The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 577-580
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Pacific Answers to Western Hegemony: Cultural Practices of Identity Construction
This is one of two volumes containing selected revised papers from the 1994 conference of the European Society for Oceanists, held in Basel. (The other is Common Worlds and Single Lives: Constituting Knowledge in Pacific Societies, edited by Verena Keck, Berg, 1998.) For readers unfamiliar with but interested in European studies on Oceania this collection conveys in an exemplary manner the many diverse (sometimes confusing) strands of current anthropological research in Europe (let it be said at the outset that this reviewer is himself a "European Oceanist"). The eighteen (mostly male) contributors to the volume represent in one way or another research institutions in France, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland --as well as Australia and the United States, reflecting strong ties between European Oceanists and their overseas colleagues.
An extensive introductory discussion by the editor opens the volume, after which seventeen chapters appear organized sequentially in four parts: "Constituting Historical Knowledge," "Ways of Contrasting Identities," "Australia after Mabo," and "Questioning Western Democracy." While a majority of the chapters are based on [End Page 577] Melanesian ethnography, Polynesian societies are also well covered--and, as noted, there is a special section on Australia. Not uncommonly for "Pacific-wide" collections, though, the Micronesian area is not covered, and little attention is paid throughout to probing for more general Oceanic connections and patterns.
Jürg Wassmann's introduction ranges across current concerns in anthropology and postcolonial studies, probing critically into concepts such as globalization, consumption, deterritorialization, authenticity, and the tension between cultural processes of homogenization and diversification--subsumed in a broad perspective on identity construction. Wassmann also attempts to clarify the logics of the apparently awkward relationships among the four rather disparate sections of the book, thus explicating the leap from Pacific Islands studies conventionally defined to the complex situation in "Australia after Mabo." Using maritime metaphors, Wassmann boldly asserts, "The contributions . . . navigate uncharted waters, that wide sea between classic ethnography of the Pacific and contemporary concerns in anthropological theory with global relations and transnational culture. Many of the authors tack across the expanse between what is already known about Pacific Island societies and the new social forms that are emerging in these new states. . . . the contributions aim to represent some current Pacific answers to Western hegemony" (14).
While there is no doubt that the seventeen chapters provide fascinating ethnographically based insights into local-level responses to exogenous factors (mainly the "three Cs" of colonialism, Christianity and capitalism), the analysis of "hegemony" as a rationale, so to speak, for the volume, remains conceptually unclear and only superficially addressed in the introduction--apart from a generally assumed contestation of hegemonic factors. This conceptual weakness, inherent in the introduction and many of the chapters, is accompanied by a lack throughout the volume of comparative discussion. It remains up to the reader to identify more general patterns in Pacific Answers to Western Hegemony.
This said, many of the chapters contain thought-provoking and convincing analyses of quite intense agendas unfolding on the ground, ranging across such a tantalizing range of current topics as the politics of resource control under conditions of capitalist expansion in New Ireland (Ton Otto) and the Western Solomons (Gerhard Schneider), sorcery and conflict management in the Sepik (Nigel Stephenson), ethnic and social differentiation in Manus through sports and games (Berit Gustafsson), media and identity construction among second-generation Cook Islanders in urban New Zealand (Thomas Fitzgerald), representations of historical events in life stories (Philippe Peltier), and debates about democracy (as one facet of "globalization") in the very different nation-state contexts of Maori (Toon van Meijl) and Samoan (Serge Tcherkézoff) politics. Despite diverging...