Eine ethno-kognitive Analyse der Yupno in Papua New Guinea by J. Wassmann

Reviews — Das Ideal des leicht gebeugten Menschen: Eine ethno-kognitive Analyse der Yupno in Papua New Guinea by J. Wassmann

Tomasetti, Friedegard

Das Ideal des leicht gebeugten Menschen: Eine ethno-kognitive Analyse der Yupno in Papua New Guinea.

By J. Wassmann, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1993. Pp. XIII + 246.

With this book Wassmann aims to contribute to ethnographic writing under the banner of cognitive anthropology. Although he gives only a synopsis of the diverse facets of cognitive anthropology (and refers to an essay of his on the subject, p. 13), in chapter one he discourses on the research concepts which guide his analysis, and discusses their validity within the ethnographic context throughout the book. The subsequent chapters (two to five) deal with numeration, classification, perceptions of the Yupno ‘world’ and, finally, with a cultural model which he was able to craft.

Wassmann did his fieldwork with the Yupno of the Madang Province of PNG from 1986 to 1988. He classifies the data, as recorded in this book, under the heading of ‘everyday cognition’. The fieldwork was part of a wider inter-disciplinary program of research into cognition under his leadership, which included studies in ethno-medicine and ethno-botany. Planned for a later stage is a comparison of all three studies which should establish how far the subject cognitive orders may be combined into an emic pattern of Yupno thought (p. 11).

The ‘native’s point of view’, so close to the anthropologist’s heart since at least Malinowski’s work, received a new impetus and perspective from the notion of the ‘just plain folks’ (‘jpfs’) which first appeared in the cognitive disciplines in the 1980s: it provides the basis for including the notion of everyday cognition/knowledge, as its principal complement, into a particular concept of culture. Because the concept of culture has been separated from its determinative ties to linguistics, this emerging branch of cognitive anthropology may utilise afresh culture concepts such as that of Goodenough which (paraphrased) asserts that culture exists in the form of things that people have in their mind. This also is a deliberate move away from the notion of the ‘omniscient informant’ and its related model of culture as a general system of knowledge — although (in practice) for Wassmann not to the complete exclusion of the use of the ‘omniscient informant’ in his fieldwork or in his analysis of the use of the related culture model. However, of course, Wassmann is aware that the ontological key to culture is not yet elucidated.

The research into cognition, as in cross-cultural and cognitive psychology to which Wassmann’s work significantly leans, examines a wide range of processes people are involved in when increasing or using their knowledge. But as anthropology has no research techniques to assess directly either the structures or processes of memory, it aims towards the description and analysis of the individuals’ representations of knowledge, as a means towards understanding their mental images. Wassmann had to devise field techniques to collect and validate the body of Yupno common knowledge on the one hand and the range of knowledge of individuals on the other hand. He thus combined, into sequential steps, the established anthropological techniques of interview and observation with tests which he and a psychologist specifically designed for this research.

The categorisation of informants according to a range of criteria commenced with the initial research stages. However the distinction between common and individual knowledge was, to some degree, achieved by working with individuals identified either as specialists (‘omniscient informants’) or as ‘jpfs’. Developed in research mainly in suburbia in the United States, the concept of the ‘jpfs’, as a complement to that of everyday knowledge, acquired in cognitive anthropology the connotation that the individual is regarded as a member of his/her society and culture whose knowledge might vary from that of other members, rather than as one of the carriers of common knowledge, though theirs also may vary.

Wassmann describes three distinctive aspects of Yupno culture and he presents them according to his research sequence, viz: interview, observation and the tests.

In his chapter on numeration, the traditional counting system (known only by a few old men) precedes counting techniques one of which was observed at presentations of bride price, and the other (using the national currency) when shopping in a trade store. The tests comprised abstract counting and some arithmetic exercises.

The following chapter, dealing with classifications, starts with an outline of an attribute with three conditions, viz: ‘hot’ or ‘cool’ or ‘cold’, which according to Yupno thinking patterns their environment and one of which is inherent in everything including people; this attribute can be manipulated for benefit or harm. There follow accounts by a man skilled in sorcery of a few situations of the previous year, which describe in detail his manipulations of some plants for the use of their specific attribute; also he demonstrated for the anthropologist the use of those plants. Tests of classifying an aggregation of selected objects according to an equivalent attribute follow, and separately, a classification test of plant food items in which women of different ages were a majority of testees. The chapter thereafter deals with perceptions of the ‘world’. Wassmann gives a description of how limited and closed (until quite recently) the Yupno understood their ‘world’ to be, and how their rather limited space is reflected in the settlement pattern. Accounts by and observations of informants of their movements during one day reveal usually limited distance excursions from the residence — these are matched by limited contacts. Tests were made in which individuals were given he task of mapping on the ground the area in which they live and which they share with the people speaking the same language.

Wassmann considered the tests an important part of his fieldwork, and he leans towards the psychology which follows Piaget’s theory. In 1988 he published an essay (‘Methodische Probleme kulturvergleichender Untersuchungen im Rahmen der Piaget Theorie der kognitiven Entwicklung aus der Sicht eines Ethnologen’, Zeitschrift fuer Ethnologie, vol. 113, pp. 21-66) in which he assessed some features of the testing procedures in cross-cultural research. He recognised some of the early findings as culturally biased since they were based on the procedure of applying tests, which were developed with school children in Geneva, to (mainly) children of cultural background differing from that of the model testees but unmodified to accord with this new background. He found that the results of more recently designed tests were more meaningful since these tests were intended to provide data which derived from relevant cultural traits. With the latter tests went a shift from the aim of cross-cultural comparison, to intra-cultural analysis through testing within a discrete culture, and the move from the etic to the emic point of view. This move became a point of orientation in Wassmann’s own work. He conducted the Yupno tests after twenty months of field research, and by that time he had assembled a body of ethnographical datawhich could provide a frame for the test situation. He prepared and conducted the tests together with P.R. Dasen, a psychologist from Geneva, who joined him for a work period in the field. No doubt the strength of the book rests significantly on the detailed accounts given of the tests and their results.

Focussed on problems which Wassmann identified from data on aspects of the Yupno everyday knowledge, the tests were to serve several purposes. First, their function was to encourage the informants to make explicit some information which otherwise could not have been recorded. Equally important, Wassmann’s aim of verifying the relationship between common and individual knowledge depended on relating the individual’s knowledge to his classification of informants. I have to return to the ‘jpfs’, a term Wassmann seems content with because it serves the purpose of either complementing recorded everyday knowledge or of contrasting it with the concept of the ‘specialist’ (and his knowledge). Notwithstanding the term ‘jpfs’ Wassmann determines his categories of informants according to age, sex, specialisation and (reflecting the degree of modemisation of Yupno society) to schooling and travel outside the Yupno valley. Wassmann seemed to have had some difficulties in engaging informants, especially adults. Some reasons given by the people were: women don’t count in public; men do not sort plant food items; and some informants declined the request individually to perform a task because the test format as such was incongruent with Yupno culture.

The great variety of informants’ knowledge recorded shows a predictable break along the spectrum of the degree of integration of the individuals into traditional(i.e. construed pre-contact) Yupno culture: it clearly distinguishes between the competence of old men and women, and of middle-aged women, and of children without schooling — and that of men in their middle years, and of children with schooling. In spite of the degree of difference in tested knowledge which arises from the determination of roles by sex and specialisation and the limits the socialisation process places on the younger ones, the old men, and women of all ages, and children without schooling seem to share some basic features of knowledge. Since recent societal changes had not been part of this research program, Wassmann does not deliberate beyond his set frame on the wider competences of the men in their middle years.

Wassmann identified the image of the human body as a cultural model of the Yupno, although of a limited validity today. An imagined line from nose to genitals divides the body into the left passive ‘cold’ female and into the right active ‘hot’ male halves. An impressive example is that through the Yupno ‘world’ (an oval in the cognitive maps — especially in those of the old men) flows the Yupno river which is also identified as the creator Morap. This ‘world’ corresponds to a person facing downstream with the above mentioned line as axis, which provides the societal orientation that upstream is the mythical place of origin, and downstream is the land of the dead; with to the right side the active ‘hot’, and to the left side the passive ‘cold’. This principle is repeated in the oval-shaped house with a fireplace along its axis and the corresponding sitting order for the sexes. Inherent in this model also is that counting should start with the right hand marking the fingers of the left hand, to the left of the body centre line – and then chanping sides.

Further, the model has a manifestation in an ideal of the Yupno, which is found in the ‘cool’ attribute, i.e. a person being neither without energY (‘cold’) nor egotistical (‘hot’), but ‘cool’ — and of social equality with the others. It is epitomised by the deportment of the slightly bowed man — der leichtgebeugte Mensch.

In conclusion, readers of OCEANIA may be familiar with some features of this estimable work, which come from the author’s essay ‘Worlds in Mind: The experience of an outside world in a community of the Finisterre Range…’, published in vol. 64 no 2 (1993): pp. 117-145. Chapter four (pp. 155-208) of the book under review includes, as sections, a German version of this essay’s text.


Copyright University of Sydney, Oceania Publications Dec 1995

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