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It has also been blamed for contributing to popular notions about Melanesians as culturally and socially inferior to Polynesians. Epeli Hau'ofa, who is both an anthro- pologist and a Pacific Islander, has warned us in par- ticular about how damaging this stereotype can be when people see themselves thus categorized, dis- torted, and misrepresented.
It can be difficult to trace the origins of a stereotype and the caricature of the Melanesian big- man as a thoughtless competitor is no exception. As Hau'ofa comments, however, the anthropological literature on the Pacific — going back for hundreds of years — has often romanticized Polynesians and deni- grated Melanesians.
And lest we think the claim he makes that Melanesian leaders have been ridiculed as quintessential Western capitalists is a gross exaggera- tion, here is what one anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, wrote in in an article titled "Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia," a scholarly paper cited and reprinted numerous times since then: The Melanesian big-man seems so thoroughly bourgeois, so reminiscent of the free enterprising rug- ged individual of our own heritage.
He combines with an ostensible interest in the general welfare a more profound measure of self-interested cunning and economic calculation. His gaze His every public ac- tion is designed to make a competitive and invidious comparison with others, to show a standing above the masses that is [the] product of his own personal manufacture. If what these words tell us is true, then living together in Melanesia, at any rate in the political are- na, must be truly competitive and often vicious.
These are strong words. But are they just? This last question is worth asking here for two reasons. Looking more closely at how Sahlins has de- scribed big-man politics in Melanesia will help us see more clearly some of the ways people in the Pacific have come to handle the problems of living together And, as Hau'ofa has remarked, the issue of Melane- sian big'men vs. Polynesian chiefs has biased not only ho'w foreigners view Pacific Islanders but also how islanders see themselves. If these stereotypes are wrong or just too inaccurate to be useful, then we must look for other ways to describe and model island patterns of diversity in social and political life.
There is no denying that the picture of leader- ship in Melanesia sketched by Marshall Sahlins in "Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man,Chief ' and in other scholarly papers is a surprisingly simple portrait of human affairs. A big'man, Sahlins tells us, is someone who has had ambition enough to build a personal fac- tion or in-group of loyal followers — initially drawn mostly from his own household and close kinsmen — whose productive energies and resources he can dominate and mobilize to finance public feasts. And elevate, too, the standing of one's followers through their close association with an outstanding individual.
When reduced to essentials, such a portrait of politics in Melanesia rests on at least four main assumptions about how people have come to live together in the southwestern Pacific: 1. Some people in the geographic region of the Paci- fie labeled Melanesia are unusually ambitious, driven to make themselves stand out from the crowd, to raise themselves above the common herd.
Any ambitious person who is able to gather a per- sonal following can launch himself on the road to becoming a big-man. People cooperate with an aspiring big-man by con- tributing their help and resources largely because they are attracted to ambitious personalities by the promise of reflected glory and they are attracted also by the cunning and manipulative skills allegedly pos- sessed by such ambitious people.
Lastly, Melanesia is evidently the kind of place where fame and at least a meager degree of political power can be generated by giving people bigger feasts than anyone else can give one in return; provided, Sahlins adds, the aspiring big-man keeps his gaze fixed unswervingly at the big chance: "towards amassing goods, most often pigs, shell monies and vegetable foods, and distributing them in ways which build a name for cavalier generosity, if not for compassion.
And as a consequence, most Melanesian societies have been held back at "rudimentary levels" of evolutionary achievement "in the progress of primitive culture.
The defects that Sahlins appears to have in mind are said to arise mostly because of the quality or character of the ties believed to link a big-man and his followers together into an organized political force. To be specific, personal loyalities between a big-man and his adherents — who help finance his career as a social climber — have to be carefully con- structed and periodically reinforced. And why is that? Because rank and authority in Melanesia — as we have already noted — are supposedly not inherited by right of birth the way they are in Polynesia.
And so, "merely to create a faction takes time and effort, and to hold it, still more effort. The potential rupture of personal links in the factional chain is at the heart of two broad evolutionary shortcomings of western Melanesian political orders.
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It sets a limit on the intensification of political authority, on the intensification of household production by socio- political means, and on the diversion of domestic out- put to the support of wider organization. She finds, for instance, that the portraits drawn commonly rely on two stereotypes: "one Polynesian and based on hereditary rank ascribed status in a context of social hierarchy; the other Melanesian and based on achieved status in a context of egalitarianism and competition.
Objections such as these raised by Bronwen Douglas can be leveled against any attempt at model building. The appropriate response to such criticism is not to condemn the efforts they are directed against; instead, the really useful thing to do is see if other kinds of models can be built as alternatives. It is especially useful to see how alternatives to Sahlins's characterization of the Melanesian big' man might be put together, for the alternative we will focus on here shows how the strategies that people use to get along with each other can look quite different, depending upon which side of things an observer happens to be looking from.
With regard to big-man politics in Melanesia, to be specific, the costs and benefits of public feasting and aspiring to high social rank may seem quite dif- ferent, depending upon whether you are a big-man or a big-man's follower. Noblesse Oblige Bronwen Douglas has observed that Sahlins's picture of big-man politics in Melanesia relies heavily — too heavily, she suggests — on Douglas Oliver's descrip- tion of kinship and leadership among the Siwai or Siuai of southern Bougainville.
How well does the characterization built by Sahlins fit the Siwai?
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Is it possible to model Siwai politics in a way that places less weight on conflict, competition, and human ambition as the organizing forces behind social and political cooperation in Melanesia? Reading the remarkably detailed account of Siwai life and politics given in Douglas Oliver's classic study A Solomon Island Society can leave one with the feeling that some individuals in 22 southern Bougainville strive to become big-men called mumi in Siwai because of overwhelming per- sonal ambition. But Oliver does not say ambition alone is enough.
Reaching the top also apparently takes skill, industriousness, and something the Siwai speak of as nommai mirahu, which Oliver translates as "goodness. That leaders in Siwai must be skillfijl and hard-working, judging from what Sahlins has said, makes sense. But where does "goodness" fit in?
That trait of personality hardly sounds in keeping with the self-interested cunning and economic cal- culation that are allegedly typical features of a big- man's character. According to Oliver, the Siwai believe high- ranking leaders possess the personal quality of good- ness to a very marked degree, just as such outstanding individuals are also thought to have the other attri- butes mentioned in unusually fijll measure. A Siwai leader's goodness is held to manifest itself in several ways.
As a "generous man," a mumi gives frequently and does not weigh too exactly what he gets back in return. He is "cooperative" in the sense that he really likes to work with others. He is "genial. Further, a mumi is "decent" and "trustworthy," especially in how he handles property transactions. A good mumi does not take what is not rightfully his own. He gives in full measure. Douglas Oliver says that all of these dimensions of "goodness" are interrelated. One possible response to this talk of "goodness" might be to say that the Siwai were only telling Oli- ver how they wished their leaders would be, rather than how they truly were.
It seems certain, however, that leaders in Siwai often lived up to the expecta- tions of those around them. Even Sahlins, who has written that a big'inan's interest in public welfare is merely "ostensible," has also made the observation that a big-man's dealings help prO' mote society's interests: "In tribes normally seg- mented into small independent groups, he at least temporarily widens the sphere of economics, politics, and ceremony.
Maybe people who elect to become a would-be leader's loyal supporters are not simply attracted to him by his outstanding personality and by the prom- ise that they will eventually bask in his reflected glory. Or, alternatively, because they are obligated to him by his economic favors as Sahlins has also infer- red.
Or, alternatively again, because he happens to be one of their kinsmen and hence tradition tells them they must come to his aid. Maybe, in fact, what Oli- ver calls the feelings of certainty and security provid- ed by a big-man are not merely comforting but real and substantial. Reading through what Oliver has written about the Siwai reveals unmistakably that mumi are most decidedly leaders in more than name only. For instance, mumi formerly were the people who orga- nized war parties and conducted raids. Now that times are peaceful, they are still the ones to mobilize friends, relatives, and neighbors for public projects.
Similarly, leaders in Siwai serve as arbitrators, judges, sometimes prosecutors, and in general as the people on whom other people can lean during crises, either domestic or civil. Oliver says that commendation by a mumi is for many Siwai males the sweetest of all re- wards; ridicule by a great leader may ultimately result in an offender's suicide in the face of such public humiliation. If ambition, goodness, and public service are therefore all involved in big-man politics in Siwai and, by inference, elsewhere in Melanesia, too , then what kind of give-and-take goes on among ambi- tion, goodness, and public service?
This seems a ques- tion worth asking, for certainly public service in Siwai, as elsewhere in the world, must at times de- mand putting the common good above personal gain. Perhaps more to the point, what in fact goes into the making of a big-man in Siwai? For instance, Oliver tells us that not all Siwai neighborhoods happen to be lucky enough to have mumi residing in them. Does that not seem peculiar if mumi actually are as helpful, perhaps vital, to the smooth working of Siwai society as it would appear? Do some places lack leaders because people with the requisite amounts of ambi- tion, skill, goodness, and industriousness merely hap- pen to be in scarce supply there?
And consequently the presence or absence of a leader of renown in one neighborhood or another is just a matter of luck: some places happen to be blessed with at least one resident able to meet the stiff requirements of high rank but other places, sadly, are not so fortunate?
Answers to these several questions about what goes into the making of a big-man in Siwai may lie in Oliver's remark, mentioned earlier, that Siwai men imagine themselves to be participants in a way of liv- ing together that draws all of Siwai and sometimes more distant neighborhoods into a social system comprising several "ranks" or "layers. If so, what else might be involved? In the Right Place at the Right Time The anthropologist Jay Callen has noted that schol- ars often answer the question "What goes into the making of a big-man?