interview deals with the fieldwork of the person or persons interviewed, the overall focus was the circumstances of social scientific research – particularly anthropological research – in PNG. Similarly, from an historical perspective the final decades of colonialism and the subsequent decolonization process of the area were recurring issues in nearly all of the interviews. A third focus of the interviews was the indigenous reaction both to the fact of being researched and to the changing times in which the research subjects lived.
Information from the interviews
Various aspects of the social setting surface throughout the various interviews. The fact that the Australians were working to develop PNG and later on “preparing” it for independence set the stage for part of the research effort. Infrastructure, politics, education, the indigenous reaction to development, all these were prime subjects for research.
Yet, “exploring the unknown” was very real for New Guinea with its extreme and largely uncharted variety of languages and cultures. This happened not just by personal choice, but also in the context of various research programs and projects. Many of the researchers were also at some stage or other involved in looking at the 1964 and 1968 elections in PNG. The choice of research locations in a sense follows the quest for the unknown. All but a few of the people interviewed picked a research location not previously visited or studied. Some even specifically sought to go to the very edges of administrative and missionary influence. In that respect PNG in the 1950s through 1970s still provided that curious challenge: to be the first in the field, meeting people “only minimally affected” by Western culture.
If there ever was such a thing as an ethnographic laboratory where cultures could be studied under “controlled conditions” PNG came very close to it. Researchers looked to minimize outside influences by examining people at the edges of the controlled areas or newly opened-up areas. Whether this worked or not, or even whether it was a sensible approach, will always remain a matter of judgment.
* Interviewer/editor: Sjoerd R. Jaarsma. The interviews were conducted as part of a research project financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, Foundation for Economic, Sociocultural, and Geographical Sciences (ref. 510-76-504). The texts were edited for readability and – where necessary – for the correctness of their content. In all cases, however, corrections were kept to a minimum.