Accepted Paper:

Describing knowledge roads in Vanuatu  


Lissant Bolton (British Museum)

Paper short abstract:

In south Vanuatu knowledge was passed along controlled ritual roads; now indigenous researchers are working to retrieve knowledge about that system. Strathern identifies description as the end point of anthropological analysis: these indigenous researchers use anthropological tools to obtain knowledge as a resource for further action. This paper investigates these intersections.

Paper long abstract:

On Tanna, Vanuatu, some knowledge was literally routed: it passed along controlled ritual roads, some of which are still in operation. These roads loop around the island, linking a number of places and hence, a number of men. Individual men inherit the right to control and transmit information along a certain section of these roads. The adjacent island of Erromango, which suffered massive population loss between 1840 and 1945, also operated at least one ritual road, which linked the whole island in a single competitive system. Knowledge about this road is being retrieved by Erromangan researchers, trained through the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. It is being retrieved both through a combination of ethnographic, archaeological and historical research. But while they are using the tools of social science, ni-Vanuatu researchers have quite a different objective for their research. From Marilyn Strathern I learnt that description is the end point of anthropological analysis, 'Description,' she says, 'presupposes analysis, and analysis presupposes theory, and they all presuppose imagination' (1999:xi). Ni-Vanuatu researchers are not setting out to describe analytically, but to use knowledge as a resource for further action: my capacity to describe their use of knowledge as resource is informed by Marilyn's theoretical innovations, but their use of social science methodologies has far more to do with the model of knowledge as passing along controlled routes, from person to person. .This paper will tease out some of the complexities of these intersections.

Strathern, M. 1999. Property, Substance, and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things.

Panel W065
Routing knowledge through persons