06 September 2007
Ian Hogbin [1904-1989] belonged to Anthropology's heroic age. Recruited by AR Radcliffe-Brown, mentored by Bronislaw Malinowski and a member of the brilliant generation - including Raymond Firth, Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead and Douglas Oliver - who pioneered modern field research in the South Pacific.
Like many anthropologists in World War 2, Hogbin served as an adviser to the armed forces, lending expertise to problems of indigenous populations overtaken by the upheaval. Controversially, he maintained that when the Japanese occupied New Guinea, the people had no alternative but to do as they were told. He argued they “couldn’t be counted as traitors even if they were Japanese village policemen or worked for the Japanese... The government of the day were the Japanese, the Japanese had conquered the country”. Hogbin’s view was not accepted by ANGAU and New Guinean ‘traitors’ were publicly hanged or otherwise punished.
At Sydney University after the war, he inspired a new generation of anthropologists with his enthusiasm for field work and the absolute importance of clear writing. Hogbin was remarkable for the extent of his research and the volume of his writings: he worked in no fewer than five Pacific communities and published nine books. By the outbreak of the Pacific war, he had completed studies in Malaita, Guadalcanal and Wogeo. He travelled extensively in the Solomons and PNG during the war, and made a final study of Busama in the late 1940s.
Hogbin was well known for his perceptive and sensitive approach to field work. A Solomon Islander remarked, “At last we have found a European who is a black man, even if his skin is white”.
After the appearance of his last monograph, The Leaders and the Led, in 1978, Ian's friends hoped he would commit to writing the stories with which he had often entertained them over the dinner table. Regrettably other commitments and a degree of reticence prevented him undertaking the task until he found himself physically unable to write.
[Further reading: Jeremy Beckett, ‘Conversations with Ian Hogbin’, Oceania Monograph 35; Oceania Publications, University of Sydney]
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