- Engaging with Strangers: Love and Violence in the Rural Solomon Islands by Debra McDougall
Debra McDougall’s Engaging with Strangers: Love and Violence in the Rural Solomon Islands provides an insightful and in-depth account of how Solomon Islanders in rural areas, far from the centers of state power, regularly encounter and engage with “strangers.” It weaves a narrative showing that, rather than being insular, isolated, atomistic, tribal, and inhospitable, rural communities have always been open and willing to engage with the world beyond their shores. As McDougall states, “these social worlds and the people who inhabit them are cosmopolitan” (236). They constantly engage with people from other places, adopt ideas, technologies, and goods, and speak languages other than their own, illustrating that no local worlds are entirely isolated and no cultures are really bounded.
The book focuses on Rannongga, an island in the Western Province of Solomon Islands. In many ways, this island exists at the margins of the influences of the state and other global forces. It is relatively small compared to others in the archipelago, it does not host major government or church headquarters, it is not in one of Solomon Islands’ high-traffic seaways, and it does not have an airstrip or a major shipping port. Its contemporary connection to the outside world is largely through Gizo, the small town that serves as the Western Province’s capital. However, McDougall shows that despite being on the outer margins of the centers of power, the people of Rannongga are, and have always been, very cosmopolitan—traveling to other places and welcoming, accommodating, and adopting strangers from nearby islands as well as those from afar. She shows that even prior to European contact, the people of Rannongga had built relationships with those from New Georgia, Vella Lavella, Choiseul, and other islands. These were done through wars, the capture and adoption of people from other islands, intermarriages, the giving of land, and other relationships that have created lasting genealogical connections.
McDougall uses ethnographical, archival, and other sources to dispel the idea that islands at the margins of state power are isolated, insular, and powerless. She references distant past and contemporary accounts and experiences to show how these societies have always been cosmopolitan. While the accounts are specific to Rannongga and to Solomon Islands more generally, they are located within broader theoretical frames drawn largely from anthropology and sociology, as well as other academic disciplines. McDougall introduces the book with the stories of her own arrival in Rannongga in October 1998 and how she was welcomed and adopted and forged relationships that continue long after her fieldwork. This provides an interesting and useful insight into ethnography in faraway places, including the role of the stranger-researcher-guest [End Page 622] and that of Rannonggans as both research subjects and hosts for the researcher. They negotiated internally how the researcher fit (or did not fit) into their society, showing how subjects of academic research are often themselves researchers, observing and finding out more about the person they have accepted into their community. The book also provides an interesting insight into how the researcher managed her encounters with peoples at the margins of state influence and with her place not only as a stranger-researcher-guest but also as a young woman from Merika (America) who had landed herself in what might have seemed to be the edge of the earth compared to her US home.
Chapter one discusses the idea of “stranger sociality” and the dominant Western social theories, providing the theoretical and conceptual framework for the book. This leads to chapter two, which tracks the sociospatial and political-economic transformations of the twentieth century, showing how Rannongga, and by extension Solomon Islands, was constantly changing and transformative. However, this does not necessarily mean discontinuity and dislocation. Despite the changes that have occurred as a...