There is a strong sense of action and dynamism in the primary sources used to research this project – a feeling that the mariners, sealers, missionaries, traders, Māori commoners and chiefs were actually there, or knew others who were actually there. They felt involved. They saw themselves as positioned observers. The point made by Pierre Bourdieu that “… participant observation is… a contradiction in terms” (1990: 34) is taken, but considering that these people were not pretending to be objective social scientists and would never have used the term, it is never-the-less a useful description of how they represented themselves – as people who both experienced and observed the action. It is therefore appropriate in this contextual section to apply to them and to myself, Roy Dilley’s warning that “we must never lose sight of the fact that a claim about context is precisely that – an articulation concerning a set of connections and disconnections – thought to be relevant to a specific agent that is socially and historically situated, and to a particular purpose” (1999: 39). Choosing which were the connections and disconnections, agents, decisions, social and
historical situations, purposes and motivations were important tasks in this research. These same choices are also important in its presentation as a thesis. There are therefore two kinds of context to be considered. They are the individual context(s) in which the encounters and interactions between Māori and Europeans happened, and the context in which they are now framed or represented. This section of the chapter describes a particular approach to the context of interactions, in the light of what others have said about it. Its relationship with text and the representation of ‘others’ will be discussed in the following section.
The idea of context as used in the first sense, contains the spatial or geographicalframe of Bateson (1973) and Goffman (1974), and the environment described by Scharfstein, which incorporates the idea of “a processor set of
relations” (1989). Dilley has described them all (1989: 5). The best analogy for this viewpoint is probably an ecological one, where the “… articulation… of connections and disconnections…” described above is not bounded and incorporates a set of relations, and processes, which are dynamic but not always in equilibrium. It includes the physical and biological environments as well as the social, and these provide an interactive background for social action and interaction. Dilley quotes Goodwin & Duranti who support an interactionist stance: “the capacity of human beings to
dynamically reshape the context that provides organization for their actions within the interaction itself… [and]… individual participants can actively attempt to shape context in ways that further their own interests”. Context is created by social action as well as influencing it (1992: 5-6, in Dilley 1989: 19). In other words interaction makes the context dynamic and makes possible the operation of power and cultural change. In chapters four to eight it is argued that ‘agents’ in the interaction can be non-human and inanimate mediators, and can include contextual elements of the physical
environment such as geological, astronomical and weather events that for some people (Māori and European), may have metaphysical implications. These contextual
elements also had another role, in that they provided environmental constraints, and opportunities. They influenced the possibilities for and actualities of social
interactions and also of decision-making during transactions. Cross-cultural encounters like those between Māori and Europeans therefore involved multiple dynamic contexts. This statement is not meant to imply the same thing as Sahlins’ “structure of the conjuncture” (1985) and I emphasise that context is not seen here as a monumental structure that absolutely controls what happens, but more as something that flows, a dynamic setting operating in the background, and used by the agents that interact with it and partly control it. The same context could be seen, understood and interacted with differently by different agents, and as Rapport has said can [also] “become shared through communication and interaction between” the agents. It is thus generative and emergent (Dilley, 1989: 35, 38).
Despite the references to cross-cultural encounters, the issue of where ‘culture’ fits into the context has not been explained. In their physical dimensions ‘things’ are substantial resources, and in their symbolic dimensions are, in this reading,
components of cultural force as Ortner has described it. She considers that culture “operates largely as a pool of symbolic resources upon which people draw, and over which people struggle, in the course of social and political differentiation and
conflict” (1990: 59). Compare this notion with Comaroff & Comaroff’s definition of culture: “… the semantic space, the field of signs and practices in which human beings construct and represent themselves and others, and hence their societies and histories… a historically situated, historically unfolding ensemble of signifiers in action… a shifting semantic field… of symbolic production and material practice…” (1992 a: 27-8). So for the Comaroffs, culture is a field corresponding very much to the contextual structure, envisioned here, and for Ortner it is an operational structure,
with force and power via the agents who operate it. There does not appear to be a conflict between the two views. In this reading they supplement each other, equating to the dynamic context with which this section began. As will be shown in succeeding chapters, the human agents who participated in the cross-cultural encounters
described, acted within this kind of context, were constrained and enabled by their cultural schemas, reflected upon them and manipulated them, as Ortner suggests (1990: 88-91). However, it is claimed here that over and above their cultural schemas there are additional components to the agentive capacity of human actors. These consist, as is argued in Chapters four and five, in their use of the separate agency of objects, their spontaneous, situated contingent action, and scaffolding of new
behaviours and knowledge during transaction events (Hendriks-Jansen, 1996). Part of the agentive capacity of the objects present during transactions was of course
symbolic and therefore due to the cultural schemas of the donor. However, for the recipient this was a matter of perception and interpretation belonging to his own cultural schemas. The scaffolding of new knowledge and behaviour would be effective for both parties to the transaction, and the objects could both mediate and confuse because of the differing ontological worlds of the participants. For these reasons, in the interpretive aspects of this thesis the constraining effect of their own cultural schemas on the behaviour of human actors would not be as great as Ortner’s view suggests, and agents would have a greater personal effect on the outcomes of their actions, as the following section explains.