- Traditional Micronesian Societies: Adaptation, Integration, and Political Organization
A welcome addition to the small library of comparative work on Micronesia, this book takes full [End Page 496] advantage of Glenn Petersen’s decades of experience studying the region and his expertise in anthropology and political philosophy. It is particularly valuable in its range over time and space, as he examines how traditional Micronesian social organization—with its dispersed matrilineal clans, balanced interaction of chiefly hierarchy and community, and complex interweaving of personal and community ideals—has proven adaptive for the people of these islands, where isolation and fragile environments can make survival precarious.
Petersen describes traditional Micronesian societies in a wide geographic and cultural context, arguing that Micronesia is a genuine culture area, that the islands are linked through matrilineal clans, and that these clans and other key elements of Micronesian social organization serve practical uses in the face of the geographical and environmental challenges of small-island life. His approach is particularly valuable in focusing on the region as a whole and in integrating ethnographic, environmental, archaeological, and historical sources.
It is safe to say that the book has no rival as a broad introduction to traditional Micronesian lifeways. (An obvious comparison is William H Alkire’s An Introduction to the Peoples and Cultures of Micronesia .) But Petersen’s goal is not to provide a summary survey of the region. Instead, he takes an integrated adaptationist and functionalist approach to social organization. In the past few decades, this type of analysis has been abandoned in favor of site- specific or topic-specific ethnographies. Valuable as those are, there is also value in a larger-scale treatment that asks questions about the maintenance and change of social organization over long timescales and large distances. As knowledge of Micronesia’s pre–twentieth- century past becomes scattered among specialists in ethnohistory, history, and prehistory, we appreciate books like this for bringing such knowledge together into a single coherent and readable narrative.
The first two chapters of Traditional Micronesian Societies claim a clear position. In contrast to the recent habit of deconstructing regional rubrics and emphasizing the individuality of each island or community, Petersen focuses on “commonalities”— shared social organization and “themes” that, he argues, exist in similar form throughout Micronesia for functional and historical reasons (3). “My premise in this book is that in terms of their social organization and a general range of cultural practices, all the island societies of Micronesia have much more in common with one another than they do with societies in adjacent areas of the Philippines, Indonesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia” (19). He argues, “Fundamental patterns of social organization, in particular the dispersed matrilineal clans with their localized, landowning lineages” spread throughout the region because of their value in preserving island communities through environmental fluctuations (19).
The third chapter, on prehistory, argues that matrilineal clanship and the “breadfruit revolution” (hybridization of new forms ideal for atoll conditions) arose in eastern Micronesia and subsequently diffused to central, [End Page 497] western, and southern islands (53). Chapters 4 and 5 explore the adaptive value of traditional Micronesian social forms through discussions of “Descent and Descent Groups” and “Household and Family, Land and Labor.” These chapters combine readable summaries of key theoretical ideas in social organization with the practical realities of lineages and households. Petersen emphasizes the dynamic between principles of social organization and the flexibility of traditional systems in response to the demands of daily life and local circumstances.
The same balance between rules and practical action underlies Petersen’s discussion of explicitly political topics in chapters 6 and 7 on “Chieftainship and Government” and “Politics and Leadership.” This leverages Petersen’s particular expertise, as he explores Micronesians’ philosophical and practical approach to governance, comparing it with Western political theory (such as Machiavelli and Locke). He argues that over the centuries Micronesians have built a “deliberate political architecture” that balances effective leadership with ideologies and structures that limit and control...