University of Rochester


Going global

Anthropology professor Robert Foster analyzes the national culture of Papua New Guinea to help understand the interconnectedness of people—no matter how far apart—in a world awash in global commodities like Coca-Cola. By Jayne Denker
photo of Robert Foster
CULTURED: Robert Foster, associate professor and chair of the anthropology department, has traveled to the remote island nation of Papua New Guinea since 1984 to study changes in its national culture.(Photo: Elizabeth Torgerson-Lamark)

Several years ago, Pepsi aired a television commercial in Papua New Guinea. It was filled with images tinged with blue (to contrast with the red of rival Coca-Cola) of people rollerblading, diving into pools, and partying in a city street. It didn’t go down well with many people in the remote South Pacific nation.

Then there was the Coca-Cola commercial. It integrated the soft drink into scenes of traditional village life. The ad was received favorably precisely because it used images residents could recognize and relate to, without the subtext urging them to become urbanized and Westernized.

For Robert Foster, associate professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology and longtime scholar of Papua New Guinea, the contrast is more than just another skirmish in the “cola wars.”

“The Pepsi ad might have hit its target of young people who aspire to be modern, urban, and Western, but that’s a pretty small target in Papua New Guinea,” Foster says. “I think the Coke ad resonated with more people in PNG. It appealed to local ideas of kinship, group activity, and tradition,” he adds, while the failing of Pepsi was assuming that all third­world nations want to become part of the same global village.

“Both ads are examples of global marketing; that is, they try to communicate a putatively universal theme—for Coke, ‘Always,’ and for Pepsi, ‘Generation Next’—in a particular cultural context. What really strikes me about these ads, and other examples of global marketing, is how to me they seem so familiar and so recognizable, despite the fact that they depict and address audiences in a country where broadcast television itself and many consumer goods are new and strange to most people.”

One of the leading anthropologists of Papua New Guinea’s national culture, Foster has studied the island nation north of Australia and adjoining Indonesia for nearly 20 years. In his most recent book, Materializing the Nation, Foster uses the cola ads as well as other examples from popular culture and the mass media to analyze how countries such as Papua New Guinea try to welcome membership in the global economy while retaining their own identity as nations.

“In a way, my research has been one continual attempt to deal with the long history of entanglement of people living in remote areas of Papua New Guinea with the lives of people in Europe and North America,” says Foster.

Initially drawn to the country specifically because it held the allure of alternative and exotic cultures—something out of National Geographic—Foster first arrived in 1984 to do doctoral research on the funerary and memorial rituals of Tanga, a coral island of approximately 5,000 people.

“What drew me there was in some ways a fantasy—a fantasy of people living in a tropical environment who had very little contact with the outside world,” Foster says. “It’s a utopian attraction—the hope that there’s something radically different [out there]. And it is a complete fantasy. There was a long history of contact and colonization in New Guinea.”

Assuming that the Pacific Rim country is still filled with bamboo huts, war shields, and cannibals would be a gross misconception. “The outside world” came to the islands in the form of explorers in the 1500s and, in the 1800s, through colonization by the Dutch, Germans, and British. After spending much of the 20th century under the administrative rule of Australia and Indonesia, the country earned independence in 1975.

“In a way, my research has been one continual attempt to deal with the long history of entanglement of people living in remote areas of Papua New Guinea with the lives of people in Europe and North America.”

—Robert Foster

As a graduate student, visiting Tanga, Foster lived with a family in one of many widely spaced hamlets, the preferred community organization, as “people don’t like to live too close together,” he says. He has returned to the same village many times since, most recently in 2002.

As he observed the country evolving, his area of interest has evolved as well, from mortuary rituals to the overall changing culture of the people. He saw many instances of the islanders integrating their customs into the “modern” world, but the transition has had a disturbing side.

“Over the last 20 years, the changes in Tanga have gone in the opposite direction from what most people would imagine,” Foster says. “With increasing contact with the West, it was feared that people would lose their culture. But in reality people have become more disconnected from the world and the world economy.”

That might seem puzzling to those who imagine that third­world nations follow a set trajectory of globalization: Western people arrive, influence the natives, and alter indigenous customs by introducing a new lifestyle; natives become enamored of Western culture and abandon their traditions for the more glamorous consumer culture of the West; and native languages and traditions disappear as the country joins Earth’s generic global village filled with McDonald’s, Coca­Cola, and Nike.

It’s not that simple.

The residents of Papua New Guinea want to join the global marketplace, Foster says, and participate in the world economy. Yet because of devalued currency, a low rating by the World Bank, and few commodities to trade, participating on equal footing is impossible.

“In no uncertain terms, people in Tanga said last year, ‘We are going backwards.’ They have a sense of themselves as declining into a past state of isolation and primitiveness,” Foster says. “This is, of course, what globalization looks like to many people when you consider the outcome of global financial policy, for example.”

Deborah Gewertz, professor of anthropology at Amherst College, who also studies cultures of the Pacific and globalization, says the changes taking place in Papua New Guinea are part of a larger global process.

“Because [Foster] has had much experience with the country, it is there that he can best understand the ways in which local people engage with global processes and with commodities,” Gewertz says.

Cultural purists—those who define globalization as a capitalist procedure that robs countries of their individuality—might welcome this effect in order to keep a country from being Westernized, but the countries in question wouldn’t necessarily agree.

“One of the concerns in Tanga is not that Coca­Cola or any other brand is threatening their culture, but that they have no access to this stuff,” says Foster. “Not that they ‘want it all,’ or that they want it the same way that we might want it, but the economic circumstances are beyond their control. That’s a far greater concern to them than the cultural threat that people in the West are concerned about.

“You can say, ‘Everybody’s got Coca­Cola and McDonald’s, and everybody’s going to be the same,’ but that’s a pretty superficial assessment. We in the West define people by what they consume, because we’re a consumer culture. We have to be careful not to get stuck in that because we’re reducing culture to consumer items.”

And what of the culture of Papua New Guinea?

Foster has found that residents take Westernization in stride, easily incorporating tokens of modern life into their own customs: A woman visiting another village packs water and rice into an empty Coke can and cooks her lunch in the fire when she arrives at her destination; a man making a war shield paints it with the logos of his favorite beer and of his favorite soccer team.

“What’s interesting to me is the way in which the people are improvising what they call custom and their tradition, in a very self­conscious way,” Foster says. “People become conscious that they have a culture, they have a custom, that might have been less explicit in the past but is more explicit now.”

While Papua New Guineans have been working hard to synthesize their traditional lives with modern lives, they will have a hard time staying modern as long as they’re prevented from participating in the global marketplace, Foster says.

Foster plans to examine the topic of globalization in his next book, which focuses on a highly recognizable commodity—the familiar red and white Coca­Cola logo—as he follows a commodity from creation to consumption, a trend called “tracking.”

“There are real questions here,” he says. “What are the implications of certain global commodities? If you consume products that are consumed elsewhere, what exactly is the connection between your family and the people who made these things? It might make us think about things that we have in common or collaborate with each other about.”

The Coke logo is everywhere, he says, which can be good and bad. For every Western traveler who happily buys a Coke in a third­world country or takes a break from the native cuisine by making a trip to McDonald’s, there are others who see these as signs of Western imperialism.

“A lot of people fear universal cultural homogenization,” he says. “And there’s no doubt that cultural change is happening at a higher rate than in the past, but culture is more than just commodities. It’s about global interconnections, but a lot of those interconnections remain relatively hidden, not because they’re actively suppressed, but because people wouldn’t normally think about them.”

Foster also works hard to establish connections between the lives of his students and those of the people they read about.

“The trick for me, as a teacher, is not to exoticize, or ‘otherize,’ New Guinea—not to make it seem as if the people living there inhabit a different planet. In this regard, I can use my recent research on media and commodity consumption to demonstrate that people in PNG indeed live in the same web of political and economic relations as do my students. If I can enable students to appreciate cultural differences and shared histories at the same time, then I will have communicated an important lesson about human diversity in the contemporary world.”

Foster hopes to shed light on these interconnections by examining these “commodities in motion” and, in turn, exploring the cultural, economic, and political elements of globalization.

Might this require another trip to Papua New Guinea? Despite the lengthy, complicated route—a plane to Australia, another to a remote island with a gold mine, then a boat trip to Tanga or, if he’s timed it properly, a ride on a once­a­week, island­hopping, Twin Otter plane—Foster would welcome it. After 20 years, he’s at home in the Tanga village. On his last trip, in 2002, he brought along his 14­year­old son, Andrew, which pleased his host family.

“That’s what the local custom is,” Foster says. “These relationships have to be continually worked on, formally. So some people thought that the fact that Andrew had come along was a sign of their success—our success—in reproducing our relationships into the future. It was exactly the right thing to do. And it was exciting for me. The first time I went there

I was 26 or 27—I certainly wasn’t thinking about children. To be there now with my son was moving for me as well.

“That’s what globalization can be,” he says. “People becoming more reciprocally interconnected.”

Jayne Denker is associate editor of Rochester Review.