The J. I. Staley Prize

Created to recognize a living author for a book that exemplifies outstanding scholarship and writing in anthropology, the J. I. Staley Prize has been awarded for more than twenty years. By honoring innovative works that go beyond traditional frontiers and dominant schools of thought in anthropology, the J. I. Staley Prize encourages writing that adds new dimensions to our understanding of the human species. From time to time, the award is given to two authors, who share the cash prize.

Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society by Joel Robbins

Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society

by Joel Robbins, University of California Press, 2006

Citation by the 2011 Staley Prize Selection Panel:

Though vastly different in ethnographic setting and subject, these two books represent anthropology’s signal contributions to the larger issues that challenge humanity. Each work combines long-term fieldwork, historical sensibility, and analytic rigor to open new horizons in anthropological thought.

Joel Robbins’ Becoming Sinners is the story of how the Urapmin, a small Papua New Guinea Indigenous community, came to see themselves as “sinners” through the contradictions that followed their wholesale adoption of Christianity while remaining embedded in Urapmin social morality. Confounded by Christian notions of individualism and Urapmin emphasis on kin and community as central to moral life, they attempt to resolve the tensions through “everyday millennialism” that seeks community salvation through individual piety. As such, this ethnographic case study illuminates how global processes of culture change and religious conversion have played out among local peoples around the world.


The Urapmin need to order in a new way the heterogeneous collection of cultural materials with which they live follows from the fact that they are contending with a particular kind of cultural formation. It is one in which two different cultural logics are in play simultaneously. In the Urapmin case the two logics are indigenous and Christian. The Urapmin understand each of these logics in its own terms, and they hold fiercely to both of them. For reasons that will become clear only later, they have not been able to subordinate one to the other, or to make one over completely in the terms of its opposite number. Hence, they live with a kind of double consciousness. Being caught between two systems in this way might be workable were the two systems to mesh neatly, or were it possible to settle on a comfortable division of labor between them. But especially in the area of morality, the Christian and indigenous systems the Urapmin are trying to juggle pointedly contradict one another. (p. xxvi)

The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania by Katherine Verdery

The Vanishing Hectare: Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania

by Katherine Verdery, Cornell University Press, 2003

Citation by the 2011 Staley Prize Selection Panel:

Katherine Verdery’s The Vanishing Hectare encompasses more than a decade of research in the Romanian agricultural village of Aurel Vlaicu. She examines transformations in socialist and post-socialist property regimes, and argues for a socially embedded understanding of the concept of property itself that arcs across both historical themes. Based on long-term fieldwork and masterful synthesis of political economy, ethnography, and history, Verdery’s book offers a powerful critique of the economic logic of neoliberal development schemes, while revealing the dynamics of change and everyday realities for agricultural families in the post-socialist world.


Because it is so complex a place, Vlaicu offers the perfect spot for gaining insight into privatization, a process that was itself of the utmost complexity. I have suggested earlier that this process does not exist in the abstract, only in specific cases. What I have said about Vlaicu, however, makes clear that a specific case is not limited to the physical space of one community but spreads out into courts, banks, the parliament in Bucharest, the IMF in Washington, D.C., and so forth. Vlaicu is a site at which numerous linkages, processes, and institutions intersected to produce the dismantling of socialist landed property. Yet within the physical space of this one community we see the effects of those intersections on people’s daily lives—the conflicts among co-villagers, neighbors, and kin; the dispossessions and consolidations; the joy of those repossessing family land and the rancor of those excluded from it; and the efforts to cultivate it in unpropitious circumstances. That is decollectivization. (p.39)

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