Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Professor W.L. Rodman
A number of anthropological studies have been published on societies on the West New Britain mainland but little information is available about Vitu culture and society. The intention of this dissertation is to provide an account of Vitu social structure and particularly to describe and analyse the processes of group formation in the society. Specifically, the study attempts to elucidate the Vitus' claim that while they belong to matrilineal clans, they "follow both sides", inheriting rights from both parents.
Anthropologists working in various parts of Melanesia have studied accommodation between two apparently incompatible cultural principles and have published studies of societies where patrilineal and cognatic descent are both organizing principles. This dissertation provides comparative data for these studies but it differs from them because it seeks to explain the relationships between matrilineal and cognatic descent.
After an historical introduction, the study describes matrilineal and cognatic ideologies in Vitu. Matrilineal descent divides Vitus into discrete categories and provides a conceptual frame-work, in terms of which people orient themselves in time and space, calculate social relationships and assess rights to claim membership in particular groups. Cognatic descent allows individuals considerable freedom in joining groups and gaining access to land. Vitus assert rights in matrilineal corporations by stressing cognatic descent from matrilineage men.
Cognatic inheritance of land-rights means that lineage members and lineage descendants share land. Members of the two categories compete for resources, and tensions are exacerbated by a cultural preference that "the woman follows the man". This preference results in virilocal residence and a pattern of economic cooperation that allows women limited control over their land. These factors weaken the matri-lineage and strengthen bonds among cognates. Lineage members cannot expel lineage descendants from their land. Instead they retain land for their lineages through strategic marriages. Each lineage becomes the centre of a limited marriage universe consisting of closely allied lineages exchanging women and land.
The traditional political organization of Vitu was related to the patterns of descent and alliance in the society. The islands were divided into hostile, largely endogamous territories, each containing two or more relatively endogamous groups composed of members of closely allied lineages. Local communities consisted of cognatically-related kinsmen who were members of intermarrying lineages.
The symbolism of ceremonial exchange in Vitu continues to reflect values of balanced exchange of property and personnel between allied lineages. In the contemporary society, marriage patterns still include clan exogamy and reciprocal exchange of women. But some young people arrange their own marriages, and lineage leaders and elders worry about the future of the matrilineage as a land-holding corporation.
The interaction of matrilineal and cognatic descent in the processes of group formation in Vity contrasts with that in other areas of Melanesia. In the New Guinea High-lands, recruitment of local groups is bilateral, but Highlanders conceptualize local groups as patrilineal clans. In the Highlands, descent and residence patterns tend to be harmonic. So accommodation between patrilineal and cognatic ideologies occurs in ascendant generations where the distinction between residence and clan membership becomes blurred. In Vitu, the disharmonic descent and residence rules require the distinction between local group, and lineage membership to be preserved. Adjustment between matrilineal and cognatic descent in Vitu occurs only through marriage.
The dissertation concludes by stressing the considerable choice available to Vitus in joining social groups. Opportunities for joining a variety of groups may be as great in societies where unilineal descent is a significant factor as in societies where cognatic descent is a major organizing principle.
Blythe, Jennifer Mary, "Following Both Sides: Processes of Group Formation in Vitu" (1978). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 698.