The Lens of Paige West

Reflections on an indigenous society and its development

By Jessica Gross

On a sunny Wednesday morning in September, I sat down with Paige West, the chair of the anthropology department, in her colorful office in Milbank Hall. The first thing she told me was that it was Independence Day in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where she does her fieldwork. “Forty years! It’s a major milestone.”

And then she made an appeal. “Can you please make sure that you don’t write that I write about culture change—in Papua New Guinea?” she said. “Because that’s not what I do.” This isn’t an idle concern. The fact that she does not write about PNG through the lens of Western values gets at the heart of what West has investigated and written about over two decades of work there. But to fully understand her meaning, we need—as in all matters—an immersion in context.

Papua New Guinea entered West’s consciousness very early, way before she first encountered anthropology. She grew up in Atlanta, where her mother lived, and in Murray County, Georgia, with her grandparents. One day, when she was a little girl, her aunt showed up at her grandparents’ house with a cat. The cat had a stick with a pillowcase, on which was a note: “We’re going to go to Papua New Guinea.” The seed took root. From then on, “I had sort of an interest in Papua New Guinea always,” she says, “but never imagined I would actually go there.”

West’s is not the stereotypical academic’s background, but her childhood inadvertently fostered skills vital to her ethnographic practice. Her grandparents lived on a farm until they had to work in the mills. “I grew up, when I was at my grandmother’s house, outside roaming around in the woods with my cousins,” she says. The rest of the time, she lived in downtown Atlanta with her mom, and was, as she says, a latchkey kid. The balance between rural and urban lifestyles carries through: for several months a year, West leaves New York City for Papua New Guinea.

She went to an elementary school in a working-class neighborhood at the tail end of busing, a social experiment that profoundly shaped her perspective on race and class. “I have ideas about what makes a person a good ethnographer. I’m a pretty good observer of the social world,” West says. “From early on, I understood that some people were marked as different, and in that school environment, I saw that difference was not well tolerated, be it based on race, class, or gender. “It became clear that there’s race and there’s class, and there’s this world in which there’s a constant sense of judgment.”

For high school, West’s elementary cohort was transitioned to a well-to-do school next to the Emory campus. Several teachers noticed that “even though I was a working-class kid, I wasn’t an idiot,” as she puts it, and college appeared as an option for the first time.

At Wofford College, the idea of Papua New Guinea, which had been percolating in her mind since that pillowcase, reared its head once more. In an anthropology class she’d taken, West read Pigs for the Ancestors, on ritual and ecology in PNG. Until then, she had wanted to go to medical school, but now, suddenly, the script flipped, and for good: “I’m going to go to Papua New Guinea!”

West attended the University of Georgia for her master’s, then Rutgers for her PhD. At that time, in the early 90s, there was a big political shift toward the belief that in order for environmental conservation to work, it had to be twinned with economic development. One place this experimental model for conservation was being heavily enacted was Papua New Guinea: one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, with a low population density and high rate of endemism, or species that occur nowhere else. “It was a perfect storm for this experiment, which was basically: if we provide development for indigenous people, then they will conserve their biological diversity,” she explains. “As a young anthropology student, that brings up all kinds of red flags. What is development? What does it mean to talk about nature? What does it mean to talk about wilderness? Are these real things or are these ideological constructs from Europe that are overlaid on indigenous communities?”

So began West’s work in Papua New Guinea, which focused on the assumptions these conservation and development projects brought to bear. She did research at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, which had a big conservation project in PNG; other organizations and NGOs in PNG; and in PNG’s Maimafu village, to examine how this conservation ideology was being enacted.

West’s dissertation, which became the 2006 book Conservation is Our Government Now, argues the notion that Western ideals about nature and value will solve our environmental crisis. “That overlay of non-indigenous ideas onto indigenous spaces and places and peoples doesn’t work. Conservation fails everywhere,” she says. “I argue that it fails in part because there’s this fundamental mismatch between the indigenous ontology and epistemology and the Western ontology and epistemology. But also because these conservation ideologies very rarely even notice that indigenous people actually have pretty hardcore systems of value around the environment.” In the area of PNG she studied, there is “a synergy between people and their surroundings,” she says, “a relation with the biophysical world that is so much more detailed and deep than this conservation ideology, which is basically a capitalist ideology that for anything to be valuable, it has to have an economic benefit. I argue that conservation has become much more of a vehicle for neoliberal economic intervention than for anything that actually will help to maintain different systems of ontology and epistemology and value.” Relating to nature through quantification and classification is not the same thing as an intrinsic philosophy, and to assume it will be more effective is not only ethnocentric, but a fallacy.

West’s second book, From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea, published in 2012, emerged from her relationships with villagers in PNG, who gave her the idea to focus on coffee. “The general argument is that places like Maimafu village are cast as out-of-the-way places. They’re cast as places that are cut off from modern systems,” she says. West argues against this misconception by tracing the trajectory of coffee’s production and how its semiotic meaning changes at every stage, from the coffee growers all the way to the Brooklynites sipping their Papua New Guinea-sourced blend. In PNG, coffee signifies a connection to the rest of the world; by the end of the chain, the meaning of the coffee has become the inverse—part of a stubborn insistence on viewing PNG as primitive and disconnected.

“I leave people with a more critical lens on what it means to constantly cast Papua New Guinea as the primitive. I leave that as a question—and that’s the book I’m writing now.” West’s current investigation is into the material manifestations of this vast, wrongheaded belief; she focuses on tourism, journalism, development, and conservation, all of which she says operate under the misunderstanding that PNG has very recently been brought into modernity—that is, to come back around to the beginning, that the country has undergone a big, Western-driven culture change, from the primitive to the more modern. This belief is false—PNG existed in richness and complexity before white people became interested in the area in the 1930s—and is detrimental to PNG. So to say that West studies “culture change” in Papua New Guinea is to reinforce the very belief systems she is arguing against.

In her work both in PNG and at home, West has prioritized both mentorship and cross-discipline dialogue. The most meaningful course she teaches at Barnard is, she says, The Interpretation of Culture, a huge lecture class of mostly first-year students. Though she knows most students won’t major in anthropology, become anthropologists, or work in PNG, she believes the course “does open up the possibility seeing the world in a different way,” she says—that it can yield “a fundamental shift in people’s ideas about others.” West’s seminar on the anthropology of the anthropocene is holding several meetings with a class on climate change and law taught by sociology professor J. C. Salyer. West and Salyer are currently conducting a joint project on climate change and migration in the Pacific region. The shared course meetings offer students a truly interdisciplinary focus on current events and global climate change.

West also takes great joy in witnessing the skills her students have developed over their undergraduate years. She takes her mentorship role seriously in PNG, too: she co-founded the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research, an NGO dedicated to Papua New Guinean academic researchers. West’s sense of empathy—which has roots in her elementary school days—is crucial not only to her role as a professor and mentor, but to her ethnographic work as well. There’s a sensibility that ethnographers have, she says: “It’s empathy, especially for people that you don’t agree with, because that’s the way that you can understand how transformation might happen.”