Skip to main content Skip to main navigation menu Skip to site footer

Reclaiming Hope: Commentary by Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Reclaiming Hope," and reflects specifically on the authors' 1993 article "First Contact with God: Individualism, Agency, and Revivalism in the Duke of York Islands."

Since 1991, when we last worked among Karavarans of the Duke of York Islands, much has changed in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Such is evident in our own subsequent research elsewhere in the country and in the research of others. In particular, the Karavaran study that led to our article in this Curated Collection (and the other articles which eventually appeared in Articulating Change in the “Last Unknown” [1995]) was completed before the introduction of structural adjustments with their hugely ramifying consequences. Hence, in 1991, many Papua New Guineans still harbored expectations of a brighter future. To be sure, these were no longer the great expectations of the immediate post-Independence era when “development” seemed both desirable and feasible (Errington and Gewertz 2004). Nonetheless, many still thought it reasonable that the government would ensure them better education, better medical facilities, more money (for both ceremonial and mundane transactions), and less relegation to the “last corner”—where all roads to the wider world peter out.

Contemporary Papua New Guineans still possess hope, of course. Few we’ve met or read about experience chronic hopelessness. Certainly not Alice Street’s (2012) Madang informants, even as they see the deteriorating buildings of Madang General Hospital as reminders of enduring inequalities. And not Adam Reed’s (2011) prisoners at Port Moresby’s Bomana Prison, even as they complete the transition from “remand” to full incarceration. Chronic hopelessness would be an uncommon state, one that Lorena Gibson (2011, 12) describes in her impressive dissertation about women activists in the PNG city of Lae and the Indian city of Kolkota in terms of “alienation, depression, despair, disengagement, grief, and indifference,” wherein life is “without intentional agency, without interest in the future, and without investment in the social world.” Indeed, as Vincent Crapanzano (2003, 15) reminds us, hope in hopelessness, while “no easy feat,” is possible, if sometimes “magical.”

If hopelessness is rarely found in contemporary PNG, hope appears in new—or is it old?—places. Thus, Eric Silverman (2013) tells us about Tambunum Village in East Sepik Province, once one of the most prosperous villages in the region. Silverman poignantly relates the collapse of the once-flourishing tourist industry that provided income to Tambunum artifact carvers (an industry made famous in the film Cannibal Tours[O’Rourke 1987]). The regularly arriving tourist boat gone, Tambunums are now bereft of money: all the village trade stores are closed, the diet is reduced to an unelaborated subsistence base, the aid post is shut, education seems too expensive as well as pointless, and the markets of the provincial capital are virtually inaccessible given the high cost of transport. However, hope is not lost. In a startling transformation for those who never before subscribed to “cargoism,” villagers are now convinced that dead Tambunums are being blocked, by missionaries and others, in their efforts to return so as to share wealth with the living. In fact, these ancestors can be occasionally glimpsed as “otherworldly tourists in a ship packed with commodities”—a ship resembling that which used to bring real tourists to the region. This vision of hope, Silverman contends, is “a nightmarish dreamscape about post-touristic modernity and Western affluence, duplicity, and greed” (39).

While duplicity and greed may also be said to characterize Noah Musingku, the founder of the U-Vistract Ponzi scheme, many Papua New Guineans still believe that, despite numerous defaults, he will eventually pay huge returns on their investments. According to John Cox (2010), this cleverly hybrid project has provided a Christian critique both of the state as a site of corruption and of the world financial system, including the banks, as a site of avarice. U-Vistract, as a source of hope within “the prevailing disillusionment with government and development,” promises Papua New Guineans a postcolonial economic prosperity attuned to their Christian commitments: one that would enable them to help others less fortunate than they—including, though not limited to, their kin. In effect, Cox concludes, “U-Vistract brought a renewed and abundant Christian capitalism that would resolve the inequalities of the nation by bringing prosperity to all” (197).

Less hybrid, perhaps, is Personal Viability (PV), a self-help movement designed by Samuel Tam, a PNG-born Chinese entrepreneur, to give hope to his fellow citizens disappointed with development’s rewards. Nicholas Bainton (2010) explores PV on gold-rich Lihir Island, where relatively few have actually benefited from the mine, although many still desire to do so. Bainton found that PV “presents entrepreneurialism as the gospel of salvation; competitive capitalism, if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity to wholly transform the lives of the marginalised and disempowered” (235). Those willing to purchase and complete the course of training learn that individuals can leave behind irrational cargoistic logic and, through hard work, win both material and moral advancement. PV, Bainton argues, provides a lesson in possessive individualism within a neoliberal economic logic. In effect, it teaches that, although all failures are personal failures, there is always hope for success.

How, then, in the current face of ghostly tourist ships, Ponzi schemes, and self-help movements do we, as analysts of other people’s hopefulness, maintain hope? There is, of course and importantly, Hirokazu Miyazaki’s (2004) methodological and epistemological reminder that the anthropological enterprise should be understood processually, as an open-ended consideration of ongoing possibility. Hence, in addition to documenting what is, we should be alert to trajectories and transformations—alert to what may be unfolding. This moves us to the epistemological and political reminder of J. K. Gibson-Graham (two economic geographers who write under this one name). They begin their Postcapitalist Politics (2006) with a quote from Isabelle Stengers: “Hope is the difference between probability and possibility.” From this, they ask us as academics to engage in no easy feat, as with Crapanzano’s magic. Once bolstered, as they have been, by “the upwelling of various movements across the world,” we might not only differently theorize the economy but also adopt “new ethical practices of thinking economy and becoming different kinds of economic beings” (xxviii), much as women thought gender and became feminists during the second wave. To do this, we might assume a new stance, a new orientation, undertaken “in a spirit of hopefulness, toward connections and openings” (1) so as to engage with the hopeful elsewhere. As academics “schooled in thinking traditions that privilege critique, explanation, and caution” (1), we, like Gibson-Graham, will probably find ourselves initially uncomfortable in this new position as actors as well as thinkers. Lorena Gibson admits as much, yet perseveres. Certainly, her work with grassroots women activists of remarkable determination provides us with hope.


Bainton, Nicholas. 2010. “Are You Viable? Personal Avarice, Collective Antagonism and Grassroots Development in Melanesia.” In Managing Modernity in the Western Pacific, edited by Mary Patterson and Martha Macintyre, 231–59. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Cox, John. 2010. “Prosperity, Nation and Consumption: Fast Money Schemes in Papua New Guinea.” In Managing Modernity in the Western Pacific, edited by Mary Patterson and Martha Macintyre, 172–200. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 2003. “Reflections on Hope as a Category of Social and Psychological Analysis.” Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 1: 3–32.

Errington, Frederick and Deborah Gewertz. 1995. Articulating Change in the “Last Unknown.” Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

_____. Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gibson, Lorena. 2011. “Hope, Agency, and the ‘Side Effects’ of Development in India and Papua New Guinea.” PhD dissertation, Massey University.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Miyazaki, Hirozaku. 2004. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

O'Rourke, Dennis. 1987. Cannibal Tours. Santa Monica, Calif: Direct Cinema Limited. 72 min.

Reed, Adam. 2011. “Hope on Remand.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 3: 527–44.

Silverman, Eric. 2013. “After Cannibal Tours: Cargoism and Marginality in a Post-Touristic Sepik River Society.” The Contemporary Pacific 25, no. 2: 221–57.

Street, Alice. 2012. “Affective Infrastructure: Hospital Landscapes of Hope and Failure.” Space and Culture 15, no. 1: 44–56.