From Reciprocity to Relationality: Anthropological Possibilities

In September 2018 the wonderful journal Cultural Anthropology published a special edition of their Hot Spots series that I edited. You can find the link to webpage for full issue here.  The issue came about when Dominic Boyer, one of the editors of the journal (the other is Cymene Howe) contacted in in July of 2018 and asked if I would be interested in editing something that focused on the future of anthropology. The issue was incredibly fun to edit. In part, because it was responding to calls from young, dynamic, smart scholars for other people (like me) to speak up about some of the pressing issues in the field. And it part because I got to work with the people who contributed articles. I’ve linked to each article and each scholar below. I’m proud of this issue of Hot Spots and hope you enjoy it!


Introduction: From Reciprocity to Relationality

Regenerating Anthropologies with Hau

Underwater Anthropology

Hijacking the Elevator

Whose Worlds? Whose Anthropologies?

The Future of Anthropology Starts from Within

Fugitive Work: On the Criminal Possibilities of Anthropology

Theory Isn’t What It Used to Be

Anthropology after #MeToo

Still Naughty after All These Years?

Melanesian Anthropology Em Nem Nating

Beyond the Hot Take

A is for Anthropology, Affordances, Ambivalence, Aotearoa

Anthropology Needs You Much More than You Need Anthropology


Afterword: Why Anthropology?

Decolonizing Conservation

Aini West prof shot

(John Aini and Paige West, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, Photo by JC Salyer)


In June 2018 John Aini and Paige West presented joint keynote lectures at The International Marine Conservation Congress in Kuching, Malaysia and The POLLEN (Political Ecology Network) Biennial Conference in Oslo, Norway. John presented their lecture in Kuching and Paige presented their lecture in Oslo. They wrote a single paper together in May 2018 and then worked independently (sitting across a table from each other on both Nago and Nusa Islands, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea) to translate the single paper into two lectures for two very different audiences. Their goal was to talk about their on-going collaboration and the work they have been doing for the past decade to “decolonize conservation.”

Aini and West understand that many indigenous scholars have written about decolonization and decolonizing methodology – their practice draws on this work. They work together to read, understand, and discuss both older and newer work on decolonization and, with the elders and communities that they work with, develop avenues for this scholarship to inform their on-going collaboration. They take seriously Tuck and Yang’s 2012 argument that “Decolonization is not a metaphor.”  Because of this, their work is meant to decolonize practice actively and daily.

They also take seriously the issue of West’s subject position, her position as a settler on Lenape land (her office and apartment are located on stolen land), and the troubling colonial history of both of their scholarly fields (Conservation Science for Aini and Anthropology for West). They try, together, to always think about how this implicates them both in ongoing dispossession. They have developed a process and methodology that is specific to New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, a place with a very specific history of colonization and a very specific history of anthropological dispossession, and they work with local elders who guide them in terms of when and where and how West, as a white woman anthropologist, can and can’t be a part of things. They also work with elders to make sure that Aini, a senior chief from Lovangai and a man, is always working in a culturally appropriate way when he is working with people from different New Ireland socio-cultural groups. Their process and practice is on-going and always in dialogue with the elders and communities with whom they work.

None of the work that Aini and West do together would be possible without the funding they have received from The Christensen Fund, Barnard College and Columbia University, and the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Their work has also been supported by Nusa Island Retreat through logistical help and a whole myriad of other help. Additionally, other scholars who have connections to New Ireland, people like   Matthew Leavesley, J.C. Salyer, Cathy Hair, Rachel Sapery James, Jeff Kinch, and Hugh Walton have been unfailingly supportive of their work. Finally, their work, indeed their lives as scholars and community empowerment workers, would not be possible without the support from the elders who advise them, the young people who challenge them, and their extended family.  There are too many people in that network to name everyone individually, but their sister, Secunda Aini, and their mother, Pat West deserve special mention.

The two lectures are below, exactly as they were presented as spoken word lectures.

Please do not reproduce these lectures without the written permission of BOTH John Aini and Paige West. But please feel free to cite and reference them.

Please cite them as follows:

Aini, John and Paige West 2018. Communities Matter: Decolonizing Conservation Management. Plenary Lecture, International Marine Conservation Congress, 24 – 29 June, Kuching, Malaysia.

West, Paige and John Aini 2018. Critical Approaches to Dispossession in the Melanesian Pacific: Conservation, Voice, and Collaboration. Keynote Lecture, POLLEN 2018 Political Ecology Network Biennial Conference, 19 – 22 June, Oslo, Norway.

Lovangai weaving

(Woven wall created by artists from Lovangai, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, photo by Paige West)

Communities Matter: Decolonizing conservation management. 

John Aini (Ailan Awareness) and Paige West (Barnard College and Columbia University)

Greetings from the people of Papua New Guinea, from the land of the unexpected, from a land with a multitude of cultures and traditions, we speak over 800 languages, we are home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity contained in less than 1% of the world’s land area.

Today, I offer this welcome to you as a Maimai – a chief in the Malangan culture in northern New Ireland, a Ainpidik, in the Tumbuan Society from southern New Ireland, a Merengen from my own Tungak culture from Lovongai, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea, my home.

I became a Chief in these cultures because I wanted to be part of the traditional cultural hierarchy – in the past, Chiefs had the power to close marine environments for the purpose of management and conservation, upheld and were guardians of sacred places, masalai spaces which have contributed to resource management and conservation. Without that traditional power, and the traditional knowledge that comes along with it, conservation in PNG won’t work. This status gives me a different kind of standing, a standing that enhances my work as a marine environment advocate and the founder and Team Leader of the NGO, Ailan Awarenes.

While I have been working in marine conservation since 1993, today the talk I present is based on work that I have carried out and since 2007 in particular, in partnership and collaboration with Paige West, an anthropologist who is a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University, in New York City

Since 2007 we have worked together to bridge the gap between the conservation and revitalization of culture and the conservation and revitalization of marine systems. I am trained in Tropical Fisheries and Paige is one of the pioneers of the anthropology of conservation. We met, by accident, in 2007 and realized after decades of working independently, that we had a shared vision for the future of conservation in PNG.

We had both, independently, come to the conclusion that large, internationally driven, conservation projects in Melanesia, tend to fail to meet the promised outcomes, both in terms of conservation and in terms of local expectations. We had both witnessed donor driven projects fail and witnessed the backlash faced by big NGOs when the promises that were made to communities did not pan out.

I don’t have time today to give all the examples from PNG but you should look to the Lak conservation project in Southern New Ireland and the Crater Mountain project in the Eastern Highlands. We had both also been faced, when we were critical of our friends and colleagues working for big NGOs, with the question “well, can YOU do it better?” While we had always beforehand dismissed this question, in our initial conversations we agreed, well, yes, yes we can.

During our initial discussions about how to begin to work together, with our very different expertise, we centered in on our desire to help people in New Ireland understand the role that the increasing number of oil palm plantations across the East Coast of New Ireland were having on their marine areas, their terrestrial areas, and their socio-cultural lives. We wrote a proposal and were lucky to find The Christensen Fund, who took a risk on us and because of them, we have spent the past ten years developing our methodology – A methodology that we consider “decolonial.”

The theme of this conference is “Science matters” and we agree, science does matter. Particularly now. Particularly given the threats to our lives, livelihoods, and the waters, reefs and lands that we all depend on and care about. It matters in how we understand biological diversity and the current local and global threats to it. Yet the translation of scientific knowledge into conservation practice often tends to be a fraught process.

More often than not, the questions asked by scientists derive from their interests and the agendas generated at the international levels of funding, governance, and trends in scholarly disciplines. While this produces important knowledge and drives new forms of knowledge making processes, it often alienates communities living in places with high levels of biological diversity. The very places where scientists work and where conservation scientists wish to have meaningful conservation impacts.

Communities often feel that scientific research does not address their needs, answer their questions, or focus on their agendas. This is the case in numerous knowledge-making fields, indeed in all of the traditional sciences and social sciences, Indigenous scholars have termed these knowledge making processes “colonial” and have argued that until method, theory, and practice are transformed, that communities still suffer a form of colonialism.

Our methodology works to decolonize conservation science. We believe that conservation in New Ireland can only be achieved if the people of New Ireland have sovereignty over both their marine and terrestrial areas AND over the interventions and projects that seek to contribute to conservation. Here we draw on the work of indigenous scholars from across the globe in general and Pacific Islander scholars in particular. Before I talk about our current projects, I want to tell you a bit about my home.


(Kavieng, New Ireland, Photo by Paige West)

New Ireland, my home

New Ireland is the northernmost province in Papua New Guinea – a parliamentary democracy that gained independence from Australia in 1975. The province has about 195,000 people and the majority of them depend on marine resources for their livelihoods. This is especially true in the rural areas of the province. In addition to the island of New Ireland, the province consists of numerous larger islands and island groups and countless smaller islands that are inhabited and some uninhabited.

Like all of Papua New Guinea, all of this land is held in customary tenure and the indigenous people are the ones who legally hold the rights to the land. Additionally, because New Ireland is a marine province, the indigenous people also hold the marine systems in traditional tenure.

New Ireland’s marine and terrestrial systems have faced numerous threats over the past hundred and thirty eight years. In the 1880s the German colonists arrived and began to create coconut plantations, took away prime land from our people for the price of an axe and 3 to 5 sticks of tobacco, conscript locals for forced labor and slavery, known as “black birding”, and force people to move from the high mountains in the center of New Ireland Island to the coastal areas.

Right after the Germans came, the Missions followed. While they have done some good things in my home, they have also worked to erase traditional cultural practices that once supported conservation. After the Germans left, the cash economy came into the province with force and local people were compelled to over exploit their natural resources to gain access to cash for school fees, church dues, and much needed commodities.

The rape of our forest through illegal logging began in the 1980s, large scale mining and palm oil plantations began in the 1990s, and illegal fishing by boats from across Asia has been going on for a million years. Today my people face all of these threats and a new kind of threat called a Special Agricultural Business Leases which allow nefarious members of a community to sign over the access to indigenous land for 99 year leases. Effectively making the land ownership by indigenous people null and void. Today we are also facing the first under water mining site on the planet. Solwara One, set to go into production next year, will be a global experiment that uses our sea and our reef to test this new form of extraction.

Through all of this dispossession, some of the people on New Ireland have worked tirelessly to maintain their traditional beliefs and practices. New Ireland is famous for Malagan cultural practices, which result in extraordinary carvings, and Shark Calling, a process documented in film and books.

Historically, conservation efforts in New Ireland that were driven by outside organizations and donors have focused on conserving biodiversity and ecological processes in the face of these threats. But the ecology is only part of the story. What we have found, as directed by the elders we work with, that there is an inextricable link between the biological diversity and its conservation and maintenance and the cultural practices that are slipping into memory.

What we do (and why it is different)

Though western forms of environmental conservation and appreciation are not taught in schools or homes in most of PNG, I can recall a profound respect and concern for my natural surroundings from early childhood onwards. While those around me often used weapons of mass destruction to fish and carelessly tossed garbage into the sea, I was hesitant to follow such practices and was compelled to learn as much as I could about the spectacular ecosystems around me. I enrolled at the National Fisheries College in Kavieng, where I studied tropical fisheries. Upon graduating in 1983, I began working for the PNG Fisheries Department.

While working for the Fisheries Department, I began running awareness campaigns in the coastal communities of New Ireland to promote conservation and management of marine resources and marine ecosystems. Meanwhile, both fisheries stock assessments and local reports of declining catches confirmed my fears that the resources which sustain the coastal peoples of NIP were in serious danger.

Whenever I could save enough money for a visit home to New Hanover, I traveled to villages around the island, educating rural communities about the threats to marine ecosystems and the importance of resource management.

Together with my brother, Miller Aini, our cousin Michael Ladi, and a group of youth from my hometown, I founded Ailan Awareness in 1993 to formalize these efforts and engineer an approach to marine conservation and management that was new at the time: Community Based Fisheries Management Plans.

My brother passed away soon after that and part of my commitment to my work is my love for him.

From 1993 to 2007 we worked to develop community based fisheries management plans along the lines that many of you have written about and studied. But I was left unsatisfied by the results.

While we were having some success with our efforts we were both finding it increasingly hard to access funds to sustain our projects. I was feeling that we were missing a crucial piece of the conservation puzzle.

We had founded Ailan Awareness so that we could focus on facilitating community understanding of external marine conservation efforts and external organization, mostly big environmental NGO, understandings of local uses and knowledge of marine systems.

What we wanted to develop was an organization that translated between epistemological systems – one that could say to BINGOS, “Okay, here is what is happening on the ground, or in the water, the things that people here in this specific community are noticing and this is how they are explaining things. This is what they care about. This is how they rely on marine resources. This is how they have seen them decline.” And then turn around and say to specific communities, “Okay, this is what this NGO focuses on, this is their project, these are the species or systems that they want to understand or conserve, and this is what they want from you and this is what they can give you.”

Our small NGO also wanted to focus on what they called at the time “community education.” I had been to school and worked for NGOs and along the way had become well versed in marine science and everywhere I looked I saw people using their marine systems in unsustainable ways. I wanted to teach people across New Hanover and New Ireland about things like the reproductive biology of food fish, sedentary resources and other marine resources, the breeding habitats created by healthy mangrove forests, and the importance of sea grass.

And finally, our NGO was to focus on small-scale conservation areas located in zones defined by communities and on species defined by communities as vital to their livelihoods.

Our first goal was to develop a process where AA staff would go to coastal communities and do conservation and management awareness. This was to be the first of the “products” that the NGO developed. To say that there was a frenzied buy-in from BINGOS and from the national government for this work immediately, is an understatement. Remember back to the late 90s and early 2000s, this was the heyday of CBFM and ICADs – everyone wanted a local team to go out to rural sites and “teach” people about conservation and fisheries management. Our team got swept up in this. And we did well in terms of helping NGOs, the Fisheries Department and others facilitate their projects. But our vision, the vision Miller, Michael and I had initially – that of an organization that also worked to educate outsiders – was not fulfilled.

Everyone wanted to engage Ailan Awareness to do CBFM education but nobody wanted to give us money to do anything else. We became, in essence, a service provider to the very kinds of projects that we had been critical of early on.

Additionally, we became a kind of cover for BINGOs, who could say to their funders, organizations that were increasingly nervous about the lack of local engagement and local partners, that they had an indigenous NGO as an equal partner in their work.

Yet, the partnerships were incredibly unequal. Ailan Awareness was only engaged to do waged contract work, we were never funded at a level that allowed for us to adequately maintain an office, a staff, a vehicle, or a boat. All things you need to be a functioning NGO. For these things, we relied on the National Fisheries Authority, which gave us a spare room to use as an office, a used vehicle for work around the island of New Ireland, and access to one of their boats for trips out to outer islands and New Hanover.

But this meant that Ailan Awareness was at the beck and call of the NFA – who could demand that they drop everything else and do work for them as needed. Sometimes this was fine because NFA funded the small scale conservation work that we wanted to do, sometimes this was bad because our staff could be called away at any moment to work for NFA for months, leaving AA and the small scale conservation areas to languish.

In all of this, I had become increasingly uneasy with the assumption of one-way learning that was embedded in most of Ailan Awareness’ work. The idea that coastal people were lacking in knowledge about marine environments and that knowledge could only be provided by outsiders.


(Traditional Lime Ceremony, Lovangai, Photo by Patrick Nason)

This is where my collaboration with Paige West began. We met in 2007 in a parking lot. Paige was visiting New Ireland after a fieldwork season in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, where she had done research for ten years. Paige is an environmental anthropologist whose work focuses on knowledge, power, capitalism, and nature and in early 2006 she had published her first book, which was about conservation, and was almost finished writing her second book, which was about coffee.

Her first book was about the political ecology of environmental conservation projects as they were conceptualized, funded, and staffed in North America, Europe, and Australia and as they were carried out in places like Papua New Guinea. The book was focused on the connections between indigenous ideas about land and ancestors and how conservation organizations understood, and did not understand these ideas. Theoretically her work focused on the seemingly insurmountable divide between how indigenous people understand natural resources and how people working in western conservation understand natural resources.

Paige and I had come to the same conclusions about conservation independently – that in PNG there was a missing link.


(Aini and West, Lovangai, Photograph by Patrick Nason)

That missing link was the connection between conservation and understanding cultural traditions.

We had both seen that most conservation projects failed to really see and understand how local beliefs and traditions had historically been related to conservation and how, if revitalized, could once again foster conservation. So in late 2007 we reached out to The Christensen Fund and they agreed to fund our initial collaborative project. From there, we have developed four new programs under Ailan Awareness as well as enhanced the CBFM road show and conservation, management areas that were part of the initial Ailan Awarness project. Let me turn to three of those now.

Road Shows:

Working with Fisheries and witnessing the decline in fisheries stocks that our people relied on for food and cash and witnessing how our own people used weapons of mass destruction to harvest marine resources without knowing the impacts on marine ecosystems and resources, we embarked on the road shows.

We thought government was not doing enough and did not care about what mattered most to our rural population, their future and resources sustainability for a growing population.

For example, our people thought it was their right to poison a whole reef ecosystem to get enough fish for their family’s dinner. They thought God created everything on earth and that he also created all the fishing methods, so even though they were using what we now know as destructive fishing methods that did not matter to them. They did not understand that this would not be okay in the long run. They did not understand that in the past, when these destructive methods were developed, that population was not a problem, but that today, it is. There is a lot more pressure on resources to feed a growing population so it must been seen different today. Most of the government focus on marine education was focused on industrial fishing, income of the nation and the likes, it was not focused on the needs of local fishers or growing concerns locally about population.

We wanted our people to realize that what we may not care about in this time and age may dramatically impact our future and our children. Being responsible, we must take actions, find solutions to ensure sustainability.

The road shows was basically an awareness and education program that involved us going out to communities and discussing with them a broad range of fisheries/ecosystem conservation and management issues, some of which they know about – Traditional Resource Management and together compromise on which actions to take to ensure there was “fish” for now and for our children

We used power point presentations, role-plays, songs and showed environmental documentaries projected under coconut palm trees to convey messages of love, respect and care of the marine environment. From the beginning we connected this to family planning and to conversations about population.

During the road shows we also talked to people about the kinds of changes that they were seeing in their marine environments and explained to them that if they wanted to work to mitigate those changes that we could help them. That we could work with them to develop management plans that relied on a combination of traditional conservation methods, like fish traps and taboo zones, revitalizing our sacred and masalai spaces as well as scientific conservation methods. With this, we used the road show to develop our bio cultural approach to conservation. An approach that blends Indigenous science and Western science to result in sustainable conservation outcomes.

Today, our method for the road show has changed. I do not have time to talk about it today, but it has evolved into a method that is truly collaborative WITH communities – a process that always begins from their interests and needs and moves forward from there.

Solwara Skul (Saltwater School)

The Ranguva Solwara Skul, was co-founded by Miller Aini, Paige West and myself, and it came about after a fight at sea when we ran short of fuel after an awareness campaign on Lovongai Island and were drifting out at sea. Miller, my younger Brother (now in Heaven), after several arguments and lots of swearing and nearly punching each other suggested we build a school to bring people together to educate them about BOTH scientific understandings and traditional understandings about the sea. Finally, we agreed, using the metaphor for what we were experiencing at the time – drifting out to sea – that it would be better to bring people together to educate them in multiple ways of known than to let them either drift out to sea or, to use a metaphor that works for people living on the coasts of the big islands, die in a car crash.

We decided that building a school would allow us to reach more people and to connect traditional knowledge keepers (chiefs and others) to the scientific knowledge we had access to as conservation scientists and anthropologists.

And so Paige, Hugh Walton (a fisheries advisor), Dr. Matthew Leavesly (an archaeologist), Cathy Hair (a fisheries biologist), Dr. JC Salyer (a lawyer and anthropologist), and I, with our personal salaries, built the Ranguva Solwara Skul. The goal of the school is to both teach contemporary marine science and to facilitate the transmission of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. The school runs, so far, on a model whereby people contact us and access our programs to help them better understand the connection between both biological diversity and cultural diversity and to better connect elders and young people in their community.


(Architects from Lovangai building the school, photo by Paige West)

Malagan Project

Malagan ceremonies are the lynchpin for an entire system of belief and knowledge in the Malagan cultures of New Ireland. These ceremonies bring together communities in the wake of death in order to undertake important activities that help to maintain internal community ties and ties between communities. The ceremonies also maintain ties between the living, their ancestors, the land, and the sea – so there is a fundamental conservation related aspect to them.

Through their motifs Malagan carvings, intricate and beautiful mask-like objects that are a central part of these ceremonies, contain family histories, community genealogies, and crucial knowledge about the relations between humans and others (plants, animals, ancestors, spirits). The carvings themselves are not objects of value for Malagan culture, rather it is the imagery, or the motifs that are carved onto the objects, that contain what is of value.

Only master carvers can produce these carvings – there are strict rules for when, where, and to whom a carver can pass on his craft and knowledge – and today there are only seven master carvers left in New Ireland. Additionally, each carving houses multiple levels of knowledge that are increasingly complex as one goes deeper into the reading, and only certain people who have the indigenous literacy skills to read and interpret the complex series of motifs on the carvings. The vast majority of people who can read these carvings are in their late seventies and early eighties.

Malagan carvings have been ‘collected’ by outsiders since the earliest days of the colonial encounter between the indigenous peoples of New Ireland and others. Indeed Malagan serve as some of the most important objects in museum collections in New York, Canada, Paris, Berlin, London, Oslo, Copenhagen, and Sydney, and many of these collections have objects collected between first contact in the early 1600s and the late 1800s when there was a surge in both colonization and collecting in this part of the world. These collections are very important because when left in the sites they were meant to be, after Malagan ceremonies, the carvings disintegrate, returning their stories to the land and the sea.

Nevertheless, the collection of cultural artifacts has always creates the danger of dis-embedding objects from the cultural context from which their meaning and importance is derived.  In the case of Malagan objects, their international renown has stemmed primarily from their esthetic spender at the expense of deeper cultural and social meanings and significance.

In 2012 we were approached by a number of the last living carvers to help them find a way to preserve their cultural practices, and our Malagan carving project has emerged from that collaboration. We work with the carvers in several ways. First, we facilitated their meetings and discussions with regard to passing on the carving motifs – motifs that are owned, powerful, and sacred. Second, we worked with them to build a series of carving schools where the carvers could work with novices to pass on the techniques. Third, we worked with the American Museum of Natural History to create digital archives of Malagan carvings housed at that museum from places where people have lost the cultural tradition. Thereby giving contemporary carvers access to motifs that can be used for teaching. Fourth, we created an e-book of carvings that is currently circulating around New Ireland, teaching young people about the history of Malagan AND the connection between these ceremonies and conservation. Fifth, we are developing a cultural repatriation protocol for Malagan culture- focusing on digital repatriation as there is no museum in New Ireland at this point.


In some of the social sciences, scholars have begun to consider what a “decolonized methodology” might look like. Our work, over the past decade, comes from a place of engagement and critique – having worked with and for conservation for a long time previously – and we attempt to decolonize conservation practice through our methodology of consulting with communities, focusing on multiple forms of knowledge, as well as through our consultation process, always asking communities what they need and what they see as the most important aspects of their livelihoods that they want to preserve, revitalize, and conserve.

We understand that science matters. BUT science alone cannot realize conservation and management, that there needs to be a mix of science and traditional resource management.

However traditional resource management is not effective these days due to western influence. When we say western influence we mean a range of things – everything from masalai spaces, traditional taboo areas, to traditional sacred places. These places are no longer off limits, there has been a decline in how people understand the power of these places. We work to bring awareness back to communities, awareness of the science and of the traditional aspects of their cultures that once helped to help them conserve their resources.

Part of our focus is working with traditional leaders to teach our young people the importance of our historic ways of doing things.

Part of our focus is working with scientists who can enhance already existing cultural knowledge through their scientific knowledge. Part of our focus is revitalizing traditional practice and belief.

We hope that through these projects and practices, we can contribute to the future. To the lives and hopes and dreams of the people in New Ireland province, who live marine biodiversity and marine systems in ways that are beautiful.

Looking forward

(New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea, Photo by Paige West)

Critical Approaches to Dispossession in the Melanesian Pacific: Conservation, Voice, and Collaboration

Paige West (Barnard College / Columbia University) and John Aini (Ailan Awareness)

Thank you all so much for inviting me to give this keynote address at the beginning of what I know is going to be a wonderful, challenging, and thought provoking conference. And thank you to the organizers of POLLEN and the faculty and staff at the University of Oslo who made my trip to Norway possible. I am always so honored to be asked to give a talk – and honestly, a little amazed by it sill. The idea that people value what I might have to say is such an extraordinary privilege. And to be asked to talk to people here, it what is a room full of people in Political Ecology, well that is amazing. I know of no other field that moves with such careful alacrity and grace between the structures and processes that define lives and the day-to-day poetics of how those lives are lived. So again, thank you.

While I am the person delivering this address, the paper is co authored with John Aini, my long-time research partner in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. John is, as we speak, on his way to Malaysia to deliver another co-written keynote address at the International Marine Conservation Congress. I bring you greetings from John, who in addition to being a scholar is also an Ainpidik in the Tumbuan Society from Southern New Ireland as well as a Meregen in the Tungak Society from Lovangai, or New Hanover Island. He is what would have been called in an older kind of anthropology, a chief, twice over. For the past decade John and I have worked together, so while this keynote may be in my voice and the one delivered in Malaysia may be in his, our epistemological practice – our research, thinking, acting, and writing – comes from collaboration.

Today, I’m going to tell you the story about the history of our shared work and describe a few of our on-going projects. Along the way I will raise some challenges for the field of Political Ecology and for all of us as politically engaged critical scholars. I will draw out the following threads and then, hopefully, tie them together at the end of the talk.

First, in most of the places in the world where we do research, national, local, and indigenous labor and knowledge production is often not valued in and of itself, it is only valued when it advances the institutional goals of external agents, agencies, and organizations. While Political Ecology is better than many fields of study when it comes to valuing non European derived epistemic practice (and in ‘epistemic practice’ here I include a broad definition of labor – thinking, writing, facilitating, and manual), I think we have work to do to co-produce a truly equitable field where a range of epistemic practices are valued and intertwined as our scholarly products. Let me say this clearly, and somewhat pointedly, I believe we need to do a better job of decolonizing our field in a way that stops dispossessing people in the places we work of sovereignty over knowledge production.

Second, I want us to think about the genealogies of knowledge that we produce and replicate in Political Ecology and while I love you all and I love this field, we are a field that valorizes and draws on the scholarship of white male scholars over that of other kinds of scholars and that draws on European philosophical traditions to the exclusion of other philosophical traditions. Additionally, across the field, men are cited as making theoretical contributions and pushing the field forward while women are characterized as producing “case studies” that show the effects that are theorized and analyzed by their male colleagues. These practices make our field less robust than it could and should be.

Third, most of our institutions of higher learning value, reward, and promote scholars who do work that stays in the academy and tend to degrade and not promote scholars who do what is seen as “applied” work. Our institutions also fixate on particular kinds of knowledge products – peer reviewed papers with high “impact factors” for example – products that are read by few and that are part of a capitalist publishing machine where out labor is transformed into money for corporations. Corporations who then refuse access to this knowledge for the people we work with. This disallows for the broad circulation of our work and its reception by people who might benefit from it and who might transform lives because if it.

Fourth, as a field that tracks, documents, and understands dispossession and the forms of accumulation that derive from it, we better than most understand the socio ecological ramifications of today’s increasing global disparity of power and wealth. I would go as far as to say that Political Ecology understands our current planetary socio ecological crisis better than any other field. I think that this means that we have a responsibility to act and write in ways that reach widely outside of our field and the academy and in ways that transform.

Let me turn to my and John Aini’s intertwined histories to draw out these themes.


(John Aini, June 2018, Nago Island, Papua New Guinea, Photo by Paige West)

The Past

John Aini started working in marine conservation as a young man. First as a fisheries student working with visiting scientists, next as a researcher working to document then on-going collapse of the beche de mer fishery in Papua New Guinea, and then as a an employee at a major international conservation organization focusing on developing community based resource management plans for coastal fisheries across Melanesia. In all of these positions, John watched outsiders come into coastal villages with already formed research questions, already formed data collection plans, already formed plans for conservation, and with very few of the skills that he thought necessary to understand the links between local livelihoods and the health of marine biodiversity. He also watched conservation project after conservation project fail because of a lack of communication between organizations and communities.

In 1993 he, his brother Miller, and his cousin Michael, all of whom had grown up on New Hanover Island, fishing and learning about the sea from their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, decided to start their own organization, a small NGO, that would focus on facilitating community understanding of external marine conservation efforts and external organization’s, mostly big environmental NGO, understandings of local uses and knowledges of marine systems. What they wanted to develop was an organization that translated between epistemological systems – those of communities and those of big NGOs and outside scientists.

They also wanted to focus on what they called at the time “community education.” John is a really stellar marine scientist and everywhere he looked he saw people using their marine systems in unsustainable ways. He wanted to teach people across New Hanover and New Ireland about things like the reproductive biology of beche de mere, the breeding habitats created by healthy mangrove forests, and the importance of sea grass for reef fish diversity. But with the understanding that this scientific knowledge had to be in a feedback loop with the already existing local knowledge.

With initial funding from the Asian Development Bank the three men founded Ailan Awareness and they developed what has come to be known as “the road show” – a process where AA staff go to coastal communities and do conservation awareness. This was to be the first of the “products” that the NGO developed. To say that there was a frenzied buy-in from BINGOS and from the national government for this work immediately is an understatement. Remember back to the late 90s and early 2000s, this was the heyday of CRBM and ICADs – everyone wanted a local team to go out to rural sites and “teach” people about conservation. John and his team got swept up in this. And they did well in terms of helping NGOs and others facilitate their projects. But their vision – that of an organization that also worked to educate outsiders – was not fulfilled.

Everyone wanted to engage Ailan Awareness to do CRBM education but nobody wanted to give them money to do anything else. They became, in essence, a service provider to the very kinds of projects that John, Miller and Michael had been critical of early on. Additionally, they became a kind of cover for BINGOs, who could say to their funders, organizations that were increasingly nervous about the lack of local engagement and local partners, that they had an indigenous NGO as an equal partner in their work. Yet, the partnerships were incredibly unequal. Ailan Awareness was only engaged to do waged contract work, they were never funded at a level that allowed for them to adequately maintain an office, a staff, a vehicle, or a boat. All things you need to be a functioning NGO.

Ailan Awareness had also gotten a reputation as a “fixer” for research scholars and research teams that wanted to come to New Ireland to do work. John was constantly being asked to provide logistical support for people, provide introductions to communities where people wanted to conduct research, provide biological information about where certain species and habitats were likely to be found, and to serve as a middle man when researchers had conflicts with communities. All of these scientists and social scientists came to New Ireland, collected their data and went away. There was almost never any return of data to communities, there was almost never any discussion about what the scholars had collected and what the communities wanted them to make public or not, there was almost never any proper acknowledgement of the labor that both Ailan Awareness staff and others whom John had connected the scholars with as research collaborators. Nor was there any prior consultation with people from New Ireland about what research might be valuable to them or important to them and what research questions they themselves had.

This brings me to my first conceptual thread – What kinds of labor and epistemic practice are valued in our field and in others? On the one hand, there is a tendency to value what is seen as local or indigenous knowledge but on the other there is still a tendency to see it as something to be understood and analyzed and documented and not as an alternative form of epistemic practice that may well hold answers that are not accessible through Euro-American-Australian forms of epistemic practice. There is certainly not the push to seek indigenous or local epistemic practice as theoretical in nature and thereby something that we might see as supplanting or enhancing European social theory. Additionally, there is still a kind of colonized mindset to most of the scholarly research that goes on in places like Papua New Guinea (and most other post-colonial and still colonized states). Outsiders come in, extract knowledge, benefit from the multiple forms of labor provided locally, and then benefit from all of this thorough the dissemination of their knowledge products. How do we, as Critical Political Ecologists, address this and transform our field accordingly?

In early 2006 Miller, John’s brother and co founder of Ailan Awarenss, died unexpectedly and John was devastated. Everyone was. And, in 2007, when we first met, John was in mourning for Miller and I was in mourning for my research life as I had known it. In 2005 a graduate student was gang raped at the research station about a three days walk from where I had based myself for research for a decade – from 1996 to 2006 – the Crater Mountain area in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The fallout from that was extraordinary. And while I go almost every year to visit friends and family in that area still, I won’t do long-term work there anymore. In early 2006 I published my first book, which was about the political ecology of conservation, and by 2007 when John and I met, I had almost a finished writing my second book, which was about the political ecology of commodities, and I was looking for a new project.

That first book and the papers I published related to it focused on environmental conservation projects as they were conceptualized, funded, and staffed in North America, Europe, and Australia and as they were carried out in places like the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea. Ethnographically my focus was on the connections between Gimi speaking peoples and the lands on which they and their ancestors resided as well as the propositions about “nature” and “culture” made by conservation practitioners working on those lands.

Theoretically my early work on conservation developed two interlinked sets of arguments. The first was about how when state services and programs recede, because of structural adjustment constraints and other various “reforms”, outside entities, like International Non Governmental Organizations, insert themselves into the roles that state agencies once filled. As this happens, people begin to turn to these NGOs to fill the role of the state – to provide infrastructure for medical services, transportation, education, and access to markets for products and businesses. As that happens, and as NGOs become more and more entrenched in these places, people begin to loose the full right to make decisions about their ancestral lands without any interference from outside sources, bodies, or institutions, or what we might call now, indigenous sovereignty over land.

The second argument was focused on the ontological divide between Gimi speaking peoples and conservation practitioners. Gimi have affective kinship relations with their surroundings, where everything and everyone (human, plant, ancestor, animal) is animated by a constant exchange of Auna (life force) and Kore (spirit). Without the forests and its inhabitants, there are no “Gimi” and without Gimi, there is no forest. For those 1990s and early 2000s conservation practitioners, nature had “value” and that value was made through market logics. Places like the Eastern Highland, where numbers of species were abundant, could work to off-set places where numbers of species were scarce. Gimi, who were assumed to be Enlightenment derived rational-acting selves, like the conservationists, were subject to the tragedy of the commons dilemma so it was assumed that they needed to be taught to value biodiversity. According to the conservation actors, creating a market value for it through tourism, handicraft production, and other economic endeavors could do this.

So in that early work I analyzed neoliberalization, capitalism, and ontology and linked them together theoretically. But almost immediately, in what seemed like seconds after my work was published, it became referred to as a “case study”. And over the past 12 years I’ve seen it referred to like that hundreds of times. I was relegated to the world of the case study, like almost all other women and people of color working in Political Ecology and Environmental Anthropology, from the beginning. I myself had drawn almost exclusively on white Euro-American and Australian scholars in my thinking and writing and I had replicated that very tendency I mentioned at the beginning of my talk: fixating on a limited set of European philosophical thinkers to create a theoretical architecture.

            So here is my second conceptual thread – I ask, how do we as a field value and produce knowledge through our reading, citing, AND teaching of some scholars and not others? Who do we give primacy in our construction of the genealogy of the field and why? What are the politics of relegating women’s scholarship to the realm of the case study? Why do, predominantly, white male scholars become the theoretical stars of the field? And what does this foreclose? What kinds of epistemic advances don’t happen because we fail to expand our ideas of whose work matters and what kinds of work count as theory and what kinds don’t? And If I as a white scholar am asking these questions, what must it be like for non-white and Indigenous scholars? 

In conservation circles in the United States, the initial reaction to my early work on the political ecology of conservation was a kind vitriolic anger that blindsided me. But this was not the case in PNG. There, national scholars and conservation practitioners, and a few white NGO workers, took on board my critical analysis of conservation. Because of this, I began collaborating with a group of national scholars and two international scholars in the early 2000s and by 2006 we founded the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research, a small national NGO focused on providing opportunities for young people from Papua New Guinea who want to become scientists and anthropologists. One of our founding principals is the proposition that the conservation of biological diversity in Papua New Guinea can only be achieved if Papua New Guineans have full sovereignty over that biological diversity and that that sovereignty has been slowly stripped away by BINGOs working in the country. I never spoke publicly about this until 2009, after I was tenured at my university, because it was made clear to me that this sort of work would be considered “applied” and looked down upon by my colleagues and that I would jeopardize my promotion if I talked about this work. This is something many others scholars who have done this kind of work also report.

            This brings me to my third conceptual thread – how might we radically transform what is valued by the institutions that hire us? That fund us? That promote and tenure us? And what are the politics of an academic stance that looks down on work that is considered “applied”? Why are people working in this way considered less scholarly than people who are working on solely scholarly projects? And why is there the assumption that projects that are attempts to effect positive change in the world are not scholarly and theoretically driven? And, what, given the state of the world today and the increasing global inequality, dispossession, and oppression are we doing if we are not doing work that is meant to transform and liberate? And, how can we still think that writing scholarly papers and books is enough?


(Aini and West, Bol Village, 2010, photo by Michael P. Moore)

The Present

Today, because John and I had come to the same conclusions about research, conservation, dispossession, and how we wanted to be in our fields of study, work together with a number of collaborators, and have a whole host of projects that are grounded in critical local epistemic practice as well as critical political ecology. All of our projects are both scholarly and meant to contribute to local sovereignty: Sovereignty over knowledge, territory, bodies, and representational practices.

Drawing on the epistemic work of scholars like Linda Twala Smith, David Welchman Gegeo, ‘Okusitino Mahina, Audre Lorde, Faye Harrison AND the epistemic work of thinkers from the Gimi world, the Tumbun world, the Tungak world, and the Malagan world, we have developed a methodology for research and community support work.


(Aini leads elders and West to a Malagan ceremony, photo by JC Salyer)

Here are some examples of our work:, which of course I can only talk about through the slides because I’m running out of time! Please ask me about these projects during the Q and A!

1.Community Vala Sites

2. Cultural Revitalization Projects 

Lovangai Fish Trap, Malagan Project, Carving Schools, NIP Digital Repatriation

3. Strengthening Local Socio-Ecological Stewards 

Solwara Skul, European curriculum / indigenous curriculum, MaiMai Strengthening Project, Cultural Exchange Project, Fisheries College Interns


(Aini and West, September 2016, New York City, Selfie)

Women’s Scholarship in Political Ecology

On June 20th, 2018, I was honored to give one of the keynote addresses at the 2018 POLLEN conference in Oslo, Norway. The talk I gave, “Critical Approaches to Dispossession in the Melanesian Pacific: Conservation, Voice, and Collaboration” was a co-authored piece I wrote with my long-time research partner John Aini. In it I drew out three interrelated themes that, if we think about together, we can use to make Political Ecology a stronger, more equitable, and potentially decolonial field. One of those themes had to do with the gendered nature of the genealogies of knowledge we draw on and reproduce in the field. Here is what I said about this in the keynote address:

“I want us to think about the genealogies of knowledge that we produce and replicate in Political Ecology and while I love you all and I love this field, we are a field that valorizes and draws on the scholarship of white male scholars over that of other kinds of scholars and that draws on European philosophical traditions to the exclusion of other philosophical traditions. Additionally, across the field, men are cited as making theoretical contributions and pushing the field forward while women are characterized as producing “case studies” that show the effects that are theorized and analyzed by their male colleagues. These practices make our field less robust than it could and should be.”

“So here is my second conceptual thread – I ask, how do we as a field value and produce knowledge through our reading, citing, AND teaching of some scholars and not others? Who do we give primacy in our construction of the genealogy of the field and why? What are the politics of relegating women’s scholarship to the realm of the case study? Why do, predominantly, white male scholars become the theoretical stars of the field? And what does this foreclose? What kinds of epistemic advances don’t happen because we fail to expand our ideas of whose work matters and what kinds of work count as theory and what kinds don’t?”

During the Q and A period someone asked me to provide a list of women who I read who I think are key to the field of Political Ecology. Here is that list, with some additions by a few of my friends. Please note: I know that this is super North American focused and I know this is a limitation on my scholarly practice, so send me names, I will add them. Lets make a robust list that spans the planet.

Amber Huff

Judith Verweijen

Andrea Brock

Farhana Sultana:

Sian Sullivan:

Diane Rouchelau:

Molly Doane:

Nicole Peterson:

Nancy Peluso:

Bonnie McCay:

Amelia Moore:

Kristina Baines:

Amanda Stronza:

Jessica Cattelino:

Martha Macintyre:

Veronica Davidov:

Jaskiran Dhillon:

Debarati Sen:

Hokulani Aikau:

Kim TallBear:

Rebecca Witter:

Bridget Guarasci:

Becky Zarger:

Antina von Schnitzler:

Melissa Johnson:

Laura Mentore:

Marama Muru Lanning:

Diane Russell:

Jenny Newell:

Emma Kowal:

Sarah Vaughn:

Mona Bahn:

Noenoe Silva:

Zoe Todd:

Nora Haenn:

Danielle Dinovelli-Lang:

Tess Lea:

Laura Ogden:

Aletta Biersack:

Cindy Isenhour:

Sally Babidge

Lisa Kelley

Kimberly Carlson

Suraya Afiff

Julie Trottier

Genese Sodikoff

Juanita Sundberg

Sharlene Mollett

Diana Ojeda

Jennifer Devine

Laurie Medina

Liza Grandia

Yuko Suzuki and Carolyn Faria (who’s websites I can’t find right now but I will update soon).

Wendy Wolford:

Tania Li:

Celia Lowe:

Julie Guthman:

Suzana Sawyer:

Silvia Federici:

Susanne Freidberg:

Judith Carney:

Pamela McElwee:

Verena Stolcke:

Susanna Hecht:

Rosaleen Duffy:

Esther Marijnen:

Lotje de Vries:

Jane Carruthers: University of South Africa, but I can’t find her website.

Elizabeth Lunstrum:

Haripriya Rangan:

Rebakah Daro Minarchek:

Harriet Friedmann:

Sarah Whatmore:

Juanita Sundberg:

My Year in Mansplaining

My year in Mansplaining

Posted on December 31, 2013


December 29, 2013 — My year in Mansplaining

Mansplain– delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation……. To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether (Urban Dictionary, 2013).

While it would not be possible to recount all of the Mansplaining I have had to endure this year, I thought I would write up my top five memories of Mansplaining for 2013.  I also thought I might try and expand the definition of Mansplain a bit to include the different species of Mansplainers that I tend to encounter.

Number 1 Mansplaning Event of 2013:

This year I gave three public lectures at my university: the Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures. One faculty member at the university is asked to deliver these lectures each year and the mandate is to talk about your work for a general scholarly audience. My lectures took up the question of the contemporary social, economic, and political mechanisms by which people are dispossessed of land, labor, natural resources, and sovereignty (including representational sovereignty) and used three ethnographic pieces to demonstrate the processes and effects of dispossessions.  During the third lecture I spent about 5 minutes (out of 60 minutes) working through Karl Marx’s work on “original accumulation” and Rosa Luxemburg’s correction to, and enhancement of this work in her classic The Accumulation of Capital.  After the lecture a senior male colleague suggested that I should come sit in on his UNDERGRADUATE course on Marx this coming semester and assured me that I would understand his brilliant and complex lectures even though I am “not a (insert colleague’s discipline here) major.” He then proceeded to Mansplain accumulation by dispossession in Papua New Guinea to me. A place I have conducted research for the past 18 years.

Species of Mansplainer:  Homo diadacticagus teoryensis 

This Mansplainer may exist in all professions but he is particularly prevalent in the academy. He is convinced that you, as a woman, could not possibly understand or grapple with the complexities of social theory. His Mansplaination is often triggered by your actually using social theory to think with or to explain phenomena with which he is not familiar. It can also be triggered when you read a philosophical text in a different way than he reads it. In his mind this is not an example of multiple readings of a text but rather a clear indication that you need some schooling from him.

Number 2 Mansplaning Event of 2013:

Part of my job this year has been to “re-think” the Human Rights Program at my college. Part of that process has been talking to faculty across the college and the university about their various visions of what a stellar human rights curriculum for undergraduate students would look like.  At one of these meetings with a senior male colleague, our discussion turned to contemporary global human rights crises. I mentioned that I and some other colleagues were putting together a small group to discuss comparative settler colonialisms and the human rights abuses that result from them. I then mentioned that West Papua was a key part of this discussion. My colleague then Mansplained to me the history of West Papua and make clear to me that, “West Papua is not a colony” but rather a “province of Indonesia” and that the illegal invasion of Irian Jaya in 1961 by the Indonesian Military and their subsequent fixing of the Act of Free Choice vote was “internationally fair.” Of course, he didn’t know the name “Irian Jaya” or the invasion date or what the Act of Free Choice was.

Species of Mansplainer:  Homo diadacticagus politicalas 

This Mansplainer is someone who disagrees with you on a political or social issue or question. Since you are woman, your assessment of any situation is suspect so he feels compelled to correct your understanding of a political event, social process, or economic transition.  For him, it is never that you simply disagree with him or that, god forbid, he is wrong, it is that you just don’t understand. But don’t worry! He is here to clear it up for you.

Number 3 Mansplaning Event of 2013:

After the first Schoff lecture, a lecture concerned with people working in and participating in the contemporary tourism sector in Papua New Guinea, a senior male colleague was kind enough to Mansplain to me that while my data was based on Papua New Guineans living in the “modern world”, the vast majority of people in the country are living “like our ancestors” did and practicing the ritual ecology he read about in Roy A. Rappaport’s work when he was in graduate school. In the 1970s.

Species of Mansplainer:  Homo diadacticagus  polymathensis 

This is the man who knows a tiny bit about many things. He thinks of himself as a polymath. Lucky for you, he knows all about whatever you are talking about. This is especially the case if you are talking about your research or something that you are an expert on.

Number 4 Mansplaning Event of 2013:

At a seminar series that I run at my university, a male colleague (my generation) was kind enough to Mansplain to me the intricacies of teaching undergraduates and advising their research. The fact that he has never advised a senior thesis and that he teaches 3/1 (graduate classes to undergraduate classes) was not a factor in his knowing more about teaching undergraduates than me (I teach 1/2 and advise at least 6 senior thesis projects a year and have 14 major advisees).

Species of Mansplainer:  Homo diadacticagus professori 

This is your professorial Mansplainer. Because you are woman, you could not possibly understand the complex nature of the academy or of its many parts. Lucky for you, this Mansplainer can teach you about teaching (even if he does not do much teaching), research (even if he has not been out of his office in 15 years), writing (even if his last publication was in 1995), and academic politics (even if the last committee he served on was during the mid 1980s).

Number 5 Mansplaning Event of 2013:

At a cocktail party downtown, I was lucky enough to have the global commodity trade in coffee Mansplained to me by a man who enjoys drinking coffee quite a bit. He carefully explained to me that certified coffee means that the coffee has been inspected by the FDA and that it is safe for consumption if you are worried about your health and pesticides (wrong, wrong, and wrong) and that “free trade” (wrong) coffee is coffee that is grown by “internationals” who have had “lessons” in social justice (wrong and wrong). This was all after I had been introduced to him as someone who had just written a book about the global commodity trade in coffee.

Species of Mansplainer:  Homo diadacticagus polymathensis 

(As above) This is the man who knows a tiny bit about many things. He thinks of himself as a polymath. Lucky for you, he knows all about whatever you are talking about. This is especially the case if you are talking about your research or something that you are an expert on.

Thanks guys, it is all so much clearer now!



That Person at your office

That person at your office

Posted on May 6, 2014

As a professor who teaches and serves as a mentor to university undergraduates, MA and Ph.D. students, and junior faculty, I’m concerned with how we teach people to deal with, and respond to, the bad behavior of their colleagues in the workplace. This post is about that topic.

In 2010 when I was a recently tenured associate professor at my university I agreed to serve on a panel on successful grant writing strategies. The panel had participants from both the social and biological sciences. I spoke about my reasonable success with foundation grants and gave some advice based on my own experience as an anthropologist. After I spoke, a senior professor from the sciences spoke and he basically countered every suggestion that I had given. It was as if he was structuring his entire presentation around an attempt to show that I was wrong. During the Q&A portion of the panel, I was polite to him, actually hedging a bit so as not to offend a stranger, saying that my experience was, of course, based on the social sciences and that the sciences might be very different. He continued in the same vein throughout the rest of the event, quite literally correcting everything that I said when I was answering audience questions and even making fun of my answers a bit.

By 2013, I was a full professor of anthropology, with a named position, and chair of the anthropology department at my college. One of my “faculty service” jobs had become attending a monthly meeting which brings together other senior faculty. At the first meeting in the fall I noticed the aforementioned scientist and it was the first time I had seen him since the panel in 2010.  In addition to seeing him at this meeting every month this year, I’m also on a big, important, multi-disciplinary committee with him now.

This year, at each of these venues, this man has, repeatedly, made fun of something that I have said during the meetings. He has mocked a question I asked about how to do budgets using excel (a program I don’t use very often), he has made fun of my ability to understand spatial relations after I asked a question based on something a student reported to me – making clear that I was asking the question in the terms I was because the student asked it in that way – and he has chided me after I suggested that our administration send important e-mails at the end of the year from addresses that are connected to people and not offices because when we get busy we often delete messages from presidentsoffice@ or deansoffice@.  In all of these instances he has done this publicly, eliciting laughter from our colleagues. I’ve not seen this person outside of these meetings and have no idea how he interacts with his departmental colleagues, but I am the only person he attempts to humiliate during the meetings we attend together.

I started thinking about this a little more carefully recently because I realized that he had “disciplined” me during our last committee meeting. His making fun of me actually altered my behavior. I wanted to contribute to the meeting but because he had made fun of something I said early on, I sat silently for most of the rest of the two hours.

My first thoughts were about what it is about me that elicits his mockery. Could it be that I am an anthropologist and he finds that field ridiculous? Could it be that I am a woman and he finds women ridiculous? Could it be that I am a particular sort of woman and that he finds me, personally, ridiculous? Could all of this be why this person publically and repeatedly attempts to use humor to humiliate me?

But then, after fretting about this for a while and talking to my husband about why this was bothering me so much, I realized that I was shifting the focus and blame to me, basically thinking about what I might have done to cause his inappropriate behavior. And this made mad.

Why is it that we so often give the aggressive and inappropriate colleague the power in the social relations of work? Why is it that I, someone who in every other aspect of my social life would stand up to this person and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he had better back the F off, am unwilling to do this in the workplace? Why do I allow someone to create asymmetrical social relations when in reality I am fully his equal in position, status, intellect, and ability? Why is it that many of us, in our attempt to maintain the social contracts of the workplace, allow others to break those social contracts repeatedly?

I don’t have answers to these questions but I think it is worth stopping for a second and thinking about this. And I don’t want to think about it using the term “bullying”. Here is why:

The US government defines bullying as:

“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that             involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose”   (

Bullying is a category of behavior that is meant to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society: children. I think that using the term to describe other forms of socially inappropriate behavior dilutes the power of it and takes away from the important focus on stopping these forms of behavior among and towards children.

I am concerned with repeated, regularized and normalized, actions in the workplace whereby one adult attempts to derive or demonstrate status and superiority through humiliating another adult and how we prepare our students to deal with this.

My mother, who spent her working life in an office, offered the following analysis and comment when I read her this post:

“I don’t think my advice about how to deal with this would be helpful to anyone. I’m from the old school where I was taught that as a woman you just take what is given in the workplace. I can’t even think about it right. He is not above you. You are on the same level…..I was never on the same level with someone who tried to humiliate me at work, it happened lots, lots of men and women above me treated me badly in the work place, but the people at my level, other women I worked with, we wouldn’t have done that to each other………and what can you do about it? You can’t talk to people about it because they will say that you are taking it too personally or that he didn’t mean anything by what he said or that you just need to have a thicker skin. They will say that he was ‘teasing’ you and that you should have a better sense of humor. But that is wrong. But it is probably what I would have said to you about it twenty years ago. But not now.”

What strikes me about my mother’s comments are that they are right on the money in terms of how people respond when you tell them that someone is making you feel bad by making fun of you. People tend to initially do what I did: look towards the person who feels bad as the source of the problem. What I want to suggest is that we need to think more carefully about why we let some people break the rules, what I called the “social contract” of the workplace, and indeed even, through our laughter at the jokes they make at others’ expense, encourage their behavior.

In my attempts to maintain the social contracts of work at my university, I’ve never called this man out for his behavior. I didn’t want to disrupt a meeting by saying, “You know X, that is not funny” or “Actually X, this is the second time today that you have made a point of making fun of something I’ve said. I’d like you to stop that.” And I want to propose that we all stop and think about this and begin to respond to this sort of behavior in more aggressive ways. Finally, I’d like my students to know that this happens to me and that I’m here if they want to strategize about how to deal with it when it happens to them.

Teaching Decolonizing Methodologies

This essay first appeared on the website Savage Minds.

For about a decade I have been teaching a graduate seminar in anthropology at Columbia University called “Decolonizing Methodology” which takes Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples as its starting point and also draws on other key texts focused on research methodologies specifically (Denzin et. al. 2008; Kovach 2010). In the course we tend to start with Smith’s work and then use her careful analysis to guide us in taking apart the various traditional methodologies that anthropologists tend to rely on in their research and the various theoretical frames that are of-the-moment within the field. This means that the course moves back and forth between “decolonizing methodology” and “decolonizing theory”.

I started teaching the course after my colleague and friend Jamon Halvaksz pointed out that in my first book I failed to engage enough work by scholars from Papua New Guinea, (PNG) where I have worked since 1997, and the broader Pacific region. Halvaksz’s critique helped me to see the colonial nature of my own anthropological practice in terms of the theoretical texts I drew on to make my arguments and produce new knowledge. From that, I also began thinking about how to teach “methods” in a way that fit with Smith’s work and my own experience of doing ethnographic research with communities in PNG that forced me, from the first day of my research, to think about the politics of asking questions, white privilege, the historic role of anthropology in the mis-representation of Papua New Guineans, and what happens when a scholar learns something that she can never write about. Since my research has always focused on engagements between Papua New Guineans and others (scientists, business people, missionaries, tourists) my colleagues and friends from PNG have always pushed me to think carefully about what these outsiders (myself included) take from PNG, give back to PNG, and how they produce PNG through their rhetoric and practice.

I am a white middle class straight cis-gendered woman from a very poor working class background who is the descendant of settlers who illegally and immorally stole land owned by people of the Coosa Chiefdom who is a full tenured professor at a university that is located on land owned by Lenape people. The students tend to be first and second year Ph.D. students (and a few MA students) who come from a range of departments, with the fields of anthropology, urban planning, history, and sociology almost always represented[i]. In the course, in terms of methods, we always focus on ‘participant observation,’ ‘interviews,’ ‘mapping’, ‘oral history’, and various visual projects like ‘filmmaking’ and ‘photography’ since these are generally the methods that the students in the course imagine that they will use during their doctorial field research. In terms of “theory” over the years we have take on “the production of space,” “ontology”, and “bare life”, among others. In the methods part of the course we tend to take a traditional text describing how to do a method and a traditional ethnographic text written from evidence gathered with that method and ‘read’ them through Smith’s arguments about the kinds of colonial artifacts (dispossession, occlusion, erasure, violence) that are smuggled into traditional social-science epistemic practices. Through this process we get to what should really be the beginning, but rarely is with students who are expected to “have a project” when they apply to Ph.D. programs, where the students start to ask themselves about, in Kim TallBear’s phrasing, “the ethics of accountability in research (whose lives, lands, and bodies are inquired into and what do they get out of it?)” (TallBear 2014:1) and how the methods that they have been imagining may not allow them to approach accountability in ways that they find ethical. The students thus begin to think about the binary that has underpinned most of their research-thinking to date. Again, following TallBear, they begin to see, “the binary between researcher and researched—between knowing inquirer and who or what are considered to be the resources or grounds for knowledge production” (TallBear 2014:1) and they begin to understand that truly decolonial work tries to do away with this binary in various ways.

In the theory part of the course we take the most canonical text for any given social-scientific body of thought, read it, and then read it through texts about the same topic written by non-Euro-American-Australian scholars. For example for “space” we might read Henri Lefebvre’s The production of Space (Lefebvre 1991) paired with work by Okusitino Mãhina, a Tongan philosopher of time-space articulations (Mãhina 1992, 1993, 2002, 2010). In the best of worlds what happens next is a similar self-awaking where the students realize that most of the conceptual frames they are using to think with about their proposed projects come not from in situ relations, conversations, ontological propositions, epistemic processes, or exchanges about what needs to be known and what can’t be known, but rather from their own intellectual genealogy and what texts, arguments, and faculty compelled them during their course work or even their undergraduate training.

We then work together, as a group, in pairs, and with multiple meeting between me and each of the students, to re-think their projects, the ethics of accountability involved in them, and how they will proceed in crafting literature reviews that expand their field of epistemic possibilities. It is a great deal of pedagogical labor on my part and a great deal of intellectual labor on their part. Perhaps more importantly however, it involves a fairly serious commitment to letting go on the part of the students and a willingness to craft a new project idea for their preliminary research (remember that most of the students are first and second year students so they have some time before they actually have to do their dissertation research), that puts the ethics of engagement front and center, and allows for a methodology to emerge in co-production with the communities with which they wish to work.

I’ve also taught a version of this course twice in Papua New Guinea. There, I taught the course on a volunteer basis through The Papua New Guinea Institute for Biological Research (PNG IBR) an NGO that I co-founded in the early 2000s with colleagues from PNG and the United States. One of our founding principals is the proposition that the conservation of biological diversity in PNG can only be achieved if Papua New Guineans have full sovereignty over that biological diversity and that that sovereignty has been slowly stripped away by outsiders conducting research and conservation in the country. In PNG the course was made up of people working as researchers for both governmental and non-governmental organizations, people working as researchers for various extractive industries, people working for national cultural institutions, and faculty from various national universities. There we took the specific methodologies that we have all seen used in an endless barrage of social research components of assessments and used Smith’s work to help us re-craft them in ways that make sense for research with communities in PNG.

PWest image

Image: Author with participants of the decolonizing methodology course in PNG (2015).

Teaching the course in the contexts of the US and PNG is always quite different. At Columbia the course is about the individual students, their projects, and the project of moving them through the graduate system so that they emerge as scholars who, for the most part, will become university professors. In PNG the course feels more like a shared project. One in which we are all committed to the same goal (decolonizing epistemic practice as it connects to PNG) and where we are able to connect with non scholars who are equally interested in epistemic practice. For example, in one version of the course the students presented their final projects to a group of elders from the communities surrounding the town where we met. These elders were indigenous, expatriate, and other and the students and I all learned from their critiques of our work.

I think of all of this teaching as a collective, on-going, project where my scholarly practice, I hope, becomes less colonial every time I teach the course. I’ve outlined the course here not because I think it is perfect or even that everyone should teach it, but rather because I think it has helped me and my students to do better, more decolonial anthropology.


Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln and Linda Tuhiwai Smith 2008. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. Sage Books.

Kovach, Margaret. 2010. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts. University of Toronto Press.

Lefebvre, Henri 1991. The production of space. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Mãhina, ‘Okusitino 1992. The Tongan Traditional Tala-e-fonua: A Vernacular Ecology-centered Historico-Cultural Concept. Unpublished PhD Thesis. ANU, Canberra.

Mãhina, Okusitino,  1993 The poetics of Tongan traditional history, tala–fonua: An ecology-centred concept of culture and history. Journal of Pacific History 28:109–21.

Mãhina, Okusitino, 2002 Atamai, fakakaukau and vale: Mind, thinking and mental illness in Tonga. Pac-Health-Dialog 9 (2): 303–08.

Mãhina, ‘Okusitino. 2010. Ta, Va, and Moana: Temporality, Spatiality, and Indigeneity.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York, NY: Zed Books.

TallBear, Kim. 2014. “Standing With and Speaking as Faith: A Feminist-Indigenous Approach to Inquiry [Research note].” Journal of Research Practice, 10(2), 2014.

Wofford College Commencement Address 2016

** On May 15, 2016, I had the honor of delivering the Commencement Address at Wofford College, the college I attended for my undergraduate degree. Here is the text for that address.**

Exactly twenty-five years ago I was sitting where you are right now. I was listening to Dr. John Palms, then president of the University of South Carolina, give the Wofford College commencement address in 1991 when I was about to graduate. Sometimes that twenty-five years feels like a heartbeat, a second, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime. It is an enormous honor to be here today. So, thank you, Wofford College, for inviting me. And thank you to every parent, guardian and family member in this audience for making today possible for your graduates. And thank you to all of you for spending the next fifteen minutes of your lives listening to me. Although, you are all trapped at this point. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, faculty, staff, trustees, and fellow alumni, I love you, but what I’m about to say is to and for the graduating class of 2016.

After this fifteen minutes, I will never see most of you again and when I think thoughts like that I always think of the play, The Member of the Wedding, when the awkward, book-loving, southern, not-like-everyone-thinks-a-girl-should-be-girl, Frankie says,

“I wonder if you have ever thought about this. Here we are – right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking right now, this minute is passing. And it will never come again. Never in all the world. When it is gone, it is gone. No power on earth could bring it back again. It is gone. Have you ever thought about that?”

I don’t ever read that line as a lament, as a sadness, but rather as an invitation to be in the moment. To try my best to be fully present. And so, I’m going to use my time with you today to talk about what I think it means to be present using some examples from my own life.

When I graduated from Wofford College, I had a boy friend who was also a student at the time……now he is a professor here so you are free to spend the next 15 minutes guessing who he is! I was young, I was madly in love, and I was focused on him and my friends from school and the fact that I was really sad to leave them. The last thing in the world I was focused on was my mother – a single mom who didn’t go to college herself and who sacrificed a ton for me to go to school. What I could not see then, that I see so clearly now, is that that summer after graduation was the last time that I would fully “be” in her presence. It was the last time I would live in her house. It was the last time I would feel like her child. And that summer I was not there, because even when I was physically there I was angry and sullen and obnoxious and selfish because I couldn’t be somewhere else.

That summer was also the last time I would live in Atlanta and be in close proximity to the people that raised me, and here I mean my friends from elementary school and high school and summer jobs and my soccer team and my softball team and my swim team. So my point is this – right now, remember that this past four years has been a top off to the seventeen years of social reproduction that made you, and try to be present in that — in your family and in those networks that raised you up.

I have the best job in the world. Indeed, I think one of the most extraordinary lives in the world. There is rarely a day that I don’t wake up in absolute wonder and think, “Wow, This is my life? I get this?” Getting here was not easy. One of the massive roadblocks early on was that very social world that I just told you to be present in. My mom, who was always supportive of my choices, has eleven brothers and sisters and they all had an opinion about what I should not do once it became clear that I was not going to go to business school, law school or medical school, and that I was not going to stay in Atlanta, get married and have babies. That I was not going to do what was expected of me as a first generation college graduate or as a woman.

Becoming an anthropologist, something that nobody in my family had ever done or even really heard of, did not seem like a condition of possibility to my family. And I endured a range of disbelief, willful disinterest, and outright abusive derision when I went to graduate school in anthropology. I was able, through all that, to be present in my own imagination of the future and to stay focused on the fact that even though nobody thought I could do what I wanted to do with my life, I could. So, try to be present in your own imagination of what your future might hold and don’t let others set the conditions for your possible futures.

So what do I do for work that I think is such a privilege? I’m an environmental anthropologist – What does that mean? An environmental anthropologist kind of smashes together the study of human social, economic and political structures and processes with the study of biophysical structures and processes that make up the natural environment. And I do research on New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, that sits directly above Australia and right under the equator – an extraordinary place that is the most linguistically and biologically diverse place on our planet. A place I visit every year and that I have seen change lots over the past 20 years.

In my research now I spend a lot of time with people who are on the front lines of our current global environmental crisis and our current global accumulation by dispossession crisis. People whose ancestors have lived on islands for thousands of years, when today those islands are washing away because of sea level rise. People who live in the footprint of enormous resource extraction projects – gold mines, timber concessions, oil pipelines, palm oil plantations; people who own the land that these projects are taking place on and yet who are living in unimaginable, for many of you, poverty. People who live at altitudes where you are not supposed to get Malaria or Dengue, but who are now getting these deadly diseases because of global warming trends which increase parasite vector zones.

Sometimes these crises are overwhelming to me, and I become paralyzed with fear and sadness. And then I try to pull myself back into being present in the fact that this is not about me. And I mean this in two ways. First, my job is not be sad, that my job is to produce knowledge about these events in a way that galvanizes action. And second, that the neoliberal ideology that I, as an individual, am the seat of responsibility for global inequality and climate change, is a bogus proposition. I try to remember that the causes for human and environmental suffering are structural and that for us to change them we have to fundamentally change the structures of global power. I try to be present in the fact that while it makes me feel good to recycle and buy fair trade coffee that the real work of change comes with political action. And being present in the fact that that political action does not happen through clicking the “like” button on Facebook, or re-tweeting something, or creating a hash-tag.

And that brings me to the fourth kind of being present I want to talk about. I love social media. Twitter is informative, hilarious, wrong, wonderful and obnoxious. Snap chat is a mystery to me because I am old. And Facebook allows me to see into the edges of the lives of my former students, the people I went to school with, some of my close anthropological friends and colleagues, and a bunch of young activists, writers, artists, and scholars from across the Pacific region. It is amazing. But it is also flat. It shaves off the affective. It erases the bodily experience of human connection.

Last fall, I and five of the people I love most in this world, people I went to Wofford College with, descended, in a middle aged, bourbon fueled, tsunami, on the spectacular front veranda of Anchorage 1770, an Inn in Beaufort, South Carolina, that is owned by two other Wofford College alumni. Our spoken rational was to celebrate the birthday for our mentor Dr. James Gross. But really, we gathered together to feel and be present in each other’s lives.

In the past 25 years, we have become doctors, teachers, scholars, bankers, and business people. We have had children. We have decided not to have children. We have lost parents and other people precious to us. We have come out and lived our lives as who we are. We have gotten married. We have stayed single. We have gotten divorced. We have served in the United States military. We have protested US wars abroad. We have traveled the world. We have stayed home. We have voted republican and democrat and independent. We have, variously, been seen as people want to see us and as we truly are. Sometimes we have been seen in the most convenient definitions as ….. a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal…..We have watched the movie The Breakfast Club a million times!

Here is my point, we get this life with our friends, with the people we love, one time and being present in their lives is so much more than seeing them and interacting with them on a screen. Also, we may not agree on things. We may argue politics and culture and history. But we all understand that what actually makes America great is sustained political dialogue across beliefs and backgrounds – something we learned here at Wofford College. My weekend with these people was a gift.

And that brings me to my final comments on being present. When I was a Wofford College I received a scholarship and if I had not had that scholarship there is no way I would have ever been able to attend this extraordinary institution. In my current position as a professor, I have gotten to know some of the people who donate to my college and university, the people who give money so kids like me and kids not at all like me, can go to school. People who give money to build extraordinary new buildings that change the face of education. People who give time and energy to the institution that they love.

I’ve also been privileged enough to give money to projects and institutions myself. My husband and I have supported the ASAO Pacific Islands Scholars Fund, City Harvest, the Red Cross, Sea Sheppard, the Ronald MacDonald House, the Audre Lorde Project, the Maimafu Village Community School Fund, the Solwara Skul, and the Papua New Guinea Institute for Biological Research. We are not rich, nowhere near it actually. But we feel that part of being present in this world is giving back to it in the ways that we can.

Those last two organizations that I mentioned, the Solwara Skul and the Papua New Guinea Institute for Biological Research are organizations that I cofounded in Papua New Guinea with colleagues from Papua New Guinea. I saw something that was needed and I did something about it. I was present in my ability to make positive change. And aware of my privilege as very well educated and well connected professor at a prestigious university. And I mobilized that to try and do good in the world. Be present in your ability to give in whatever way you can – service, volunteering, donations – be present if your ability to help others.

And back to privilege for a second. You leave here with a diploma. Something that you have worked hard for, and that you have earned. And throughout your life you will work hard and earn so many things that will accord you privilege. But you will also be accorded or denied privilege by others based on immutable characteristics. Over the past 25 years I have come to understand that as a straight, white, cisgender, skinny, hearing, neurotypical, conventionally able-bodied person, I am sometimes accorded things that others are not. I have tried to be present in my ability to see and understand the privileges I have and to fight for a world of equality and justice for everyone.

In closing, I want you to remember this: Every social interaction we have leaves a trace on and in us. It becomes part of who we are. Each and every one of us is a living assemblage of every embrace, every conversation, every argument, every meal shared, every laugh had. Every interaction with a person, a place, an animal, or any being. And each of us leaves a trace on others. Keep this in your mind – we make and remake the social world with our every interaction. Try to be present in the fact that although no minute will ever come again, never in all the world, that perhaps that minute becomes us and we are a living memorial to it.

And finally, be present in how strong you are and in the immortal words of Prince, “And if the elevator tries to bring you down, go crazy. Punch a higher floor”.