Transformations of subject-object-relations in Melanesia

Anthropologists have interpreted the relationship between persons and things in premodern Melanesia in different ways. In one theoretical perspective, it is assumed that objects (e.g., gifts, commodities or land) are used by individual or collective subjects as resources in the pursuit of their interests (e.g., prestige, power, conflict management, etc.). In this model, the subject is regarded as a self-interested actor who actively uses passive objects/resources in order to engage in social interactions. Here an asymmetry and referentiality between subject/person and object/thing is taken for granted. In another theoretical perspective this asymmetry is explicitly given up and symmetrical relations are assumed. It is shown that persons are constituted relationally through social interactions. And, just as human persons are defined performatively through social interactions, “things” can also be constituted as persons through their embeddedness in relational fields that may consist, for example, in exchange processes or ritual activities.

In the first part of the research project, I want to determine whether, and in which way, it is possible to draw connections between both theoretical models in order to understand the premodern socio-cosmology of the Kobon in the Northern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. For comparative purposes, other regions of Melanesia will be taken into account in order to show how, through social practices, associations between human and non-human beings are formed. In this phase of the project, special attention will be devoted to different conceptualisations of knowledge (and related concepts such as representation, metaphorical rhetoric, image, language ideology, or non-knowledge) that can be identified in both theoretical perspectives. In the first perspective knowledge, is defined for the actors on the base of a realistic epistemology, while in the second perspective, embodied knowledge is seen through the lense of a performative ontology.

The aim of the second part of the research project is to show how precolonial socio-cosmological networks have been transformed under the impact of and through engagement with institutions of modernity and their cultural concomitants. In precolonial times, relations between persons and things were expressed through various forms and degrees of reification of subject-object-hybridities. In colonial times, missionaries and members of the colonial administration introduced a concept of truth that does not regard knowledge as revealed through participation in social interactions (such as rituals or exchange transactions), but emphasized instead an objective reality that is independent of the subject and about which the subject can communicate in a truthful and sincere manner. After the independence of Papua New Guinea, this division between human subjects and the objective world has been constituted to a high degree through the influences of the capitalist economy, especially through the expression of claims to property that are induced through a direct or indirect involvement with national and transnational actors and their strong Western market-oriented legal conceptions. In this way in Melanesia conceptualisations of ownership as person-thing-interweavings and property as private/corporate wealth are increasingly contrasted and transformed.


Görlich, Joachim 1998. The construction of social meaning and material value: A note on trade in Melanesia. Oceania 68: 294-302.

Latour, Bruno 1991. Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. Essai d’anthropologie symétrique. Paris: Éditions La Découverte.

Robbins, Joel 2001. God is nothing but talk: modernity, language, and prayer in a Papua New Guinea society. American Anthropologist 103: 901-912.

Strathern, Marilyn 2000. Multiple perspectives on intellectual property. IN Kathy Wimp and Mark Busse (eds.) Protection of intellectual, biological and cultural property in Papua New Guinea. Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, Port Moresby: Conservation Melanesia Inc.: 47-61.

Go to Editor View