Visiting Phi Beta Kappa discusses anthropology
The Santa Clara
March 1, 2018
Community members gathered in the Music and Dance Recital Hall Feb. 22 to hear visiting scholar Dr. Paige West talk about her experiences as an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea.
As a professor of Anthropology at Barnard and Columbia University since 2001, Dr. West has been conducting research on the islands of Papua New Guinea and its people for the past 20 years.
In particular, West’s research is focused on foreigners visiting the southwestern Pacific island country and how their ideologies are imposed on native Papuans.
“My studies have been about the specific rhetorics that are used to perpetuate racial disenfranchisement and oppression in post-colonial Papua New Guinea,” Dr. West said. “The ways in which these ideologies get mapped onto the Papua New Guinea state by outsiders, and the ways in which these rhetorics move into national, elite ideologies of progress and change.”
Dr. West broke her speech down into four sections that she described as “four ethnographical movements.”
In each of these sections, she recounts her experiences with the racist, imperialist outlooks that many people who visit Papua New Guinea have toward the settler colony.
She described a set of Australian surfers who she followed closely for years and interviewed during their visits to the island of New Guinea.
These men would go to New Guinea to engage in what they described as a “past world experience.” They saw the island as a sort of “time machine,” while still having the security of their modern lives waiting back in their home countries.
“For these men, Papua New Guinea is pristine, it is primitive, it is dangerous and it is undiscovered,” Dr. West said, describing her interviews with the surfers. “It’s a place that is described as ‘without the headaches of modernity.’”
Not only did the men see the island as beneficial to themselves a way to experience the past, but they viewed Papua New Guineans as not ready for the future.
In another section, Dr. West describes a photographer, David Kirkland, who exploits Papua New Guinea natives and those of other countries, under the pretense of helping to show the rapid loss of culture in the rural counties.
The specific incident Dr. West described at the event involved one of her friends Michael—a Papua New Guinea native—who was photographed by Kirkland in what is made to look like traditional wear.
Michael was told that the photographs were going to be used to promote tourism throughout his native country, so he was happy to participate in the photo shoot.
He was never paid for modeling, nor was he given any credit in the photographs.
Dr. West later found that the photos of Michael had appeared in museum galleries as well as a book that Kirkland published titled “Tribal PNG.”
None of the Papua New Guinean models in this book were given credit.
Throughout her talk, Dr. West describes various accounts of the natives of New Guinea being taken advantage of by outsiders who claim to know what is best for the country.
She described an incident in which conservationists from a large non-governmental organization (NGO) from outside Papua New Guinea came to the country to moderate the distribution of a large sum of money that the country was supposed to receive due to a natural gas project.
“An international rule says that if you’re going to do one of these big projects, you must have a biodiversity offset fund,” Dr. West said.
“This fund is meant to mitigate the negative effects of the project over the lifetime of the project by putting money back into biodiversity conservation projects. It was estimated in 2011 that the biodiversity offset fund for this natural gas project in Papua New Guinea would be $100 million,” Dr. West said.
The representatives from the NGO asked a group of scientists from Papua New Guinea how they would spend the $100 million for conservation efforts in the country.
“[The scientists] sat there in complete silence for about five minutes and then slowly but surely they began to throw out ideas based on what they had seen already works,” Dr. West said. “They said that they would work with communities to create small, but effective conservation areas in places where they have long-term field sites.”
This was just one of the multiple ideas scientists proposed to the NGO officials.
All their ideas were based on decades of collective data that worked for the country.
In response, the NGO officials claimed that the scientists didn’t have “a vision to manage the biodiversity offset fund.”
“[The scientists] were told they wouldn’t know what to do with the money,” Dr. West said. “That they ‘lacked the capacity to envision and manage a fund of that size.’”
The topic of anthropology can be a difficult one to explain to people who have not taken a course on the subject.
“Anthropology, in short, is the study of the human experience and culture, but it’s complicated,” Ellie Lewis said, a sophomore anthropology major.
Although its essence may be hard to put into words, Lewis believes that anthropology is extremely important, and noted the significance of experts conducting research.
“Anthropology was only created because of imperialism,” Lewis said. “It’s not like we genuinely had this interest in culture, it was to gain data and gain control over others.”
When you’re an anthropologist, how do you construct your research so that you don’t ‘other’ the subjects?” Lewis questioned.
Dr. West is the author or editor of eight books and is the founding editor of the journal Environment and Society.
She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences in the United States.
“[West] is an invaluable presence and mentor in the field of anthropology and a true embodiment of Santa Clara University’s teacher-scholar model of competence, conscience and compassion,” Santa Clara anthropology professor Mythri Jegathesan said.
Dr. West’s talk was the final event of the 2018 Salon Series, which was put on by the College of Arts and Sciences, Center for the Arts and Humanities.
Contact Kimi Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.