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The Contemporary Pacific 14.2 (2002) 491-492

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The New Shape of Old Island Cultures:
A Half Century of Social Change in Micronesia

The New Shape of Old Island Cultures: A Half Century of Social Change in Micronesia, by Francis X Hezel.Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001.ISBN0-8248-2393-1; xi + 198 pages, maps, notes, bibliography, index. US$19.95.

In two previous monographs, through an insightful interpretation and analysis of archival sources, Francis X Hezel dealt masterfully with the impact of a broad number of forces that helped to shape the precolonial and colonial historical periods in the Caroline and Marshall Islands. Once again, Hezel skillfully presents an assessment of changes that have impacted Micronesia in his most recent monograph, The New Shape of Old Island Cultures: A Half Century of Social Change in Micronesia. In this work, however, he has widened the geographic scope of his analysis to encompass allof Micronesia and drawn on the wealth of post-World War II anthropological literature, and his more than thirty-five years of experience living and working in the islands, to explore the impact of social change on the traditional features of Micronesian societies.

Hezel begins his exploration of the impact of social change in Micronesia by presenting a brief historical overview and sociocultural profile of each island group (Introduction) that sets the stage for institution-specific discussions in the chapters to follow. Chapter 1 establishes the tone and format for presenting the effect of modernizing influences on island societies. The subsequent discussion of changes to family structure is prefaced by a vignette that gives voice to contemporary Micronesian experience and locates the cause of much social upheaval in the nuclearization of the family. Chapter 2 documents the corrosive impact of the rising cash economy on the traditional resource base: land. Once a marker of identity and under corporate control by the lineage, land has come to be viewed as just another commodity and subject to individual ownership. In chapter 3, Hezel explores the changes to the complementary gender roles of traditional Micronesian societies as the result of western education and full-time employment opportunities for men and women, concluding that while some change has occurred in response to the economic realities of modern life in the islands, traditional gender norms continue to be honored. Chapter 4 examines the influence of modernization on birth and infant care and notes the growing trend of Micronesian women leaving home to give birth in Hawai'i or Guam, in order to obtain the dual benefits of better medical care and American citizenship for their children. Pointing to increased mobility and urbanization, Hezel suggests that traditional customs that reinforce lineage ties and bonds of reciprocity have been changed or abandoned in favor of nuclear family needs. In chapter 5, marriage is presented as an institution undergoing [End Page 491] substantial change as married couples establish independent households freeing them from customary familial ties. Chapter 6 focuses on death and the funeral feast as the prime example of traditional culture. Today, Hezel explains, the funeral feast carries both a much larger cultural burden and social cost as these occasions have become the primary opportunities for displays of social position and power in Micronesian societies. In chapter 7, Hezel describes the commodification of sexuality as young people form relationships, not to serve family interests, but for their own gratification. Chapter8 explores the impactof modern government practices on traditional political systems in the islands. Rank is still important, Hezel states, but degrees are becoming the new markers of status and legitimate authority in Micronesia. In chapter 9, the impact of population growth on family size and out-migration is discussed. Hezel describes the growing trend of family planning as an attempt to control population expansion in the islands. He also examines Micronesian attempts to relieve population pressure through resettlement on nearby islands or abroad to secure wage employment, education, or health care opportunities. Hezel sums up with an overview of the significant social changes he feels...


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