Sociology Index


Since the time E E. Williams characterized what was to be called the Cargo Cult phenomenon as a kind of madness, though this characterization has been widely challenged by anthropologists, 'madness' has continued to haunt Cargo Cult discourse. Cargo cult is a form of millenarian movement that believes in what is to come, particularly found in the islands of Melanesia in the South Pacific.

Cargo cults involve the belief that ritual activities and observances will lead to the arrival of free ‘cargoes’ of goods. The cargo cults are a development from the indigenous belief that necessary goods and animals for food and supplies are released by the gods or guardian spirits when the people have completed proper ritual observances.

The cargo cults show the influence of the modern world in that the cargoes are expected to arrive by boat or plane as do the goods and supplies used by white immigrants and colonizers. The cargo cults have proved to be enduring even when cargo does not materialize, since this is seen as a sign that ritual observation and activity has been inadequate or inappropriate.

Cargo cults and discursive madness - Oceania, Jun 2000 by Dalton, Doug
Understood as mimetic portrayals of the image of unlimited good projected by European colonial culture, Melanesian `cargo cults' are therefore viewed as 'irrational' within indigenous understandings. Consequently, Western anthropological discourse has sought to functionally normalize and nativize `cargo cult' behaviors at the expense of denying their nonrational character. The result has been a lexical and semantic uncertainty and explanatory instability in `cargo cult' discourse that can be analyzed as a type of discursive `madness.' A strategy of reading the 'madness' of `cargo cult' discourse is outlined and applied to key anthropological texts, in particular Peter Worsley's The Trumpet Shall Sound. 

Ever since E E. Williams characterized what was to be called the `cargo cult' phenomenon as a kind of `madness,' even though this characterization has been widely challenged by anthropologists, 'madness' has nonetheless continued to haunt `cargo cult' discourse. Williams' essay was a plea to recognize and preserve the functionality of traditional ritual, which he viewed as primarily an outlet for emotions which, once denied ritual expression, found a liberation in cargo cult `madness.' Yet in his view this 'madness' by definition did not have the same functionality as did traditional ritual. He therefore thought that the useful aspects of 'traditional' culture should be preserved while the bad ones, like those manifest in the liminal dysfunctionality of `cargo cults,' should be done away with. 

Williams' evolutionist notion that this deluded, irrational behavior would eventually give way to greater rational comprehension was soon displaced by explanations that focused even more on its functional utility and cultural sense, which had the advantage of at least accounting for why so-called `cargo cults' never went away. Now often thought of as Melanesians' standard way of doing things, it is widely held that `cargo cults' do not really exist as discrete phenomena. 

Capitalizing on Complicity: Cargo Cults and the Spirit of Modernity on Bali Island (West New Britain) - Andrew Lattas: University of Newcastle
Abstract: Using the cargo cult movement of Dakoa on Bali Island (West New Britain), this article explores the relationship between history and the other forms of human time articulated in cult practices, beliefs, and myths of origins. This relationship often entails the collapsing of historical time into biographical time. It involves Dakoa's cult taking up Western notions of kingship and the Christian figures of God, Jesus, and Moses—all of whom are merged with the heroic structure of traditional myths. Many of the cargo cult's new important spirit beings are extensions of the cult leader Dakoa, whose personhood embodies a history and provides a model for a new, pacified Melanesian self capable of reincorporating the globalizing processes of modernity.

Cargo Cult in a Western Town: A Cultural Approach to Episodic Change 
Burns, Allen F.
Abstract: A social, cultural, and often religious movement directed at improving community spiritual and material life, the cargo cult is discussed as a principle of community organization effecting positive change. This article reviews the cargo cults of Oceania and applies the concept to a small western town.