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Reconciling Different Ways of Life:

Negotiating Customary, Traditional and Modern Ontologies in Papua New Guinea


The difficulty of reconciling tensions in Papua New Guinea is compounded by the complexity of different and intersecting ways of life in that country. Customary tribal practices and meanings compete with traditional Christian cosmologies and modern development possibilities. Each of these could have a negotiated place in the future of Papua New Guinea, but presently they are the source of considerable conflict.

This ongoing project, initiated in 2004, and marked by the publication of Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Development in 2012 (University of Hawaii Press), links local research and community-based learning about alternative development strategies. Our overriding concern is to work across the complex tensions—both destructive and creative—presented in the intersection of ontologically different formations or ways of life.

How can people in their everyday practices—including migrant settlements and urban villages, rural and customary communities—negotiate the living legacies of tribalism, the continuing influence of a colonial heritage, the intensity of different proselytizing religions, and the contemporary challenges ofmassive mining development? This for us is best done through ‘both-ways’ politics. That is,alternative development strategies entail critically holding different ways of life together in relation.

Both-ways politics, in our view, entails not just advocating another modernity but a lived reconciliation between ontologically different ways of doing things. Reconciliation in this sense does not mean collapsing different life-ways into a single harmonious whole. Even a Melanesian version of a singular ‘modernity’ would be problematic. Rather we are talking about the importance of living with and negotiating what James Tully has called ‘strange multiplicities’. This work has had practical effect in supporting the establishment of learning centres across the country that take seriously both customary knowledge and modern analytical expertise.


Port Moresby - Vanagi-Koki village court reconciling modern and customary law - Taxie Bagoli, Chairman 20081022_002Port Moresby, disabled hostel 2011 11 04 004