Notes on the Sociology of Wantoks in Papua New Guinea
This paper was selected for the 2015 article prize of the Australian Anthropological Society.
In Melanesian pidgin languages, wantok means someone with a similar origin as oneself, and connotes a familiarity and mutual solidarity. Wantok has also become a watchword of politics and elite discourse on the Pacific Islands’ political and social development, where it is a figure of corruption, clientelism, and the lingering influence of tribal identity. Even among grassroots people, wantok sociality is common, especially in urban places, but wantok talk tends to paint the wantok as a drain and burden. In this paper, I argue that when people perform wantok status they juxtapose village and town as inversions. They thereby create familiar relationships in uncertain situations, but also posit intimacy as inimical to the idea of modernity as embodied in towns. This suggests that the wantok idiom draws upon a particularly segmentary logic of relatedness in which solidarity is relative to difference of varying scales. In so doing, wantoks transform the nature of the kinship ties which inform them. As evidence, I examine debates over urbanisation in Papua New Guinea (PNG), and ethnographic observations of a rural-urban nexus of Normanby Island and Alotau in Milne Bay Province, PNG.