Posted 5th Sept 1999 Last
23 September 2005
The Significance of
Modern Cults in Melanesian Development
Reprinted from The
Australian Outlook Vol 4 No 2 June 1950
© Cyril Belshaw
To republish something
that is so old may be egocentric, but when you younger people reach my age
you will understand that when you were young (that is now) you wrote
some stuff that (you will think) has messages. Of course there is
now an enormous literature on Cargo Cults and Melanesian
millennia. Perhaps what I say is a nonsense. But if anthropology
is to be more cumulative (in the propositional rather than the
ethnographic sense) we can look forward to refinements,
contradictions to the underlying propositions.
This piece is a
mixture. It was written for the "intellectual" and
"politically astute" public of Australia. I wanted
somehow to influence thought, and this was the only way open to me. Such
a method is open to you also.
But at the same time.
as an ambitious young Ph.D., my mind was challenged by the lack of
explanation. How is it that messianic movements, cargo cults,
arise? Is there discernible "causation"?
I already knew that the
local popular European explanation was for the birds. As an
administrator I had been confronted with a movement's hysteria directed
against ME, not personally, but as the symbol of all that was wrong with
their world. I had sat on felled coconut trunks, waited for the hysteria
to stop, and talked -- with rational people, living in a world convulsed
by a global war that was beyond their comprehension.
But what did
anthropology have to say? At that time not a great deal, except
scads of second-hand but sensitive description. Much by wonderful men
who gave their careers to understanding.
The first element in
the mixture was a set of value judgements about what Solomon Island life
was about, not as a Solomon Islander, but as an observer.
The second element was
a wish to refine the comparative method (somewhat despised in the elite
seminars) so that it revealed something. This, I assert now, has
not caught on. Anthropology has become so swamped by thick ethnography
(which is yet essential) that it seems it can't see the wood for the
trees. It cannot reduce the material to its essentials.
The third element,
though I did not apply it at the time, was to deal with the issue of
prediction. There are two kinds of prediction -- theoretical and
temporal (the latter being forecasting rather than prediction). What I
was writing contains primitive elements of each.
And the fourth element
was the application of anthropology to solve real life problems.
Application is not gut feeling, though that may be useful. It is the use
of theoretical knowledge to interpret events and their outcomes.
Perhaps I am wrong -- I hope so. But this aspect of anthropology is
almost non-existent now because of the lack of abstract, theoretical,
knowledge - knowledge of propositions. If (a) emerges does
There is a vast
indigestible amount of ethnographic knowledge. We need Ph.Ds who
write about it. Field work is an important self-informing
experience. As such it is in danger of becoming self-indulgent -
the "intellectually self-identified"s equivalent of
Ooops I've gone
overboard. Well, why not? There's one good reason why not. Young
anthropologists are serious, they are motivated, they need encouragement
and nurturing rather than elderly cynicism. Go to it your own way. You
will find it. But search wide and far for inspiration.
Around the time this
piece was published the administration of the Solomon Islands did a wise
thing. They sent in an "Expeditionary Force" to the Masinga
Rule area of Malaita consisting of Fijian troops under the command
of Dr. John Dove. Without too much incident they arrested the leaders of
Masinga Rule. Ouch! The heavy hand of colonial imperialism!
Well, what did they do with those convicted and gaoled people? They sent
them to Fiji and Australia to show them what in fact industry, commerce
and shipping was. When they returned the prisoners stood for election to
District Councils -- and won.
This experiment is in
total agreement with my hypothesis. I wish I could claim that the
hypothesis influenced policy. But I can't.
Of course one continues
to think of these things. So every now and then further thoughts erupted
in later writing. Later, I'll put some of that in subsequent pages.
And here's a thought
for you older colleagues. Put some of your early stuff on
line with "AnthroGlobe" !!!!!!!!!!