There is a saying that in a Papua New Guinean family there is a father, a mother, children – and an anthropologist. If we consider anthropology to be a science, then anthropologists are probably the first scientists who entered the country and stayed until today the steadiest western researchers. Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish scholar based in the United Kingdom, established the method of what he called ‘participant observation’ on the Trobriand Islands. Malinowski's critique was that the information people in the western part of the world had about colonized countries came mostly from missionaries, whose aim was not to describe, but to convert people to the Christian faith. Maybe this anthropological criticism came to the mind of an old relative of Samalangdun, the god who probably puzzled some of the divers of the current expedition (see blog from Baptiste Faure, 28.11.), and he decided to push Malinowski even further in his idea of a short term personal presence in the observed area. Malinowski planned to go to Melanesia shortly before World War I and study the people on the Trobriand Islands for some months. But once the War broke out, he got stuck there because as a British citizen he was not allowed to return home. He lived more than three years amongst Trobriands and wrote his famous book Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922. Today, it is a classic in social anthropology, while participant observation has become an established method in both anthropology and sociology.

Photo SAM 1041,
Fieldnotes from the Alis, Copyright Tanja Bogusz

So this is how I come into the picture. I am a sociologist doing participant observation within the marine part of the expedition. Philippe Bouchet was so kind as to invite me to observe him and his team. I am interested in the dynamics of scientific knowledge, its production and diffusion in the so-called biological era. You might wonder what the difference is between an anthropologist and a sociologist. It is as crucial as the difference between being a morphological and a molecular taxonomist. Though they need each other to build an integrative science, their purposes are different. Anthropologists, like Malinowski and many of his excellent colleagues, tend to travel far away from home to study foreign countries, cosmologies of nature and culture and compare them with the western world. Sociologists usually have lower travel costs and prefer to look around their own environment. If they use participant observation as a method, they do not have the systematic advantage of the seemingly obvious ‘foreigner’ which seems to make objectification so much easier. Sociologists are thus arguing a lot about how they can reach this form of objectification. One effect of this productive conflict is that some sociologists feel close to anthropologist approaches and make use of participant observation – though they normally stay at ‘home’. But the field I am observing happens to reach far and so as a sociologist I have to travel. Now it is a perfect mess, because not only some of my sociologist colleagues think that I have converted to anthropology, but so does my field!

Photo SAM 0729,
Freshwater-Tour in Rempi, Copyright Tanja Bogusz

And here another difference comes up: compared to the biologists I am observing, my specimens are humans, they are alive, and contain complex moral, linguistic, technological, political and cultural items and differences. Although they are sort of removed from their habitat – living and working together for six weeks at the same place, they would not agree if I put them in small containers and placed station numbers on them. Some sociological statisticians would be ready to do so, but it might be difficult to hold on to that exercise. Not only do many of them migrate so extensively that any attempt to map their habitat seems hopeless (some of them speak 5 to 7 languages fluently and without an accent!), they also do more or less the same job as I do, which consists in providing a good description of reality.

So, as a sociologist I am not studying Papua New Guineans, but the way in which western – notably Parisian – scientists are working on nature. I am puzzling with the idea of classification and the idea of what the British sociologist John Law calls 'organizing modernity'. Classification is deeply interlinked with the idea of modernity. I am also interested in the idea of experimentation, which has both a scientific and a social meaning. So does the notion of biodiversity. To document a most complete inventory of biodiversity is for many naturalists the most important aim of their research. So it has to do with doing an inventory, with classification, and above all, with knowledge production.

Photo SAM 0405
Microscope observation in the lab, copyright Tanja Bogusz

Similar to Malinowski, sociologists of science would say that one cannot understand cosmologies of knowledge without having a direct access to their production in situ. By choosing the laboratory of Philippe Bouchet in the rue Buffon in Paris, I was lucky to find a field side where all these entities are in constant interaction. Finally, there are institutions, mollusks, microscopes, formaldehyde, calibration, amateurs and specialists. We are used to organize our idea of modernity in a way to facilitate complexity – what is generally also known as ‘rationalization’. On the governmental level, the western countries have invented intermediary institutions that represent a significant amount of people, materialities and moralities to cut short personal encounters and negotiations. This concept of governing is based on a triangle. For instance, if you want to get access to the sea of a western country like, lets say France or Germany, you would turn to the highest end of the triangle, that is, the government and ask for permission. After getting the permission from the government you will go a level deeper to the regional deputes who normally are induced to accept, once the governmental decision has been given. And this goes down to the local level. Western people are thus used to proceed from the top to the bottom. Here, in Papua New Guinea it's not exactly the other way round, but a more likely horizontal bottom-up approach is required, because the land and the sea is not owned by the government, but by indvidual landowners and clans. Indeed, rationalities are at play, and different forms of making politics.

As a consequence, within the Papua New Guinean expedition, biologists become anthropologists, that is, not only specialists of local customs of displaying and negotiating nature, but also specialists of their own scientific cosmologies, because they have to make them explicit in order to get access to the fascinating sea and freshwater areas. This is why Philippe Bouchet spends a lot of time in negotiating with local counselors and landowners. Despite of what he expected, their where often not informed about the expedition, or only in last minute, when the biologists where already up to trespass their waters. This produced many problems and anger from the side of several landowners, and a lot of political and personal “savoir-faire” especially from the management side of the expedition. And these negociations are still going on.

Photo SAM 1147
Trip to Riwo village for negociating sea access, copyright Tanja Bogusz

Papua New Guinea is a very poor country. Within the last 25 years after the Christensen foundation came here to do the first naturalist survey in the Madang lagoon, the country suffers from serious economical and infrastructural problems. Although several companies have settled in the country, people still walk miles and days on the streets to get their children to school or to go to work. Land and sea access is mostly all people have a disposal on. So they hold on their landownership. On the other hand, we are told that they have made a lot of bad experiences with foreign enterprises. Accordingly, being in a third world country, the expedition has to face also globalized realities and problems. In the eyes of many locals, the expedition seemed to appear all of a sudden, well equipped with technologies almost foreign to many of the people here, with a message and purpose difficult to understand. The expedition thus seemed to represent just another big western enterprise that wants to make a lot of money with PNG resources. And, compared to the land part, who has with the Binatang Center headed by Vojtech Novotny a long-term implantation in the country in terms of research and education, the marine part focuses on a short term period of sampling. So the role of the local brokers who build a bridge between the marine biologists and the inhabitants of the Madang coast becomes a crucial one. These brokers, although not always designed as such – as the PNG-students of biology and environmental research that are involved in the expedition – are also observers.

What does that mean for the expedition? Let's take again the saying and translate it to the current situation: If you want to describe the scientific laboratory of the marine expedition in PNG, you have now a Principal Investigator, a research team, a technical and administrative staff, 12 PNG students within a certain number of NGO-experienced actors who contribute with their experience to help making the expedition a success – and a sociologist. Funningly, it seems to be a never-ending observation of the observed. Here, one of the members of the expedition is observed by a resident of Kranket Island:

Observing the observer
Observing the observer, Copyright Tanja Bogusz

Obviously, biologists are not only observed by sociologists, but also observed by the locals, as the blog contribution of Olivier Pascal (27.11.) has recently explored. Fair enough, the position of observers and the observed are completely mixed up.

Tanja Bogusz, 1.12.2012