Pig men and women, big men and women: gender and production in the New Guinea Highlands

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Author: Paul Sillitoe
Date: Summer 2001
From: Ethnology(Vol. 40, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh, Department of Anthropology
Document Type: Article
Length: 10,085 words

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The work of herding pigs falls mainly to women in the New Guinea Highlands. Yet men control the disposal of animals, commonly in sociopolitical exchange events that earn them prestige. Some commentators regard these pig management arrangements as an aspect of exploitative gender relations, men appropriating the labor of women to bolster their reputations. But this interpretation is contrary to the constitution of an acephalous social order, which esteems equality and affords both women and men political freedom. An investigation of pig ownership and production challenges the exploitation hypothesis. Both women and men have rights in animals which all recognize. And the labor and energy put into pig herding do not suggest exploitation. Indeed, labor arrangements and expenditure cast production in an intriguing light. In some critical senses they obfuscate its existence, not to hide exploitation from the hapless exploited but to nullify the possibility as pertinent to an acephalous polity. The production of gifts in this tribal context is radically different from the production of commodities for a market where notions of exploitation may apply. (Papua New Guinea, pigs, gender, labor, property)


Responsibility for pig management is an important aspect of gender relations in New Guinea. The daily work of herding pigs and controlling them is widely seen as the duty of women, whereas men take over and dominate in their public transaction. It is here in the community-wide domain that some men legitimate their big-manship claims, success at exchange being central to social standing and respected status. Some commentators have interpreted this arrangement as exploitative, women working to keep pigs which men take and use at esteemed public events. "The social relations in which both production and exchange take place are thus relations of inequality, discriminating against the activities of women" (Josephides 1985:112).

Pig keeping extends beyond male-female relations to political relations generally. The well-known exchange institutions of Melanesia, in which pigs together with other valuables circulate, are central to sociopolitical relations. The management of pigs is a precursor to political relations. It supplies wealth which persons manipulate not only to earn influence but also to validate continually their political associations. The relations of pig production pertain to the containment of political power beyond the reach of any interest group, fundamental to any stateless political order. Pig-manship is not only about keeping pigs but also about keeping power.

Yet the ethnography of the region is largely silent on issues surrounding pig management, with some notable exceptions (see Pospisil 1963:2203-18; Rappaport 1968; Hide 1981; Boyd 1984, 1985; Kelly 1988; Dwyer 1993). The implication is not that writers have overlooked mentioning pigs, for it is inconceivable that one could comment on many aspects of Melanesian life without referring to them. They feature prominently in many events that characterize social life, being slaughtered on ritual occasions and at community-wide festivals. It is that pigs figure more as walk-on players in analyses of the many events and institutions in which they feature rather than star as leading actors. Few discuss rather than...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A81891806