Paul Mitchell has recently begun a part-time Masters by Research in Pacific History, addressing a historical topic that is of very real significance for contemporary Vanuatu, and for the people of Malekula in particular. He plans to conduct archival and field research on the continuing role of one of the most important social institutions in the societies of the island of Malekula: the Nimangki grade-taking ceremony, which admits individuals to successively higher levels of authority within a community. There is a long but sporadic history of research on the Nimangki since the work of Layard in 1914, and to this Paul is able to add his own personal observations on Nimangki ceremonies of the 1980s, when he was based in Malekula as an agricultural officer. His central question asks what happens to the reproduction, coherence and stability of a community when a central institution for affirming authority is transformed in the context of colonial and then post-colonial development? Particularly, how do Malekulans reposition the Nimangki in relation to other contemporary political constructs, particularly Christianity and post-colonial national governance structures? This critical question for all of the communities of Vanuatu has been discussed in many different contexts, and Paul proposes that responses developed by rural Malekulans within their specific local context can be of tremendous value both locally and beyond Malekula, and for questions of authority more generally in Melanesia. Paul’s fieldwork will focus on several case study areas, geographically and culturally close, but with very different contact histories.
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