Karen Brison (B.A., McGill and Ph.D., University of California at San Diego) specializes in anthropology of childhood, religion and the study of language and culture. Her most recent research is in Fiji where she also runs a term abroad. In Fiji she is studying the acquisition of gender and cultural identity in children's play and in a growing Pentecostal community. For her two years of doctoral research (1984-1986), she lived and did research in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. She has published a book, Just Talk: Meetings, Gossip, and Power in an East Sepik Village (University of California Press, 1992) on oratory and village politics based on that research. Prof. Brison started doing research in Fiji in 1997 and published a book, Our Wealth is Loving Each Other: Self and Society in Fiji (Lexington Books 2007) examining constructions of self and community in ceremonial language, church sermons and informal discourse in Rakiraki Fiji. Since 2002, Prof. Brison has been doing research in kindergartens in Suva Fiji, examining children's understandings of self and culture.
Our Wealth is Loving Each Other: Self and Society in Rakiraki Fiji
By Karen J. Brison, Lexington Books, 2007
Book description: Our Wealth is Loving Each Other explores the fluid and context-bound nature of cultural and personal identity among indigenous Fijians. While national identity in Fiji is usually defined in opposition to the West through reference to a romanticized pre-modern tradition, individual Fijians are often more concerned with defining their identity vis-à-vis other villagers and other groups within Fiji. When people craft self accounts to justify their position within the indigenous Fijian community they question and redefine both tradition and modernity. Modernity on the margins is an experience of anxiety provoking contradictions between competing ideologies, and between international ideologies and local experiences. Indigenous Fijians have been exposed to international ideologies and government programs extolling to virtues of “pre-modern” communities that place communal good and time honored tradition over individual gain. But other waves of policy and rhetoric have stressed individual achievement and the need to “shake” individuals out of community bonds to foster economic development. Individuals feel contradictory pressures to be autonomous, achieving individuals and to subordinate self to community and tradition. Our Wealth examines traditional kava ceremonies, evangelical church rhetoric and individual life history narratives, to show how individuals draw on a repertoire of narratives from local and international culture to define their identity and sense of self. In kava ceremonies, rural villagers assert that they are the guardians of a sacred village-based tradition, in order to win respect and support from urban relatives and indigenous Fijians from other areas of the country. In evangelical churches, people try to define new ways of being properly Fijian involving demonstrating commitment to community and God while downplaying traditional rank. In life history narratives of individuals in a variety of positions in village draw on different aspects of traditional ideology so as to justify their own life choices. Everyone responds to a common set of tensions caused by contradictions within international ideologies and gaps between local realities and extra-local ideology. But individuals position themselves differently relative to competing ideologies as they refract through idiosyncratic life circumstances, leading to creative, hybrid, reformulations of both indigenous tradition and global modernity.
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Just Talk: Gossip, Meetings, and Power in a Papua New Guinea Village
by Karen J. Brison, University of California Press, 1992.
Just Talk examines the often overlooked role of gossip and rumor in creating power in small Melanesian communities. The Kwanga of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea think that malicious gossip is almost as dangerous as sorcery. They spend several hours a week in community meetings where they look into rumors about sorcery, adultery, and other sources of potential trouble. Public debates seldom resolve problems. Instead, over the years public and private discussions generate layer upon layer of stories, which, though regarded by the community as plausible but unprovable " just so stories," have an insidious effect in defining situations and shaping reputations. To understand how " talk" can create and ultimately destroy the position of Melanesian leaders, Karen Brison follows discussions of particular situations over time and suggests that gossip and rumor are just as central to shaping and shifting power relations as are the public meetings which are more often studied.
Kwanga community leaders build reputations by hinting that they are the confidants of sorcerers able to kill those who challenge the authority of male cult initiates. Such talk creates the impression that these individuals are very powerful and that all initiated men should be feared, yet at the same time it endangers trust in surface impressions and leads to alarmist rumors. So, while ambitious individuals try to define situations in such a way as to further their own goals and enhance their own reputations, they cannot fully control the impact of their own words. Ultimately, the same men who build reputations through gossip and innuendo find themselves victimized in turn by malicious gossip.
Brison's innovative discussion reflects a broader concern with the role of words in constructing social reality. Just Talk suggests that our understanding of both Melanesian leadership and the power of words is greatly enhanced by attention to gossip and rumor: words are dangerous weapons that can have consequences the original speaker neither anticipated nor desired.
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Coping with Bereavement: Long-Term Perspectives on Grief and Mourning
edited by Karen J. Brison and Stephen Leavitt, American Anthropological Association, vol.23, no.4, 1995
The cross-cultural study of mourning offers promising ground for exploring the relationship between culture and emotional experience. Researchers have documented the profound feelings of grief, anger, and fear that accompany losses everywhere, suggesting that there is a "core grieving process" that occurs across cultures. At the same time there is considerable evidence that cultural beliefs that influence the meaning of death, and funerary practices that govern the expression of emotion can radically alter people's emotional reaction to bereavement.
The articles in this issue address the relationship between cultural beliefs and the experience of mourning in cultures as diverse as the Yucatan Maya of Mexico, the Toraja of Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Midwestern United States, and the Bumbita Arapesh and Kwanga of Papua New Guinea.
2008 - The Empire Strikes Back: Pentecostalism in Fiji. Ethnology.
2003 - Imagining Modernity in Rural Fiji. Ethnology 42: 335-48
2002 - A View of 2000 Coup from Rakiraki. Pacific Studies.
2001 - Crafting Sociocentric Selves in Religious Discourse in Rural Fiji. Ethos 29:453-74.
2001 - Constructing Identity through Ceremonial Language in Rural Fiji. Ethnology 40:309-27.
2001 - Ethnicity in the Pacific. In, R. Scupin, ed., Ethnicity: A Global Perspective. New Jersey: Ablex.
1999 - Hierarchy in the World of Fijian Children. Ethnology 38:97-120.
1999 - Imagining a Nation in Kwanga Village Courts, East Sepik Provice, Papua New Guinea. Anthropological Quarterly 72:74-94.
1998 - Giving Sorrow Words: Shifting Politics of Bereavement in a Papua New Guinea Village. Ethos 26:363-86.
1996 - Becoming Savage: Hegemony and Identity in an East Sepik Village. Anthropology and Humanism 21(1).
1995 - You Will Never Forget: Narrative, Bereavement, and World View Among Kwanga Women. Ethos 23:84-90.(with Stephen Leavitt) Coping With Bereavement: Long Term Perspectives on Grief and Mourning. Ethos 23:84-90.
1995 - Changing Constructions of Masculinity in a Sepik Society. Ethnology 34:155-175.
1993 - Organizing the Social Flow in a East Sepik Village. In Migrations andTransformations. Edited by Andrew Strathern and Gabrielle Sturzenhofecher. University of Pittsburgh Press.
1991 - Community and Prosperity: Social Movements in a Papua New Guinea Village, The Contemporary Pacific 3:325-355.
1989 - All Talk and No Action?: Saying and Doing in Kwanga Meetings. Ethnology 28:97-125. Reprinted in: Anthropological Approaches to Politics, Frank McGlynn and Arthur Tuden.eds. pp.106-129. University of Pittsburgh Press.