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Title: Sleights of Hand and the Construction of Desire in a Papua New Guinea Modernity 
Author: Gewertz, Deborah; Errington, Frederick
Date: 1998
Publisher: University of Hawai'i Press
Center for Pacific Islands Studies
Citation: Gewertz, D. and F. Errington. 1998. Sleights of Hand and the Construction of Desire in a Papua New Guinea Modernity. The Contemporary Pacific 10 (2): 345-68.
Abstract: This paper is a case study of processes at work to deflect the anger and jealousy
many grassroots Papua New Guineans felt toward an indigenous urban middle
class that had increasingly monopolized positions of influence and affluence. We
focus on the activities of Sepik Women in Trade, a private organization begun by
middle-class women whose explicit objective was to assist poor women living
primarily in Wewak’s squatter settlements to market their handicrafts. Through
this organization’s activities, individual accumulation came to appear not only
practically feasible but also morally justified. These processes, reflecting middleclass
expectations, were based on a modernist claim that almost everyone could
gain access to a certain quality of life. Almost everyone had the potential opportunity
and capacity—indeed the right and virtual obligation—to work and save
to consume self-evidently desirable goods and services. Correspondingly, those
unable or unwilling to accumulate and thereby acquire these goods and services
would have primarily themselves to blame. Any ensuing—and persisting—inequality
would be understood as less the product of unfair exclusion or repudiation of
kin obligations than of personal failure to fulfill reasonable expectations. Such a
perspective, focusing on personal responsibility for failure in (what was being
defined as) an open and just system, undercut the idea that categorical exclusion
was even a systemic possibility. Through virtual sleights of hand, what were the
slights of class exclusion were being presented as reflecting less social injustice
than individual failure.
ISSN: 1043-898X
Keywords: capitalism, class, individualism, inequality, modernity, Papua New Guinea, women
LC Subject Headings: Oceania -- Periodicals.

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