Final Analysis of Subject Terms: Perspective, Bias and Future Implications

In choosing my subject terms at a volume level for this collection of patrol reports from the East Sepik region, Yangoru during the early 1950’s, I approached the process with possible implications of words in mind. This meaning, understanding that words with a strong positive or negative connotation can have an impression on viewers, and that such terms may also reflect personal bias. For that reason, I kept my terms factual, and only used nouns rather than adjectives. In order to help eliminate possible bias on my end, I streamlined my vocabulary with that of my patrol officers. For example, damage caused to property and the landscape in the East Sepik from World War II was referred to as “war damage” in the reports and this being a major theme in my volume, I included the term “war damage” as a key term (Patrol Reports, 1949-53). Through replicating the vocabulary of the actual reports and limiting terms to factual nouns that possess less bias than adjectives or abstractions (ie. love, hate, joy), I helped eliminate reflections of my own bias in my key terms, as well as imposed bias on future viewers.

My final selection of subject terms was aimed to be general enough to represent the work at a volume level, but also specific enough to correspond to some specific terms used by officers and other events in the text. The terms include: war damage, agriculture, infrastructure, hygiene, Catholicism, and health. ‘War damage’ is a term consistent with actual vocabulary from my volume that addresses a recurring theme, while ‘agriculture’ is a broader term to cover the planting and harvesting of crops in my region (Patrol Reports, 1949-53). I chose the term ‘infrastructure’ to address the frequent construction of new buildings, the rise of Catholic schools, and the forming and maintenance of jeep roads (Patrol Reports, 1949-53). Hygiene was a major concern of officers in my volume, so I included the general term for the topic, and Catholicism was a growing religion in the region and aided in education programs so I included the name of the religion to represent its presence (Patrol Reports, 1949-53). Lastly, ‘health’ was included in addition to ‘hygiene,’ because the reports contained medical census information on disease, traveling treatment of villages my medics, and efforts to improve the health of the overall population (Patrol Reports, 1949-53). This was my best attempt at eliminating personal bias from my terms, however, I am quite aware after my studies during this course that bias is inevitable and embedded within us.

With this in mind, I have had to investigate how my own history can influence my interpretations. For example, I study literature and mainly have experience trying to extract my own meaning from a text. I had to acknowledge this tendency to posit myself within a text, and had to make a conscious effort to remove my own emotions and ideas from the reports to view them as information rather than a figurative meaning. I have also taken many courses previously on colonization, and these have lead me to possess a negative view of the process. I have read numerous accounts of violent overtaking of land from native populations in Latin America and firsthand accounts of the oppression of Native Americans by Europeans. I had to also remove this bias from my scope of study to view the patrol officers, who were colonizers themselves, without a tainted eye.

Another aspect that influenced my opinions of the reports were the readings I studied alongside them. Jill Nash’s “Paternalism, Progress, ParanoiainColonial New Guinea: Anthropological Perspectives drew attention to key themes in a particular collection of reports, and I detected them in mine after reading her work. Nash discusses in this work her analysis of actual patrol reports in which she observed patriarchy, paranoia, and paternalism as driving forces behind the actions of patrol officers. Though my reports described different content than Nash’s and were not explicitly corrupt or violent, the spirit of paternalism and progress was evident in the tasks my officers embarked on. Nash states, “…in regard to native affairs, paternalismdenotes the need for native leaders to do the “right” thing, but not to challenge the administration in any way; progressdenotes the idea that the native people, though assumedly backward, with administration guidance might advance” (Nash, 2001, 111). Nash argues that these concepts encompass the ideals of superiority and correctness behind the logic of patrol officers, and I found truth in this argument when I read it. In my own reports, the concept of progress is evident in the regular attempts of officers to increase agricultural success, build better quality homes, and construct roads and public buildings (Patrol Reports, 1949-53). My reports regularly discussed the governing affairs of villages and how they were being reshaped to function perceivably better, and I saw a connection between this and Nash’s coining of patriarchy being an overarching aspect of her own research (Patrol Reports, 1949-53). The work of Nash in addition to films and texts from the course that speak to the control of villages by officers certainly influenced me. They lead me to look within the context and perspectives of presented information and be wary of strong corresponding bias in presentation.

The broader question of who controls knowledge in relation to the colonization of Papua New Guinea is a complex one that I believe is highly situational. In regard to the network of information on the country, I observed in trying to find resources outside of course readings that locating works of an indigenous perspective was difficult. Since written documentation was often practiced by outside scholars, colonizers, or observers, voices of a more distant perspective, often of assumed superiority, were quite accessible to me rather than indigenous accounts. I can speak with more confidence to the control of knowledge in my own volume of reports, however. A purely non-indigenous perspective is provided, and observations made in reports are not backed with the same cultural understanding that indigenous members possess. I was conflicted about this lack of balance in perspective, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’sDecolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples made me more aware of discrepancies in representation that result from limited accounts of history. Smith explains, “Indigenous peoples across the world have other stories to tell which not only question the assumed nature of those ideals and the practices that they generate, but also serve to tell an alternative story: the history of Western research through the eyes of the colonized” (Smith, 2012, 2). Smith’s idea of the “alternative story” that can be told from an indigenous perspective is one that remained with me during my process of selecting key terms and summarizing my reports. I was motivated to keep my words as unbiased as possible to avoid misrepresenting another culture, while also careful in my writing on them to clarify that everything was “observation from officers,” rather than stating them as fact or using them to portray the native population or the officers in a particular way. Smith’s work also increased my awareness of the unique quality of indigenous academic texts, for she argued that different views often entail automatic historical bias, and that a reliable source of information can be found in the populations closest to the incidents on the other side of colonization (Smith, 2012).

The process of creating my subject terms for this volume of reports was a thoughtful and long process due to the fact that factors like personal bias, differing perspectives, and skewed representations can be present in such works. By being conscious of my own bias and the bias of colonizers as discussed in Nash and Smith’s work, I believe I successfully chose accurate and fair terms to represent my reports. Though my experiences analyzing literary works to form an opinion had to be bypassed in this exercise, and my own personal distrust of colonizers’ representations of the colonized kept out of my analysis, I am confident that the terms I have selected will not have negative implications in the future. It is through such thought processes of separating bias that accurate representations of history can be developed.

PNG Patrol Report: East Sepik District, Yangoru, 1949-1953

Works Cited

Nash, Jill. “Paternalism, Progress, Paranoia” In Colonial New Guinea: Anthropological Perspectives. Ed. Naomi M. McPherson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001. Pg. 111-124

Patrol Reports. East Sepik District, Yangoru, 1949 – 1953. National Archives of Papua New Guinea, Accession 496.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Lea Kolesky says:

    I had a difficult time letting go of that initial distrust of the officers writing the reports, but I think we all did a great job in acknowledging the colonial bias without actually perpetuating it! You did an excellent job on your analysis and I think your perspective as a Literature major added a great perspective. It was great working with you, Margot!

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