From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea


Runner up for the 2013 Julian Steward Award from the American Anthropological Association.

My second book, From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social Life of Coffee from Papua New Guinea took up the question of how external capital and global consumption come to shape the lives of Indigenous people in PNG. It is an analysis of the global commodity circuit for coffee grown in PNG and images of coffee growers from PNG.

Drawing on ethnographic data from PNG, Australia, Germany, England, and the United States I make four interrelated arguments. First, that structural changes in the global market for coffee since its deregulation in the late 1980s have resulted in the emergence of third-party certification schemes, like Fair Trade and Organic certification, that are meant to check and enforce social and ecological protections.

Second, that structural changes at the global and national levels are made invisible by certification because of the media driven, sleight-of- hand whereby “the market” for certified coffee is configured as emerging from the socio- ecological morality of people in the global north.

Third, that this media and marketing sleight-of-hand relies on images of coffee growing peoples in PNG that are drawn from long-existing fantasy-forms of otherness that are shot through with colonially-derived ideas about primitivity. In the minds of seemingly well-meaning consumers who buy certified coffee in order to enact a particular form of liberal politics, these forms of stereotypy are merged with ideas about poverty and the role of the market in moving people in the global south towards the lifestyles deemed appropriate for them by people in the global north.

Fourth, that these fantasy-formed images do not match Papua New Guinean’s ideas about self and subjectivity and that they also have disastrous material consequences in PNG. Instead of allowing people to engage with the market in a more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable way, they actually work to dispossess people of land, labor, and the right of self-representation. Finally, these images, crafted since the colonial period, serve as the basis for a very particular form of racism against Papua New Guineans.

Duke University Press

Geographical Focus
Papua New Guinea

Publication Support
Barnard College

Cover Image
Nama Coffee Factory, Eastern Highlands
Credit: Paige West