Things of Roviana : material culture, personhood and agency in nineteenth century Solomon Islands
Thomas, Tim (Timothy David)
The following research examines how material culture was used to negotiate social relationships through exchange, in nineteenth century Roviana lagoon, Solomon Islands. Recent debates in Melanesian anthropology have focused on the commensurability of Western and non-Western understandings of exchange, and the applicability of various theoretical models (such as gift or commodity systems) to the context of colonial and post-colonial encounters. At issue has been the degree to which differences in cultural theories about persons, things and relationships can be said to have coloured interactions between Melanesians and Europeans. The present work articulates with these debates by providing a case study that delineates how Roviana people conceptualised material culture and its exchange, and how this gradually became enmeshed with European activity and modes of understanding. The methodology adopted provides access to the past through archaeology, history, and ethnography, allowing a richer account of nineteenth century Roviana sociality than has been previously possible. Roviana was once the centre of a network of regional interaction involving ritual violence and trade, in a landscape tl;iat drew the interest of Europe's industrial powers. This dissertation begins by detailing the long-term development of this centre, describing the cultural landscape and categories of social persons recognised during the nineteenth century. The material culture of the period is then analysed utilising a rich archaeological assemblage deriving from abandoned village architecture, and museum collections. The 'style' of Roviana material culture is delineated and an argument is developed, postulating that it was conceived in terms of agency - things were perceived as being intimately intertwined with the ability of persons to have an effect on the world and to achieve specific ends. The Roviana style was less about signifying identity or conveying communicative meaning, than a means of addressing particular ontological concerns about personal coherence and efficacy. This argument is then brought to bear on an analysis of the use of material culture in specific forms of exchange. It is proposed that the practice of 'keeping' exchange media served to replicate or reproduce social relations, whilst 'giving' exchange media tended to expand social relations. In opposition, the use of certain artefacts in enacting ritual violence served to sever relationships. During the initial stages of European activity in the region, these categories of exchange dictated the form of encounters. The use of exchange to replicate, expand or sever relations is argued to have been conducted according to a theory of action in which personhood was conceived of as relational, or 'fractal' - replication, expansion and severance enabled people to act effectively in a relational world. Finally, an analytical parallel is drawn between the ritual breakage of material culture by Roviana people and the practice of material culture collecting by European visitors, as a means of contrasting differences and similarities in the use of material things for personal ends. This leads to the conclusion that the agency of people and things is always intertwined, in a way that is fundamental to human experience. No matter what the evident differences in conceptualisation between cultural groups, these are structurally comparable as permutations of the common ontological basis of human-thing interaction.
Advisor: Sheppard, Peter; Walter, Richard
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Anthropology
Publisher: University of Otago
Research Type: Thesis