Documentary Papua New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial

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Anthropology has been an ever changing and widely debated field of study since its inception. It’s origins in colonialism was one of prejudice and “othering” but it has been evolving ever since. This is no more apparent than in the two-part documentary Papua New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial where we see multiple instances of anthropologists coming in to various parts of Papua New Guinea to study its people. The documentary is set chronologically as we go through each anthropologist’s journey on the island. With each new area we enter we are faced with new issues and takeaways that arise when studying a people.

Each anthropologist comes to the island and ends up facing some hurdle either before or after they have studied groups of people are as follows. Margaret Mead who studied the Pere and the Mbunai people. John Baker who studied the Uiaku people. The last is a New Guinean Graduate student named Wari Lomo who comes to the U.S to study American culture. As the film unravels and we see each anthropologist’s journey we are shown new hurdles arising or being acknowledged with each new study and the answers to these obstacles are the main takeaways that serve to highlight what is important in any anthropological study.

One incredibly important pillar of anthropology that has also been an obstacle for early anthropologists is general objectivity. This was a major hurdle faced by anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead went to a small island north of Papa New Guinea named Manus and studied two groups; the ocean based, salt-water clan of Pere and the inland gardener group of Mbunai. On the surface it appears she went in and studied the people respectfully, not bringing in any prejudices from her place of origin and doing what is usually required of an anthropologist to be able to speak about any culture, but she still managed to unwittingly insult the Mbunai due to biased information given to her by Pere informants.

This shows the importance of objectivity but also how hard it can be to have it one hundred percent. We as Americans are used to history being cut and dry where we only have one point of view on it, but we often forget that other cultures may have a completely different recounting of certain historical events. Everyone has biases and Mead failed to account for the fact that even her own informants have personal biases. Though she may have been bias free, she only spent time with the Pere and only had Pere Informants.

Mead had claimed that the Mbunai people were the “unintelligent” and “incapable of abstract thought” as told to her by her informant. A member of the New Guinean parliament named Maha Runi then points to how the Pere and Mbunai didn’t really see eye to eye with each other at the time of the study. Maha Runi clarified her point when she said that Mead “Didn’t understand our customs, she just studied the salt water people… she never properly examined our customs.” This just shows how for someone to be completely objective they must examine all sides of a history les they be misinformed since any history may differ from who tells it.

A second takeaway ties into the last and also comes from the parliament member Maha Runi who speaks on how, to some, that insult may seem trivial but it is actually the exact opposite. Though to some larger more well written about cultures, an insult like that may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, Maha Runi speaks to how for small groups like the Mbunai who do not get written about often, its incredibly impactful to the entire community of people.

She says, “The thing about documentation is it becomes a permanent record, and we’re held against it”. This showcases the major second takeaway from this film which is how important anthropology is to cultures that are incredibly small compared to others around them. How Without anthropology their history would eventually just die out. This also bolsters the previous point and takeaway about the importance of objectivity since without it, the culture being studied would be seen in a negative light by people around the world.

The final takeaway is the importance of “The Outsider”. This point is best shown and elaborated when a New Guinean graduate student by the name of Wari Lomo comes to the U.S to study American culture. In his time here, he points out an argument that many locals throughout the film made when speaking to how they often must learn about their own cultures from some foreigner who wrote about them. The argument amounts to, “someone who has lived in the culture would know more than an outsider would.” On the surface this may seem completely true and inarguable but when given further thought it is clearly wholly incorrect.

If one just looks back to Margaret Meads misstep in Manus you can see where this argument falters; it does not consider the fact that people, when looking at their own history, may be telling it or seeing it in a way that is completely different from their neighbor. Everyone has biases and history, when viewed from different lenses, is told in incredibly varied ways. This is why it is so important for an outsider to come in and study a group. This bolsters the original point on objectivity as It is easier for someone outside of a cultures sphere of influence to objectively look and see how certain cultural nuances may be odd or just different from others.

Overall, this documentary left me with a stronger understanding of what makes anthropology immensely important and what makes any anthropological study work. It shows the important of objectivity to any study along with showing how an outsiders point of view is key in making sure a study works. The film also shows how important anthropology can be to smaller cultural groups who may have died out if they hadn’t been written about by anthropologists. All these show the various pillars of anthropology which when combined make for a successful anthropological study.


Cite this paper

Documentary Papua New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial. (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/documentary-papua-new-guinea-anthropology-on-trial/

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