What’s Ontology got to do with it?

On the knowledge of nature and the nature of knowledge in environmental anthropology

Authored by: Sian Sullivan

Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138782877
eBook ISBN: 9781315768946
Adobe ISBN: 9781317667964


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I don’t know if you’ve ever had the … experience of having your life changed by a quite trivial incident…. It happened to me on that trip. I was on the Southern Cross – that’s the mission boat – and there was a group of islanders there – recent converts…. And I thought I’d go through my usual routine, so I started asking questions. The first question was, what would you do with it if you earned or found a guinea? Would you share it, and if so who would you share it with? It gets their attention because to them it’s a lot of money, and you can uncover all kinds of things about kinship structure and economic arrangements, and so on. Anyway, at the end of this – we were all sitting cross-legged on the deck, miles from anywhere – they decided they’d turn the tables on me, and ask me the same questions. Starting with: What would I do with a guinea? Who would I share it with? I explained I was unmarried and that I wouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to share it with anybody. They were incredulous. How could anybody live like that? And so it went on, question after question…. They were rolling round the deck by the time I’d finished. And suddenly I realised that anything I told them would have got the same response…. And I suddenly saw that their reactions to my society were neither more nor less valid than mine to theirs. And do you know that was a moment of the most amazing freedom…. It was … the Great White God de-throned, I suppose. Because we did, we quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but that there was no measure.

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