Women, warfare, and the life of agency: Papua New Guinea and beyond

Francesca Merlan*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    12 Citations (Scopus)


    'Agency' entered anthropological discourse as a key word from the 1970s in renewed social-philosophical theorizations (e.g. 'structure and agency') as major deterministic theories (e.g. Marxism, structuralism) became less persuasive. It came to play an increasing role in ethnography. Though agency, too, has been partly replaced in some of its earlier semantic range, it has been more fully retained in some areas of usage than others, especially in analyses of subordination in the face of power. This article considers several different conceptualizations of agency. Ethnographically, it focuses on women's differing forms of action in two episodes of warfare in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. In contrasting these, the article concurs with critiques of approaches to 'agency' that turn it into a (liberatory) abstraction, and proposes a view of agency as lived relation of intervention and involvement in social action, inherently linked to values and constraints. The combination may be, but is not always, liberatory. The article considers the life and (partial) expiry of agency as a term of social science art.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)392-411
    Number of pages20
    JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


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