Melissa Demian

Dr Melissa Demian

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Personal profile


BA (Bryn Mawr), MPhil (Cantab), PhD (Cantab)

Researcher's projects

Custom as a Legal Resource in Papua New Guinea Courts: This project, funded by the British Academy in 2008, investigated the “customary law” concept as it is used – or avoided – by legal professionals in Papua New Guinea, and the perceived obstacles to its integration into the wider legal system.  The research for this project was conducted in Port Moresby and Alotau, and included work with District Court magistrates, National Court judges, lawyers from the offices of the Public Prosecutor and Public Solicitor, instructors at the University of Papua New Guinea School of Law, and law officers in various government offices.

Legal Innovation in Papua New Guinea: Dr Demian’s current research project, funded by the United Kingdom Economic and Social Research Council, includes the participation of researchers from both the UK and PNG.  This project examines irregularities in the practices of Village Courts in PNG, such as excesses of jurisdiction, involvement of “bush lawyers,” and convening of “courts” that are not properly gazetted.  The aim of the project is to reconcile elite discourses of the failure of these courts as institutions, with local pragmatic developments in legal and quasi-legal practice that more closely serve local concepts of justice and equity.

The Property Relation in Papua New Guinea Cooperatives: This future project, currently in development, will seek to investigate why business cooperatives have recently seen a renaissance in PNG following the establishment of the Cooperative Societies Unit in 2000.  Cooperatives were first established in PNG following the Second World War, but were resoundingly unsuccessful, and most did not last more than a few years.  They have been brought back into the frame as a renewed effort at local-level empowerment and business development, possibly in light of the failure of any sort of “development” to happen as a result of large-scale extractive industries.  This project will ask what the cooperative as a legal entity, form of conducting business and disposing of local resources offers Papua New Guineans, and whether it offers a real opportunity for stewarding their resources for the future.


Available student projects

Dr Demian is available to supervise student projects on customary law, legal pluralism, vernacular courts and disputing forums, property and inheritance systems, cooperatives, mutuals and social enterprises.

Research interests

Local courts and informal conflict resolution mechanisms; the constitutional status of customary law; legal pluralism; political claims to custom/culture/tradition such as “culture loss” and the “cultural defense”; property theory; cooperatives and mutualism.



Dr Melissa Demian joined SSGM in 2014 as a Research Fellow.  Dr Demian is a social anthropologist trained in both the United States and United Kingdom.  She conducted her doctoral and subsequent periods of fieldwork in mainland Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, initially focusing on child adoption and later on the Village Court and land mediation systems.  This work lay the foundations for her ongoing research interests in the anthropology of law and legal pluralism, in property theory, and in the concepts of cultural patrimony and “culture loss.” 

Later, in research with legal elites in Port Moresby, her interests broadened to include constitutionalism and the relationship between the common law and customary law.  At the same time she became interested in the “cultural defense” in Anglophone courtrooms, and in how culture is coming to be used as a shorthand for particular categories of interests and intentions in legal discourse.

More recently she has developed with colleagues in the United Kingdom and Denmark a cross-disciplinary research network on cooperatives and other forms of social enterprise, investigating these mutualist entites in their social, legal, historical, economic and aesthetic capacities.

Current student projects

Currently on the supervisory committees of the following PhD students:

  • Eve Houghton, Village Courts, Alternative Forms of Conflict Mediation and Human Rights in West New Britain (University of Kent)
  • Salmah Eva-Lina Lawrence, Speaking for Ourselves: Kwato Perspectives on Matriliny and Gender, Culture and Development (ANU)

Expertise Areas

  • Social and Cultural Anthropology


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