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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 281-286

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Book Review

Adolescence in Pacific Island Societies

Adolescence in Pacific Island Societies, edited by Gilbert Herdt and Stephen C Leavitt. ASAO Monograph 16. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. ISBN cloth, 0-8229-4068-X; paper, 0-8229- 5672-1; xii + 239 pages, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$50.00; paper, US$22.95.

This volume was conceived nearly a decade prior to its publication, at a 1990 symposium of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO), and was nearly aborted several times during its lengthy and difficult gestation. Its long-delayed debut, in a much altered and slimmer form than originally conceived, reveals in [End Page 281] part some conceptual problems implicit in the topic of adolescence in the Pacific (as well as the generally unwelcoming environment for edited topical volumes today in anthropology). The initial design included an additional number of original chapters, supplemented by reprinted papers of Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, and John B Whiting, who pioneered the study of adolescence in the Pacific over fifty years ago. Several chapters of the present book discuss issues raised by these early writers, but the book does not include the retrospective section that the editors had at first intended. Indeed, the book promises more than it actually delivers, although the end product is a valuable collection nonetheless.

The eight individual chapters fall into three parts: "Comparative Perspectives on Pacific Adolescence," "Cultural Constructions of Adolescence," and "Adolescence and Social Change in the Pacific." In their introductory chapter, editors Gilbert Herdt and Stephen C Leavitt situate the volume within the wider anthropological study of adolescence, which they point out has been dormant for the past several decades, primarily due to "the decline of development perspectives in anthropology following the demise of culture and personality studies" (5 ). They pitch the book as the first attempt to "document and compare a range of adolescent development issues among traditional societies of the Pacific Islands" (5 )--the "first detailed study of adolescence in any cultural area" (3 ).

Herdt and Leavitt's introduction gives readers a cogent overview of issues they believe "are central to a cross-cultural understanding of adolescence in contexts of social change" (5 ). Essential to their approach is a "cultural life-course perspective" that acknowledges the role of biology, while giving primary attention to "local cultural constructions of development" (6 ). The life-course approach also aims at avoiding "constructions of adolescents as somehow 'marginal' or even 'deviant' figures," and it requires a view of adolescence within broader historical processes, including changes in demography, gender, and socioeconomic status, as well as historical circumstances of colonization and decolonization (7 ). Much of the introduction underscores the effects of demographic transformation on adolescent experience in Pacific islands; the impacts of culture change on local socialization practices, definitions of gender, and sexual development; and the enormous influence of "modernization" on Pacific Islander youth--involving western education, urbanization, new economic opportunities, and the emergence of new national identities.

Carol Worthman's chapter completes the section on "Comparative Perspectives." Written mainly as a theoretical and programmatic essay, the chapter argues for a "biosocial view" that brings together "two anthropological literatures on human development, one that deals with physical variation and another that documents cultural diversity" (27 ). She discusses several aspects of this "dialectic of body and context that shapes ontogeny" (27 ). One aspect finds expression in the dual scientific discourses surrounding the terms puberty and adolescence, referencing either a physiological process, or a cultural construct. (Worthman also [End Page 282] points out the lack of data on physical maturation in Pacific Islander populations.) She calls for a study of "culture-specific models of child development" ("ethnopediatrics") as a basis for understanding how culture and physical development of children interact (39 ). She also cautions that anthropologists have not carefully explored individual variation within societies, and the ways in which societies "winnow for talent" or "channel people into social roles" (48 ). Her chapter closes with a call for "reformulation" of ethnography and social theory, in order to better address the biological domain (51 ).