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Unit of study_

ANTH3603: Melanesian Worlds: Old and New

Semester 1, 2021 [Normal day] - Remote

Melanesia is both a distinctive culture area and, with over 1000 different languages, a site of intense and highly localised cultural variation. This unit will explore the nature of that variation around themes of power, status, gender, secrecy, cosmology and local organization. The unit also examines the impact of this diversity on modern projects of Christianity, state formation and the market economy and the influence this has had on the wider anthropological literature on modernity.

Unit details and rules

Unit code ANTH3603
Academic unit Anthropology
Credit points 6
12 credit points at 2000 level in the Anthropology major
Available to study abroad and exchange students


Teaching staff

Coordinator Ryan Schram,
Type Description Weight Due Length
Assignment Research essay
An argument for an answer to an open question, based on independent reading
35% Formal exam period
Due date: 15 Jun 2021 at 09:00
3000 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Presentation In-class presentation of progress and problem
Presentation of one's ideas for the final research essay to the seminar
5% Multiple weeks n/a
Outcomes assessed: LO2 LO5 LO4 LO3
Assignment Descriptions of possible topics
Short descriptions of possible empirical topics for a term paper
10% Week 03
Due date: 15 Mar 2021 at 09:00
500 words
Outcomes assessed: LO2 LO4
Assignment Progress report and proposed research problem
Report on sources found and proposal for an open research question
15% Week 06
Due date: 12 Apr 2021 at 09:00
750 words
Outcomes assessed: LO2 LO5 LO4 LO3
Assignment Research question, thesis statement, sketch, and bibliography
A second progress report, including a plan for the essay argument
15% Week 09
Due date: 03 May 2021 at 09:00
750 words
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO5 LO4 LO3 LO2
Participation Seminar leadership roles
Assigned roles for contributions to the seminar discussions
10% Weekly n/a
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO5 LO4 LO3 LO2
Assignment Research and reading journal
Weekly reflections on class, and records of independent research
10% Weekly 1000 words total
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO5 LO4 LO3 LO2

Assessment summary

Aside from your preparation for class and leadership roles in class, everything you do for this class is part of a larger single project in which you develop your own answer to an open, debatable question that you support with your own reading in the literature on this field. Hence, all the parts of the project are required, and it is important to work continuously on your project throughout the semester.

The complete instructions for each of the assignments in this class are posted on the class Canvas site, along with a general overview of the research process. The procedures for submission and what to do if you fall behind and need an extension on your work are posted there as well.

Assessment criteria

See the table “What the results mean” on the Student Guide page, “Guide to grades” for an explanation of your score:

For more information see guide to grades.

Late submission

In accordance with University policy, these penalties apply when written work is submitted after 11:59pm on the due date:

  • Deduction of 5% of the maximum mark for each calendar day after the due date.
  • After ten calendar days late, a mark of zero will be awarded.

This unit has an exception to the standard University policy or supplementary information has been provided by the unit coordinator. This information is displayed below:

Students have to submit all of the assignments in order to pass the class. Any missing assignments will result in an AF. The university policy for accepting late work, including late penalties, will be applied to students’ work. It is very important for students to keep in regular contact with the instructor about their progress in the class.

Academic integrity

The Current Student website  provides information on academic integrity and the resources available to all students. The University expects students and staff to act ethically and honestly and will treat all allegations of academic integrity breaches seriously.  

We use similarity detection software to detect potential instances of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breach. If such matches indicate evidence of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breaches, your teacher is required to report your work for further investigation.

You may only use artificial intelligence and writing assistance tools in assessment tasks if you are permitted to by your unit coordinator, and if you do use them, you must also acknowledge this in your work, either in a footnote or an acknowledgement section.

Studiosity is permitted for postgraduate units unless otherwise indicated by the unit coordinator. The use of this service must be acknowledged in your submission.

Simple extensions

If you encounter a problem submitting your work on time, you may be able to apply for an extension of five calendar days through a simple extension.  The application process will be different depending on the type of assessment and extensions cannot be granted for some assessment types like exams.

Special consideration

If exceptional circumstances mean you can’t complete an assessment, you need consideration for a longer period of time, or if you have essential commitments which impact your performance in an assessment, you may be eligible for special consideration or special arrangements.

Special consideration applications will not be affected by a simple extension application.

Using AI responsibly

Co-created with students, AI in Education includes lots of helpful examples of how students use generative AI tools to support their learning. It explains how generative AI works, the different tools available and how to use them responsibly and productively.

WK Topic Learning activity Learning outcomes
Week 01 Does Melanesia exist? Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1
Week 02 Big men and chiefs. Sahlins (1963). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO5
Week 03 Who, what, and where are the PNG Highlands? A. Strathern (1973); Wagner (1974). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 04 Gender dualism as social order. Read (1952); Hays (1988); Schieffelin (1982); Read (1965). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 05 Society as a verb. M. Strathern (1991); Wagner (1991); M. Strathern (1981); Holbraad and Pedersen (2009); Lebner (2016); M. Strathern (1996); Wagner (1977). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 06 The politics of tradition in colonial situations. Keesing (1968); Keesing (1982); Keesing (1997); Dobrin (2020); Ritchie (2020). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 07 The past and the present in everyday life. Epstein (1998); Foster (1992). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 08 The afterlives of politicized traditions. Akin (2004); Akin (2003). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 09 The two Christianities. McDougall (2009); Robbins (2001); Barker (2014). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 10 Christian politics. Eriksen (2009b); Tomlinson (2013); Eriksen (2009a); Schram (2014). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 11 PNG, a "green island of gold, floating on a sea of oil, powered by gas." Biersack (1999); Biersack (2006). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 12 Clan, inc? Gilberthorpe (2007); Golub (2007); Gilberthorpe (2013). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 13 Bougainville. Ogan (1991); Wesley-Smith and Ogan (1992); Regan and Griffin (2005). Lecture and tutorial (2 hr) LO1 LO2 LO3 LO4 LO5

Attendance and class requirements

According to university policies, attendance is required in all class sessions whether they are online or on campus, and seminar leadership is a part of your grade.

More importantly, though, I want to get to know you as an individual and to help you and every student develop his or her own individual perspective on the field of anthropology. For that reason, I want to see you in class on a regular basis and to have regular (weekly) contact with each student to see how their thinking is developing.

Study commitment

Typically, there is a minimum expectation of 1.5-2 hours of student effort per week per credit point for units of study offered over a full semester. For a 6 credit point unit, this equates to roughly 120-150 hours of student effort in total.

Required readings

Akin, David. 2003. “Concealment, Confession, and Innovation in Kwaio Women’s Taboos.” American Ethnologist 30 (3): 381–400.

———. 2004. “Ancestral Vigilance and the Corrective Conscience Kastom as Culture in a Melanesian Society.” Anthropological Theory 4 (3): 299–324.

Barker, John. 2014. “The One and the Many: Church-Centered Innovations in a Papua New Guinean Community.” Current Anthropology 55 (S10): S172–81.

Biersack, Aletta. 1999. “The Mount Kare Python and His Gold: Totemism and Ecology in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.” American Anthropologist 101 (1): 68–87.

———. 2006. “Red River, Green War: The Politics of Place on the Porgera River.” In Reimagining Political Ecology, edited by Aletta Biersack and James B. Greenberg, 233–80. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Dobrin, Lise M. 2020. “A ‘Nation of Villages’ and a Village ‘Nation State’: The Arapesh Model for Bernard Narokobi’s Melanesian Way.” The Journal of Pacific History 55 (2): 165–86.

Epstein, A. L. 1998. “Tubuan: The Survival of the Male Cult Among the Tolai.” Journal of Ritual Studies 12 (2): 15–28.

Eriksen, Annelin. 2009a. “Healing the Nation: In Search of Unity Through the Holy Spirit in Vanuatu.” Social Analysis 53 (1): 67–81.

———. 2009b. “‘New Life’: Pentecostalism as Social Critique in Vanuatu.” Ethnos 74 (2): 175–98.

Foster, Robert J. 1992. “Commoditization and the Emergence of Kastam as a Cultural Category: A New Ireland Case in Comparative Perspective.” Oceania 62 (4): 284–94.

Gilberthorpe, Emma. 2007. “Fasu Solidarity: A Case Study of Kin Networks, Land Tenure, and Oil Extraction in Kutubu, Papua New Guinea.” American Anthropologist 109 (1): 101–12.

———. 2013. “In the Shadow of Industry: A Study of Culturization in Papua New Guinea.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (2): 261–78.

Golub, Alex. 2007. “Ironies of Organization: Landowners, Land Registration, and Papua New Guinea’s Mining and Petroleum Industry.” Human Organization 66 (1): 38–48.

Hays, Terence. 1988. “"Myths Of Matriarchy" And The Sacred Flute Complex Of The Papua New Guinea Highlands.” In Myths of Matriarchy Reconsidered, 98–120. Oceania Monographs 33. Sydney: Oceania Publications.

Holbraad, Martin, and Morten Axel Pedersen. 2009. “Planet M: The Intense Abstraction of Marilyn Strathern.” Anthropological Theory 9 (4): 371–94.

Keesing, Roger M. 1968. “Chiefs in a Chiefless Society: The Ideology of Modern Kwaio Politics.” Oceania 38 (4): 276–80.

———. 1982. “Kastom and Anticolonialism on Malaita: ‘Culture’ as Political Symbol.” Mankind 13 (4): 357–73.

———. 1997. “Tuesday Chiefs Revisited.” In Chiefs Today: Traditional Pacific Leadership and the Postcolonial State, edited by Geoffrey M. White and Lamont Lindstrom, 253–63. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Lebner, Ashley. 2016. “La Redescription de l’anthropologie Selon Marilyn Strathern.” L’Homme 218: 117–50.

McDougall, Debra. 2009. “Christianity, Relationality and the Material Limits of Individualism: Reflections on Robbins’s Becoming Sinners.” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 10 (March): 1–19.

Ogan, Eugène. 1991. “The Cultural Background to the Bougainville Crisis.” Journal de La Société Des Océanistes 92 (1): 61–67.

Read, Kenneth E. 1952. “Nama Cult of the Central Highlands, New Guinea.” Oceania 23 (1): 1–25.

———. 1965. The High Valley. Scribner.

Regan, Anthony J., and Helga M. Griffin, eds. 2005. Bougainville Before the Conflict. Canberra, A.C.T., Australia: ANU Press.

Ritchie, Jonathan. 2020. “From the Grassroots: Bernard Narokobi and the Making of Papua New Guinea’s Constitution.” The Journal of Pacific History 55 (2): 235–54.

Robbins, Joel. 2001. “God Is Nothing but Talk: Modernity, Language, and Prayer in a Papua New Guinea Society.” American Anthropologist 103 (4): 901–12.

Sahlins, Marshall D. 1963. “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 5 (3): 285–303.

Schieffelin, Edward L. 1982. “The Bau A Ceremonial Hunting Lodge: An Alternative to Initiation.” In Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea, 155–200. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

Schram, Ryan. 2014. “A New Government Breaks With The Past in The Papua New Guinea Parliament’s "Haus Tambaran".” Material World: A Global Hub for Thinking about Things. February 9, 2014.

Strathern, Andrew. 1973. “Kinship, Descent and Locality: Some New Guinea Examples.” In The Character of Kinship, edited by J. Goody, 21–33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1981. “Self-Interest and the Social Good: Some Implications of Hagen Gender Imagery.” In Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality, edited by Sherry Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, 166–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1991. “One Man and Many Men.” In Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, edited by Maurice Godelier and Marilyn Strathern, 197–214. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1996. “Cutting the Network.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2 (3): 517–35.

Tomlinson, Matt. 2013. “The Generation of the Now: Denominational Politics in Fijian Christianity.” In Christian Politics in Oceania, edited by Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall, 78–102. New York: Berghahn Books.

Wagner, Roy. 1974. “Are There Social Groups in the New Guinea Highlands?” In Frontiers of Anthropology: An Introduction to Anthropological Thinking, edited by Murray J. Leaf, 95–122. New York: D. Van Nostrand Co.

———. 1977. “Analogic Kinship: A Daribi Example.” American Ethnologist 4 (4): 623–42.

———. 1991. “The Fractal Person.” In Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, edited by Maurice Godelier and Marilyn Strathern, 159–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wesley-Smith, Terence, and Eugene Ogan. 1992. “Copper, Class, and Crisis: Changing Relations of Production in Bougainville.” The Contemporary Pacific 4 (2): 245–67.

Learning outcomes are what students know, understand and are able to do on completion of a unit of study. They are aligned with the University's graduate qualities and are assessed as part of the curriculum.

At the completion of this unit, you should be able to:

  • LO1. understand why Melanesia is treated as a geographic subfield within anthropology including both the strengths and the limitations of regional specialisation
  • LO2. identify a scholar's claims with respect to the body of ethnographic and other scholarly literature on this region
  • LO3. apply general theories of culture, society and historical formation of social systems to particular problems of interpretation that emerge within a specific geographic setting and among a group of cultures related by common history and environmental factors
  • LO4. undertake independent library research to make use of the concepts and the research findings of scholars to support and develop their own ideas
  • LO5. explain anthropological ideas and knowledge to many different audiences and for many different purposes in the context of an argument for a particular viewpoint

Graduate qualities

The graduate qualities are the qualities and skills that all University of Sydney graduates must demonstrate on successful completion of an award course. As a future Sydney graduate, the set of qualities have been designed to equip you for the contemporary world.

GQ1 Depth of disciplinary expertise

Deep disciplinary expertise is the ability to integrate and rigorously apply knowledge, understanding and skills of a recognised discipline defined by scholarly activity, as well as familiarity with evolving practice of the discipline.

GQ2 Critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking and problem solving are the questioning of ideas, evidence and assumptions in order to propose and evaluate hypotheses or alternative arguments before formulating a conclusion or a solution to an identified problem.

GQ3 Oral and written communication

Effective communication, in both oral and written form, is the clear exchange of meaning in a manner that is appropriate to audience and context.

GQ4 Information and digital literacy

Information and digital literacy is the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, manage, adapt, integrate, create and convey information using appropriate resources, tools and strategies.

GQ5 Inventiveness

Generating novel ideas and solutions.

GQ6 Cultural competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to actively, ethically, respectfully, and successfully engage across and between cultures. In the Australian context, this includes and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge systems, and a mature understanding of contemporary issues.

GQ7 Interdisciplinary effectiveness

Interdisciplinary effectiveness is the integration and synthesis of multiple viewpoints and practices, working effectively across disciplinary boundaries.

GQ8 Integrated professional, ethical, and personal identity

An integrated professional, ethical and personal identity is understanding the interaction between one’s personal and professional selves in an ethical context.

GQ9 Influence

Engaging others in a process, idea or vision.

Outcome map

Learning outcomes Graduate qualities

This section outlines changes made to this unit following staff and student reviews.

This class has been completely redesigned to become an advanced 3000-level seminar in anthropology.


The University reserves the right to amend units of study or no longer offer certain units, including where there are low enrolment numbers.

To help you understand common terms that we use at the University, we offer an online glossary.