reverse anthropology (2006)

Stanford University Press

Reverse anthropology: Indigenous analysis of social and environmental relations in New Guinea. 


“Reverse Anthropology is an uncommonly sophisticated work of engaged ethnography, and a book that provides an impressive and uncompromising model of equal accountability to scholarly research and indigenous advocacy. With patience, insight, and brilliant attention to Yonggom subjectivity, Stuart Kirsch reveals what it means to turn anthropology inside out. This is a standout book in the new anthropology of modern Melanesia.” —Steven Feld, University of New Mexico

“This is an important story that will draw many audiences. It weaves personal experience, politics, and activism in and out of a scholarly analysis made possible by the way Kirsch draws on the analytical skills of his subjects. In this it is nothing short of a brilliant and sympathetic enterprise.” —Dame Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge 

“Stuart Kirsch’s work is distinguished by his unusual analytic approach to collaborative work with the Yonggom people in pursuing environmental and civil rights. Inspired by Roy Wagner’s study of Melanesian cargo cults in terms of indigenous analyses of land, labor, capital, and consumption, Dr. Kirsch’s Reverse Anthropology links two traditions of research in Melanesia: classic ethnographic studies of reciprocity, religion, kinship, ecology, and personhood, dating from the works of Malinowski and Mauss, to contemporary research on class, commodification, citizenship, environmental pollution, and political violence. This compelling study demonstrates the conceptual and political contribution of reverse anthropology to our common understanding of the workings of local communities, nation-states, transnational corporations, and so-called modernization, thus creating a new synergy in the scholarship of Melanesia relevant to anthropological work much more broadly.” —Gillian Feeley-Harnik, University of Michigan


“Kirsch is so straightforward with his arguments that it’s hard not to see his excellently-made point plain as day by the end. Few anthropology books are worth reading cover to cover. I think this is one of them.” —Jen @ GoodReads

“Kirsch deserves recognition for this refreshing and intellectually stimulating monograph… That this work combines such an emancipatory potential for anthropology with descriptive, theoretically compelling, and well-written ethnography is a testament to Kirsch’s scholarship and activism.” —Jerry Jacka, Anthropos

“Kirsch’s ethnographic passages sing with the immediacy of deep and vibrant experience… Because of its rich detail and moral clarity, Reverse Anthropology is a productive contribution to anthropological understandings of indigenous social analysis and it deserves a wide readership.” —Matt Tomlinson, Expedition

“What is masterful about this… book is that the author, all the while telling the stories of these contemporary environmental and political struggles, contextualizes them in deeply indigenous ways of knowing and understanding history and the natural and social world.” —Paige West, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Kirsch here essays . . . an anthropology grounded not in the outside observer’s analysis but, rather, in the analysis of the people themselves. Borrowing the concept from Roy Wagner’s The Invention of Culture, Kirsch . . . allow[s] the observations and grievances of Yonggom people to speak volumes for why they have engaged for 15 or so years now in ‘political struggles with the mining company and the state’. While Kirsch is not the only New Guinea ethnographer to make indigenous perspectives foundational to his or her analysis, he is unusual in making the procedure explicit . . .”  —Aletta Biersack, American Ethnologist

“Kirsch seeks to reconcile his original interest in Yonggom cosmology and ritual practice with an exposition of Yonggom people’s reactions to the degradation of the physical environment by the Ok Tedi mine and Muyu people’s reactions to their own predicament as political refugees in Papua New Guinea. He calls this ‘reverse anthropology’ because he wants to enlarge on the way that Roy Wagner coined this phrase to suggest that Melanesian ‘cargo cults’ contain an indigenous social analysis of the institutions of modern capitalism.” —Colin Filer, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“It is indigenous people who have in the main the responsibility to manage the burden of inhabiting ‘two worlds,’ of keeping the inevitable slippage between them—conceptual, political, economic—from getting out of hand. They have the burden of keeping their traditional world from appearing contrived and artificial every time they attempt to exert power and make progress in the other world … What Kirsch has managed to do quite effectively and courageously is to bring these ‘two worlds’ into the light of day in a very powerful (albeit incomplete) way, and to indicate what its real implications are for our received versions of contemporary indigenous culture and economy.” —James F. Weiner, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

“In his book, anthropologist Stuart Kirsch immerses us in the worlds of Yonggom enchanted landscapes, exchange rituals, male initiation rites, and sorcery. The sensibilities these practices engender reveal how the Yonggom materialize, give meaning to, and make sense of the human and nonhuman worlds around them. With intimate care, Reverse Anthropology renders visible the embodied possibilities available beyond a modernist ethos and points to the constraints of non-modernist forms of being and knowing . . . .  The skillful rendering of these insights makes Reverse Anthropology a must read for philosophers and social scientists concerned with alternative ontologies, indigenous peoples, human-nonhuman relations, the environment, and extractive industries.” —Suzana Sawyer, Comparative Studies in Society and History

“Kirsch’s ethnography is compelling on several levels. It is an excellent example of using indigenous frames of reference for understanding contemporary issues of globalization, colonialism and modernization. It is also a groundbreaking approach to the study of indigenous movements that yields alternative interpretations of political relationships and historical events going back to the first contact between European explorers and Melanesian indigenous groups. Finally, for students of anthropology, it is a highly personal account of the multiple roles of the anthropologist as analyst, participant and advocate for an indigenous group in a precedent-setting legal case against a powerful multinational mining corporation.” —Al Gedicks, Canadian Review of Sociology

“Kirsch documents and explains how Yonggom people construct social worlds and relationships through exchange and what happens when these patterns are disrupted or unreciprocated. The ethnographic descriptions of everyday life, conversations, complex rituals, myths, magic, and sorcery are rich in detail—reflecting his long association with people there and his empathic identification with the sorrow and loss they have experienced.” —Martha Macintyre, Current Anthropology

“Perhaps, if one thing can save our species hurtling to a collective global suicide through the nightmare of over industrialization, it’s Reverse Anthropology: making our own society the subject of an objective analysis from the viewpoint of other cultures, and drawing on this insight . . . . Kirsch’s book is a significant contribution to this exercise.” —Felix Padel, Mines and Communities

“The Yonggom are depicted here with historical and geo-political thoroughness, which reveals them to be struggling to understand and control, on their own terms, a reality that is shifting and shunting them aside. In general terms, this ‘reverse’ approach can be seen as a response to a moral crisis of ethnology, to the effect that historical abuses of anthropology call for a corrective, that there must be a dialogue leading to mutual understanding concerning the way a people or community will be represented, that knowledge must be empowering, or at the very least useful in the pursuit of justice. The device of ‘reverse anthropology’ is an unusually nuanced answer to this challenge to the ethnographic project.” —Ronald Niezen, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Reverse Anthropology [is] an accomplished work that combines rich ethnography, personal experience and original theoretical insight to show how appropriate attention to ‘indigenous modes of analysis’ can help challenge a range of European dichotomies and assumptions, including, among others, the modernist emphasis on the separation of nature and society, and the idea that pollution is a purely environmental issue that can be exclusively tackled through technical and scientific means. What is more, Kirsch’s approach succeeds in revealing the extent to which indigenous modes of analysis can both facilitate and hinder the promotion of indigenous rights and the more equitable and sustainable development of their resources.”  —Daniele Moretti, Critique of Anthropology

“As anthropologists use their own culture to interpret the culture of their informants, so do their informants use their own interpretive frameworks to make sense of what appears to be the anthropologist’s world and the impacts that world has on them. It is one of Kirsch’s main goals to illustrate how the insights yielded by indigenous analysis can have significant value in understanding contemporary debates and conflicts.” —Nancy Ann McDowell, American Anthropologist

“Kirsch always makes ethnographers and activists care about who speaks and how, and Reverse Anthropology will make them ponder to what ends ethnography can be put . . .”   —Lawrence Hammar, Pacific Affairs

“Les spécialistes des sciences politiques, avec leurs discours et concepts universaux – certains diraient passe-partout – semblent actuellement avoir le monopole de la réflexion sur ces phénomènes. Toutefois, les travaux anthropologiques concernant les impacts des mines dans le Pacifique commencent à se développer: tel est le cas de ce livre exigeant et au plus près du point de vue mélanésien des Yonggom et des Muyu, au moyen duquel Stuart Kirsch contribue au développement d’une anthropologie comparatiste du pillage ressources et des ravages de l’écologie causés par les mines dans cette partie du monde. De tels fondements scientifiques me semblent indispensables à toute démarche sérieuse et efficace d’anthropologie impliqué.” —Denis Monnerie, L’Homme

Reverse Anthropology has wider significance in terms of anthropological involvement in large political questions and ethics: It aims to help give a voice to the Yonggom claims and interpretations—an intention reflecting Stuart Kirsch’s long-ongoing participation in the Yonggom campaign against the Ok Tedi mine. Kirsch also addresses the issue of what the anthropologist is supposed (and able) to do when encountering political violence. How to involve or distance oneself from the political questions that affect the people one does research with are difficult questions. Yet, these questions must be addressed and it is challenging to envision a topic or an area where the anthropologist would not encounter ethically complex situations, caused by different actors. Kirsch’s open discussion about his involvement is thus an important contribution to a conversation that should have more participants.” —Tuomas Tammisto, Suomen Antropologi

Yonggom readers

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