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Martin G. Silverman

What we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.

—Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives


The dialectic of action is the dialectic of form and content. This is, as I understand it, one of the central messages of The Savage Mind (Lévi-Strauss 1966). The engaging thing about form and content is how they can shift position and thus become transformed—form becoming content for other form (e.g., the “structure of a kinship system” is shown to be a special case of the “general structure of systems,” or some aspects of the “structure of a kinship system” are shown to be harmonious with the “general structure of sys­tems,” or the “structure of a kinship system” is shown to be im­possible given the “general structure of systems”), content becom­ing form to other content (e.g., the “special case” is used to inter­pret another “subspecial case,” which interpretation might not, incidentally, fit, presenting people with all sorts of problems to work out). And on it goes, not randomly but not completely pre­dictably either since, among other things, form can both order and open a door to content (some of it uninvited) and content (to mix the metaphor) can twist form around itself. One man’s form can be another man’s content and thus they literally “talk past one another.” Form and content, structuring and becoming struc­tured—most of our basic theoretical problems are implicit in the pair.

But not only our theoretical problems. 122

Even the firmest believer in the untrammeled freedom of the human intellect would probably concede that being in a situation of resettlement is something that a people, somehow, cannot fail to note. Precisely how they note it we are not in a position to predict; and we are not in a position to predict precisely how those things that we take to be problematic are or are not problematic to the lo­cal community. There are new faces and new places, perhaps new subordinations and new equalities; there is new work to be done and new food to eat.

If we are not in a position to predict how a resettled community might note its situation, neither are those being resettled. Not even with the most careful planning, site surveys, political and econom­ic arrangements made with governments and future neighbors can people predict what vagaries of environment, of colonial govern­ments, of neighboring peoples, or, for that matter, of their own so­cial relationships might confront them.

We do, however, find that a resettled community may confront the unpredictable as a community. It happens often enough to be significant that these people encounter problems, events, or situa­tions that demand decisive action as a community and that inte­gral to the decisions is the necessity of clarifying for themselves who they are in order to determine their position. The very unpre­dictabilities inherent in resettlement (but not, of course, only in re­settlement) make such decisions and their implications for identity likely, if not inevitable. Such decisions may be as mundane as that of determining how land clearing will be organized by the Gil­bertese resettled on Sidney Island (see chapter 8) or as dramatic as the bitter debate over whether the Kapinga relocated on Ponape should divide their village land for quitclaim to a few families or maintain it for ‘all Kapinga people’, the definition of which was necessarily at issue (see chapter 3). In such cases, the definition of the situation, prerequisite to deciding on a course of action, de­mands a more or less conscious attempt at some point to define who and what the actors and their relations to each other are, have been, and might be.

It is not only in my own ethnographic case, then, that one finds events in which people are trying to unscramble some of the things which have happened and are happening to them and to chart courses for future action. I am not suggesting that people neces­sarily sit down and say to one another that they will do this, but 123rather that doing this is known to happen. There is an attempt to get some important things together in order to clarify the di­mensions of action. To use Kenneth Burke’s terms, definitions of the situation and strategies toward the situation are constructed (Burke 1957).1 And this is an event not (or at least not primarily) of the recesses of the individual mind but of the processes of social action.

Clifford Geertz addresses some of these problems in The Social History of an Indonesian Town, which has been a major inspira­tion for the present effort. Speaking of Modjokuto, he says (1965:5):

Especially the years after the Revolution (that is, after 1940), when the whirl of innovation engulfed the entire scene, were marked by an increasing ambiguity of cultural categories coupled with a growing irregularity of social behavior. And from this double observation comes the central theoretical argument, also double, of our study: namely, (1) that ordered social change involves the attainment by the members of the population concerned of novel conceptions of the sorts of individuals and the sorts of groups (and the nature of the rela­tions among such individuals and groups) that comprise their im­mediate social world; and (2) that such an attainment of conceptual form depends in turn upon the emergence of institutions through whose very operation the necessary categorizations can be developed and stabilized.

Later on, writing of an election in Modjokuto, Geertz states (1965:205):

Seen as a crystallizing field, rather than as a collection of functionally interrelated roles, the election involved a clash of classificatory prin­ciples, of categories, embodied in individuals and in factions, and its outcome was an adjustment, as much conceptual as political, of those principles and categories to one another in a given case. In one of its aspects (though in one only) the election was a symbolic, even an intel­lectual process. It gave specific meaning to general ideas by filling them with concrete persons, groups, institutions, issues, and events. Despite the tension it caused, the election was considered by even those who lost to have been a good thing. As they said, it ‘pulled things taut, put them in straight lines (kentjeng).’ Selecting from a set of ab­stract “grammatical” possibilities by means of concrete “phonetic” process, it made potential order actual. 124

In this chapter I present some aspects of the analysis of an event which, as it was occurring, became a symbol for a set of concep­tions. The event occurred on Rambi Island, Fiji (map 7). Since 1945, Rambi has been the home of the people of Ocean Island, which is part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. The indigenous name of Ocean Island is Banaba, and thus its people are known as Banabans. Ocean Island is a “phosphate island.” Mining activities since 1900 have progressively converted the is­land into a kind of mining settlement, and the Banabans into a minority in their homeland. Their lands were literally being ex­ported away for the benefit of others. During World War II the British government purchased Rambi with invested Banaban phosphate royalties. When the war ended, the Banabas agreed to go to Rambi on a trial basis and in 1947 decided to stay, while maintaining their rights to Ocean Island lands on which the min­ing of phosphate continues to this day. The population of Rambi is now about two thousand.

The event which is my major concern was a ten-hour communi­ty meeting in November 1964 during which, among other things, the Banabans were trying to make sense out of their past and pres­ent and give direction to their future. This chapter is an explora­tion of how they did it, although only a minute portion of the meeting can be analyzed in detail. I hope to demonstrate that a significant part of this “how” consisted in the setting up of levels of form-content relations among (1) various actors and actions; (2) the delineation of the terms and relations of a problematic situa­tion, which included the problem of how to transform that situa­tion; (3) the building of a structure for that situation; (4) certain symbols; and (5) the course of action taken by the meeting.

The event with which I am concerned differs from Geertz’s In­donesian election in several respects. But there is a significant class of dramatic events distinguished (for present purposes) by the combination of the following related characteristics: one of the businesses of the day is the coordinating of cultural categories; an action outcome is envisaged; the cultural terrain being covered is wide and its categories are multitudinous; many relationships (of a number of orders) are problematic; the levels of form-content ar­ticulations are several and complex; the process is a social process which may have a form of its own, or a form may be under con­struction. 125


Geertz (1965:203) makes a related point when he speaks of

the paradox of the role of culture—or, if you will, systems of ideas—in social activity. No actual event (or sequence of events) can be pre­dicted from them, and no actual event (or sequence of events) can be explained without them…. Culture orders action not by determining it but by providing the forms in terms of which it determines itself.

This chapter is concerned, then, with a concrete process that may be typical of resettled communities. It is a process whereby people order knowledge, hopes, experiences, and feelings and make sense out of them. By making sense out of them, they are giv­ing form to them, and it is through their cultural categories that form is created. Thus, in giving form, the Rambi Islanders are us­ing their categories in a social action and pointing toward a social action; and in so doing they are creating forms that are not quite the same as before.

The analysis begins with the historical background of the prob­lems with which the Rambi Islanders had to deal in the meeting. This discussion is followed by a presentation of the methodology used to analyze the meeting; then part of the meeting is described and analyzed. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the meet­ing itself as a symbol.


My recent book on the Banabans (Silverman 1971) details many aspects of their history and culture. Here I shall mention again some things which are most relevant to the meeting.2

One of the Banabans’ major public concerns is getting a just recognition of their rights to the Ocean Island phosphate and the great financial consequences of that recognition. The phosphate is mined by the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC), which has a mining monopoly, the interests of which are held by the British, Australian, and New Zealand governments. Speaking in the eth­nographic present, the Banabans have no rights to determine how much phosphate is mined, what the price per ton (which is well below market price) should be, or what amount of money they or anyone else should get from the whole enterprise. In the early phosphate days, the mining company (a private predecessor of the BPC) dealt with individual landowners, but later it began to nego­tiate 127 with the Banabans on a collective basis over the leasing of land. This was important in the development of the people’s political consciousness.3 In a dispute during 1927–1931, the BPC wanted more land but the Banabans refused its offer. In 1928 the British colonial government passed an ordinance enabling itself, in effect, to force mining on lands and to arbitrate compensation when necessary “in the public interest.” This it did, and the Bana­bans lost even more control over their land—and Ocean Island land has been and still is, among other things, one of the most powerful symbols in Banaban culture.

The Ocean Island phosphate is a critical factor in the economy of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in a variety of ways—through royalties, taxes, and wages, for example. Recently the BPC was paying out about ten times as much money to Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony revenue as it did to the Banabans. The Banabans bitterly resent this. By the Banaban adviser’s estimate, half the Banabans’ cash income in 1964 was coming from the phosphate in one form or another; the other half was coming mainly from copra production. Pertinent both for the Banabans and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony is the fact that the phos­phate is a dwindling resource. Local estimates varied on when mining and thus the money from royalties to the Banabans would cease; some spoke of about twenty years. Uncertainty as to when phosphate operations would end may explain why there is no real sense of urgency on Rambi regarding the economic development urged by government officials. Uncertainty is one of the dominant qualities of the day.

On Rambi an island council was set up as the instrument of local government. It has eight members, two elected by each of the four villages, which are named for those on Ocean Island. The councillors elect their own chairman.4 According to a system agreed to by the Banabans in 1947, yearly estimates of the expen­diture of various island funds for the next year are prepared and sent to the Fiji government for approval. The council nominates five of its members to the Banaban Funds Trust Board, which is charged with preparing the estimates. The estimates must then be approved by the council as a whole and then by the government. The Banaban adviser, a European, is chairman of the trust board.

The position of the Banaban adviser is a difficult one. Although he is responsible to the Fiji government, he is paid indirectly from 128Banaban funds and the council is consulted on his appointment. The original government conception of the office was probably something of a combination of district officer and development of­ficer. The Banabans, however, have come to define his role as that of their advocate. He is in the classic position of the man in the middle.

The advocacy is for the related issues of securing just rights to the phosphate and the recognition of the autonomy of Rambi. Col­lective political action vis-à-vis the phosphate has its chronologi­cal roots in confrontations with the phosphate company and the government while the people were still on Ocean Island. It has its cultural roots in the centrality of land in the Banaban symbolic system. As far as one can tell, political action on Ocean Island was designed more to achieve recognition of individual rights (to land and thus to money) than to achieve something material for the col­lectivity as a collectivity. The situation on Rambi crystallized the individual/collectivity contrast into a dilemma for which the Banabans were culturally unprepared. The reasons why they were unprepared and why it was a dilemma are interlocked.

On Ocean Island the government and the BPC had provided equipment and services the Banabans valued.5 These things were part of what modern life means and what Rambi lacked. If they wanted to recreate the accoutrements of modern life on Rambi, the Banabans had to do it for themselves. Since these conveniences had been provided on Ocean Island, the islanders had not had to contemplate the institutionalization of their newly developed val­ues. Rambi, an undeveloped island, was a new situation. Individu­al action could not provide transportation, electricity, and new buildings; some kind of collective action was necessary. This ar­ticulated the “individual/collectivity problem.”

In the Banaban view, the financial proceeds from the phosphate are the output of Banaban lands, and Banaban lands are owned in­dividually, not collectively. The right and proper fate of the mon­ey is thus to go to individuals. The money equals land equation is shared by the government, which (not uncommonly in colonial structures) put itself in the position of arbiter of Banaban custom. The government for a long time insisted that from the payments for surface rights individuals should receive only the interest from the invested capital, since the lands had to be maintained for future generations and could not be alienated by an individual’s 129own will. Since the government asserted that there was no real in­digenous custom regarding the ownership of undersurface mining rights, whatever money the people derive from undersurface min­ing should be paid to the community as a community, ideally to be used for community purposes. Whether the people have a right to such proceeds or whether they are given by the grace of the crown is ambiguous. There was also the usual asserted fear that individ­uals would fritter away large sums of money if they got them and that the continuity of large individual payments would reduce the people’s industriousness and make them dependent on the BPC. Hence most of the income the Banabans receive from the phos­phate is not in the form of individual payments but payments to the Banaban community (which, on Rambi, includes resident non-Banabans).

The Banabans have drawn on information from Nauru to form their own case. Nauru, to the west of Ocean Island, is now inde­pendent, but at the time of my research it was an Australian-ad­ministered trusteeship. Nauru is also a phosphate island; for a long time it was worked by the same phosphate company that worked Ocean Island. The Nauruans are reported to receive large individ­ual phosphate returns and to live a comfortable modernized life—and they organized a successful campaign of confrontation with the Australian government. The Banabans see their own basic sit­uation as similar to that of the Nauruans, compare what they get with what the Nauruans get, and have been taking action on the Nauruan model.

The individual/collectivity problem is thus situated in the way the Banabans’ returns from the phosphate are paid out. Another closely related dimension of the problem is that while the people recognize that some form of collective action is necessary to get their due, the island council has had a hard time establishing its legitimacy as a decision-making entity.6 Furthermore, the “devel­opment” activities conducted by local authorities are considered far from adequate by local people.

Since most proposals for developing Rambi involve money, and since the Banabans believe they are being cheated out of money that is rightfully theirs but could be obtained if the right course of action were found,7 a number of issues are inextricably inter­twined for most people: the phosphate issue in general; what to do with the funds in hand; how to get more of the money which 130belongs to the people; how to organize and govern the new island and secure its autonomy. The money from Ocean Island lands—all of it—already belongs to the Banabans but is being fraudulent­ly held and used by others, given the premise that money equals land. It follows that Rambi is properly autonomous because it was purchased with invested phosphate royalties, which derive from Ocean Island lands, which are owned by Banabans. Given these cultural premises, each issue logically implies the others. All the issues involve Ocean Island, which by the same logic is a symbol that can give form to the individual’s sense of himself, his kinsmen (past, present, and future), village and community, morality, wealth, and the relationship of the community to the outside world.

To take one aspect salient to the meeting: a person is a Banaban by having Banaban blood or being adopted by a Banaban. Being adopted by a Banaban entails receiving some Ocean Island land from him. When the two are contrasted, blood symbolizes kinship identity and land symbolizes kinship code for conduct (see Schneider 1968). Blood and land structure both kinship and na­tionality. In the kinds of political discourse most closely related to the matters we are considering here, “Banabans” and “landown­ers” are used interchangeably.8

All these issues were articulated during the meeting to be ana­lyzed. Three matters were frequently cited as central to the meet­ing: whether certain individual money payments should be made; whether the Banaban adviser should be retained or dismissed; and the alleged unequal treatment (by the Banaban adviser among others) of employees who had damaged certain facilities. The third issue merged into others which developed.

In 1937, while still on Ocean Island, the Banabans were grant­ed annuities of £8 per adult and £4 per child and a yearly individ­ual bonus based on size of landholdings (up to a certain limit).9 In the 1947 agreement, when the Banabans voted to stay on Rambi, the continuation of this system was mentioned. The Rambi Island Council, however, for some years decided not to distribute either the annuity or the bonus, but rather to use the money for building cement block houses and other projects.

The question of distributing the annuity and bonus was part of the controversy which culminated in the calling of the meeting by the council. The meeting was a maungatabu, a community meet­ing the decisions of which were binding. Those who were instru­mental 131 in calling it, operating through Methodist church chan­nels, wanted the annuity and bonus reinstated. The adviser had said that this was not a wise course. His position was that addi­tional grants—for example, matching contributions for building roads and houses—had been given by the BPC after their officials had seen that money was being used for development and after the Banabans had agreed it would not be distributed. The land on Rambi, the adviser and others argued, was poorly developed and money should be used for improvements before that money stop­ped. The trust board prepared the 1965 estimates without the in­dividual distribution. The full council refused to approve the estimates and said the annuity should be included. The adviser said the full council had no authority to amend the estimates. An impasse had been reached.

The council had recently approved the renewal of the adviser’s contract, but various people remained dissatisfied with him, not only because of his opposition to the distribution of the annuity. Some councillors and others had circulated reports that he was acting in a high-handed manner by ordering rather than advising and by not showing proper respect for the council. Favoritism was also alleged in his relations with employees. Moreover, he had in­curred the ire of a number of influential Methodists because of his attempts to disentangle the use of trust board money and paid time for activities which seemed to be more in the service of the Meth­odist church (which has the largest membership) and the support­ers of the council chairman than of the community as a whole. There were those who at times saw the whole matter as a contest between the adviser and the chairman. The chairman had sug­gested that of the money the Banabans received collectively from the phosphate, two-thirds should be distributed among the people and one-third kept for public projects. Matters had recently come to a head betweeen the two over a specific issue which many be­lieved was behind the machinations leading to the meeting.

The chairman is an important figure in the church and has been the most prominent Banaban leader since before the resettlement. He has impressive religious, descent, kinship, political, economic, and age credentials. He also has what one might term reality cre­dentials through his involvement in various disputes with the gov­ernment and the BPC at least since the 1927–1931 affair. He is generally assumed to know more about the intricacies and deceits of the phosphate history than anyone else. Some question his 132knowledge, and some are also opposed to him precisely because of his credentials. But for many, the chairman’s information on cru­cial political and economic matters is nearly all the information they have. He has the authenticity of one who can say “I was there.” He also has important rhetorical credentials. This analysis will try to specify some of them.

I cannot give the details of how the positions of various people on the issues of the money and the adviser were interpreted by oth­ers before and after the meeting. Often—and this is certainly not a pattern unique to the Banabans—a person claims to be motivated by principle and accuses the opposition of being motivated by kin­ship, descent, religion, village, friendship, self-interest, personal grudges, factional alliances, backroom deals, or ignorance.

A brief discussion is in order on Rambi’s employment pattern, since it was deeply involved in what came up in the meeting. A preliminary analysis of 1965 census figures shows that over 80 percent of the full-time or part-time salary or wage earners on the island are males between eighteen and sixty years of age. Of males between eighteen and sixty, roughly 32 percent hold full-time jobs, 21 percent hold alternate-week jobs, and 46 percent are copra cut­ters, gardeners, and fishermen only, except a few who are small-scale entrepreneurs or mission personnel. The number of house­holds directly affected by the salary and wage pattern is greater than these figures might indicate. In roughly one-third of the cen­sus households there is no regularly resident member with such employment. Two-thirds of the remaining census households have at least one person on alternate-week employment but no person employed full-time.10

The largest employer on the island is the combination of the Rambi Island Council and the trust board. The cooperative socie­ty and the Fiji government account for most of the rest of the jobs. The alternate-week pattern spreads wage labor around more wide­ly than would be the case if all jobs were full-time. Most of the council and board jobs with which I am familiar have to do with public works and public services: house and road construction, equipment operation and maintenance (including transportation), and office work. All the board members have relatively high-pay­ing jobs. Many of the other jobs pay no more per week than what an enterprising copra cutter could earn in a good week. But there are not always good weeks, and if there were more enterprising copra cutters, the enterprising copra cutter might earn less. 133

What is also at issue, however, is the cultural construction of “work” and “working.” Unfortunately, I did no systematic cul­tural analysis of this domain while in the field, so the following discussion is after the fact and impressionistic. At one level, “work” includes wage earning, copra cutting, gardening, fishing, and the like. In some contexts, however, “workers” means public employees, in contrast with those who are primarily identified with work on land and sea. “Workers” are generally considered to be far better off than others, and those in skilled higher positions have a certain prestige. Many of the latter are centered at the is­land’s “capital” at Nuku, where they occupy concrete block houses that go along with their jobs.

The chairman and others have often made statements such as, “We did not come to Rambi to be workers on the land.” At one council meeting, the chairman said, “We did not come here for work, but for freedom on our money.” The chairman avers that one reason why the resettlement proposal was approved in the first place was that the people, once resettled in Fiji, would be closer to the high commissioner for the Western Pacific, who was at that time the same person as the governor of Fiji. The high commis­sioner for the Western Pacific is the next step up the colonial bureaucratic ladder from the resident commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. Rambi was to be ‘the land of grievance stating’. Working on the land carries a negative value in the sense that grubbing about in the bush for enough money to get by on is a compulsory way of life. This should not be the case, and may not have been expected to be the case. In this regard one must point out that on Ocean Island many Banabans and now Rambi-resident Gilbertese were BPC employees in positions of some skill and responsibility. What they are doing now is considered an in­ferior activity.

In the meeting it soon became apparent that discussions of the employment and public works patterns (which became fused) were being used to articulate a number of dilemmas.


We need terms to sort out what the Banabans were sorting out in the meeting and how they went about it. To this end I have modi­fied and added to some of Burke’s (1962) terminology in a manner that seems suited to the ethnography of the meeting. 134

Trying to sort out something means that something is acknowl­edged as problematic. The kinds of things that can be problematic are, of course, numerous: some feature of reality (what did the ad­viser do?); the implications of doing something (what will happen if the annuity is distributed?); how to bring about a change (how can the adviser be persuaded to distribute the annuity?); and so forth.

We begin with the character of the problematic situation11—a state of affairs that seems to point outward to the larger communi­ty in that doing something about it arises as a community prob­lem. Doing may involve thinking about the situation, discussing it, or cooperatively enacting measures to change it. Examples in the Rambi situation are poverty, lack of control over Banaban funds, the breakdown in relations between adviser and chairman. The character of the problematic situation is something that people may be arguing about. In other words, the character of the prob­lematic situation (like everything else) may itself be problematic.

Second is the subject of the problematic situation: the who or the what responsible for the situation being in the shape that it is—for example, the government, the people, the adviser, the council, the workers.

Third is the object: the who or the what on the receiving end—for example, the people, old people, members of a religious group, specific individuals.

Fourth is the instrument (the “how”); the intermediary, if any, between subject and object—for example, the council between the people as subject and the people as object or the adviser between outside authority and the people.

Fifth is the means (the “how to”): the device through which the situation is being made problematic—for example, using funds for public works projects rather than distributing them to the people.

The definition of the problematic situation requires that a transformation of it is in some fashion part of the situation. The same pentad can be mapped onto the question of transformation: its character (perhaps getting more money), its subject (the people or the council), its object (say, the people again), its instrument (perhaps the council), and its means (distributing the annuity). I use the term “delineating” to denote the making of all these con­nections.

Part of the delineating process is establishing what gets assigned 135to which term of the pentad. In the course of delineation, people may adopt various stances. For example, they may name (it is the board that is the trouble), contradict (it is not the board but the council), query (what does the board do?), or make problematic (how is it that distributing the annuity would bring in less money from the outside?).

This delineating activity is not, of course, a purely abstract ex­ercise removed from people’s actual experiences. It is, in part, the nature of their experience that people are attempting to work out through delineating. In clarifying for themselves the adviser-council relation during the meeting, people pointed out specific actions in the past which they considered to be typical of that rela­tionship, such as the adviser’s stopping the council visit to the gov­ernor and the council’s decision not to distribute the annuity. The outcome of the delineation of this relationship is a recognizable structure of the relationship. Once worked out, the adviser-council relationship gives structural form to historical incidents (inci­dents which touch a variety of people in a variety of ways). The in­cidents cited become instances of a general pattern—that is, the historical incidents give tangible content to the structural form. Then that form and its historical incidents (contents) become tan­gible forms themselves and, thus, may be tangible content for other forms. The adviser-council relation and its historical con­tents, for example, interpreted as one in which the council is vic­timized by the adviser, becomes the tangible content of a higher-level structural form—the relation of subject victimizing object or the relation subject (victimizer)–object (victim). Thus a form may become content for another form. Integral to this transformation is the use of the “special case,” where one thing is presented as a special case of another. For example, the adviser’s stopping the council from visiting the governor is a special case of the pattern of action of the adviser victimizing the council.

The terrain covered in the delineating process (the number of subjects, objects, and so forth) is extensive. The delineation be­comes complex if something of a comprehensive order is to be ap­proximated. In delineating the problematic situation we observe the sorting out of a number of terms and the relations between them (how the adviser relates to the people, how the government relates to the people). “Something of a comprehensive order” in this case would be characterizing both those relations, at a higher 136level, as relations of victimization. Victimization gives structural form to those relations as the relations give tangible content to vic­timization. Victimization as now defined becomes a tangible form, and thus tangible content for other forms at even higher levels.12

This structure which interrelates terms and relations of the problematic situation is itself given form by certain symbols at a higher level. I use the term “symbol” to mean a vehicle for con­ceptions, a vehicle people may use to connect the unknown with the known (see Turner 1970:48). Certain symbols in Rambi Island culture are extremely powerful in their ability to order wide do­mains of objects, relationships, and actions. Land, freedom, the person, and progress are examples. Thus the symbol “freedom” can give structural form to other forms. For example, victimiza­tion becomes a special case of the absence of freedom, just as the adviser’s stopping the visit becomes a special case of victimiza­tion. Since the problematic nature of the situation is construed in terms of such symbols, the symbols themselves are made tangible and thus are structured in a conjunction.13

An example of such a conjunction would be as follows: “The annuity and bonus are the money of your lands.” The annuity and the bonus may become tangible content for many things other than “your lands,” and “lands” may give structural form to many things other than the annuity and the bonus. The conjunction is a structuring, and “land” is made tangible in that structuring.

By speaking of a conjunction in this way, I do not mean to im­ply that one set of meanings (those of “lands”) and another set of meanings (those of “the annuity”) are simply added to one anoth­er, nor that a structure is formed simply by putting together the meanings of the higher-level symbol which are harmonious with the meanings of the lower-level symbol. I am suggesting, rather, that symbols such as “lands” and “the annuity” (or any symbols) have ranges of possible meanings. In the conjunction, constrained by the context or other ways, certain features of each symbol be­come stressed such that the meanings which may be given to each can be organized in a hierarchical form. In the “special case,” categories are juxtaposed and structured in such a manner that contextually stressed features of some categories can be shown to be concretizations (actualizations, instances) of contextually stressed features of other categories (patterns, structures, sym­bols).14 137

To our list of delineation we must now add “concrete actors and actions.” For we are dealing with a case in which “something happens in the end.” At the end of the meeting an action was taken (voting was part of it), and that action gave structural form to what had been built up before (the links through certain sym­bols). What had been built up before it gave tangible content to the action, the action becoming a tangible form itself (and, of course, tangible content for other forms after the meeting).

The form of the final action, however, did not come magically out of a script book. That form itself became the problematic sit­uation, and a number of levels of form-content articulation oc­curred within it. What happened in the end was giving form to what had been mapped out for what might happen in the end, which itself was giving form to what had been mapped out during the previous phase of the meeting, and so on.

Recall that this is not a model designed for a case where every­thing follows from everything else as night follows day. Various “stances” apply to the establishment of form-content relations, too. If an action is presented as a special case of a pattern of ac­tion, for example, somebody may say it is not a special case at all. If a means of transformation (distributing the annuity) is being linked to a general form (freedom), it may be made problematic whether distributing the annuity and freedom are really related in that fashion. This may be a product of different constructions of “distributing the annuity,” different constructions of “freedom,” or a host of other factors.

Two final and related points. First, various interventions in the meeting were related more or less directly to setting out the terms of the problematic situation or the terms of the transformation, but the distinction is an analytic one. This has an important im­plication both theoretically and ethnographically. The extent to which various constructions of reality can be implemented by ac­tual behavior must constantly be borne in mind. In fact, I would suggest that the losing side in the meeting might have fared better had they borne this in mind.

Second, some segments of the meeting were developing a struc­ture for the problematic situation and its transformation; this structure was one of victimization. Victimization by some outside authority is an understood feature of the Banabans’ situation. Here the victimization is turned inward as well which, among other things, makes the structure more actable or transformable. 138That structure also allows for the introjection of accumulated grievances, personal and collective. The very issues made this like­ly and (to speak with risk) it may have its own compelling form which itself articulates the various levels of form-content rela­tions: name the crime (the problematic situation—not having enough rightful money); name the victim (the object—the people) and the victimizer (the subject—the workers, the adviser); name the weapon (the means—using the money for work); consider redress; invoke specific evidence and precedent (concrete actions out of the past); construe, direct, and legitimize the case in terms of powerful symbols; deliberate and take the appropriate action.15


Before going on to an annotated extract from my minutes of the meeting, a strong caveat must be introduced. Initially, I estimated about two hundred people in the island’s central meeting hall at Nuka and many others listening outside. It was a ten-hour meet­ing. As people began to speak more rapidly with emotion or speech was indistinct to me from distant parts of the hall, my knowledge of the local language failed me. I can vouch neither for the completeness nor the accuracy of my minutes. Even in the quotations cited below, half the information may have been lost. I can only represent them as my best effort, hope that the outcome of the exercise justifies the use of such inadequate data, and carry on as if the problem did not exist. In these extracts a series of dots (…) indicates the omission of material because of lack of under­standing, the desire to save space, or the speaker’s own stylistic in­dication that the sentence was incomplete. This may be an impor­tant rhetorical device in itself, signaling a common understanding and allowing the listener to fill in the gap. Sometimes I fill in the gaps myself in brackets; remarks in brackets are my own observa­tions. Remarks in parentheses are paraphrases of things said.

A brief note on the setting: the meeting hall itself is a modern form of the maneaba, a meetinghouse with important traditional meanings (see Silverman 1971). A meeting in it is serious business. The Union Jack adorned the front of the hall. The councillors, scribe, and adviser were literally on stage at the front, “the peo­ple” thus being seated apart. Some internal divisions were mani­fest in who was sitting with whom. Now, then, to my annotated extracts: 139

1. Adviser: We ask for the truth. The adviser has no power; the path [to the government] is from the council to the governor [of Fiji]. These years are our chance for success.

2. Chairman: The Tabwewa [one of the four villages] councillors raised the question of the meeting to me. They wanted to meet with the people [literally, ‘the inhabitants of the surface of the land’] re­garding the desire for the annuity, and whether your adviser will re­tire from among you. [The chairman then alluded to two other issues which he said were settled: a specific dispute between himself and the adviser and the handling of the case of a worker who had damaged some equipment, which the chairman said was settled by vote of the board.]

3. Adviser: I have worked for three years and asked regarding an additional three years. Talk to the governor if you want me to retire. [Notes unclear on a statement about the nature of the bonus, the dis­tribution of which he was told would create difficulties with the BPC.] The annuity was stopped long ago by the council. My work on this was just advice.

4. Chairman: The annuity and the bonus are the money of your lands. In the 1930s the government agreed that they should be distri­buted. The money is your money. Here we used it for work. The old men said there was no money. I said: “We will use it for work, for one or two years. If you want it we will give it. If you want the money to work, then it will work. If you want the money, then you will get it.”

5. A Councillor: The chairman said we would talk about the annui­ty, not the bonus. First, with regard to the houses. We asked the BPC for money. The [BPC] commissioners came and saw that we were suf­fering [in difficulty, poor]. We talked about the road, schools, and other things. We met in the house of the adviser. The BPC board has to meet, the commissioners said. After a few months the word came: they agreed. Also, with regard to the adviser: he has done nothing wrong.

6. Another Councillor: I am unhappy too about not having an an­nuity. I am also unhappy about the distribution of two-thirds of the money. The adviser said: “The distribution of the annuity may pre­vent the arrival of big things from the outside.”

We want the bank statement [showing Banaban funds]. Maybe things are hidden there. I am the one who goes outside. If I say that two-thirds will be distributed, they have me. [This councillor is also the Banaban representative on Ocean Island. On his return to Rambi he was said to have circulated reports of having learned that £14 mil­lion was due to the people in accumulated interest from a certain fund.]

7. Adviser: The answer of the government regarding the money is 140well known. [A man interjects from the floor, “That isn’t worth any­thing.” Speaker C rises and says he wants to talk, but the adviser says: “The chairman first.”]

8. Chairman: Freedom under the money of Banaba. Who is the per­son in whose hands it has been received? [People from the floor answer, “No one!”] With regard to our accord on the annuity, we cannot know how much money will go to each person. It is the peo­ple’s money. The annuity is the only path open.

The company wanted to give a good price in the 1930s, but the government objected. [This refers to the 1927–1931 land dispute. The chairman had said at other times that the BPC had been on the point of making an offer closer to Banaban demands, but the resident com­missioner had intervened against the Banabans.] If you do not com­plain all the time … [you get nothing]. If you want the money to be divided, it will be divided.

Regarding the adviser: there should be one person [European] here who is not paid by the government. The first adviser (who came with the people in 1945) said: “In Fiji we can state our grievances better. The land of grievance stating is here. Here, we want to see the gover­nor, and the adviser stops us…. Yes, we did agree to the extension of the adviser’s contract, but the decision is your decision.”

9. D [one of the oldest Banaban men]: We need money for the old people. The worker eats the money.

10. C [a middle-aged man who works for the cooperative socie­ty]: … We are free under the money. The council held it for our dwel­lings. Regarding the adviser: did he behave badly in the council? If one or two hold the money, that is bad.

11. E [a middle-aged copra cutter]: The money is held for the houses. But there are copra cutters. You [workers] live on the money of the community. There are two ways for making a living: copra cutting and wage earning. If I ask for work, will I get it? You say that there are £14 million. We are filled to overflowing with your words! Dis­tribute the annuity!

I stand for the adviser. It is the board [that is the trouble]. What is the value of the walkie-talkie, people say? [A set of walkie-talkies had been purchased which many people thought was of dubious value.] [From the floor: “Finish it!” F, a young man, says: “I support him.”]

12. G [a young man employed by the Fiji government]: Whose error is the error? It is yours [the people’s]; the election was your election. Their errors are your errors.

13. Chairman: Perhaps we are finished stating our opinions. Write down whether you want the annuity or not. If there is an objection from the government, we will have a record. As for the adviser, we are free after three years. 141

Let us start with the chairman’s first remarks (statement 2). He begins in a low key by referring to the question of “whether your adviser will retire from among you” rather than saying “whether the adviser will be sacked,” These words are appropriate for an elder and attempt to give an aura of neutrality, although the chairman’s true position was generally known. He names a prob­lematic situation as involving the annuity and the adviser and in­dicates two other issues as nonproblematic (issues which it might have been assumed would prejudice him against the adviser). The softness, however, might be rhetorically double-edged, the “you” and the “your” suggesting the proper decision-making entity.

The adviser (statement 1) had situated the question vis-à-vis truth and success, indicating (statements 1 and 3) that the council (and its relationship to the governor), not he (and perhaps not this meeting either), was the significant instrument. The council, not he, was the subject of the problematic situation in stopping the an­nuity, and the distribution of the bonus might not be a means of positively transforming the situation but of increasing its prob­lematic nature. He introduced the government and the BPC as elements which had to be sorted out.

Indeed, in general terms or through concrete incidents, the ma­jor categories of secular agents which superintend the Banabans’ fate were named quite early in the meeting and, as the meeting progressed, most of their possible combinations appeared. The functions of one vis-à-vis the other were often problematic, with people trying to sort out what they are and to indicate (when they were the subjects of victimization) how they might be trans­formed.

Historical incidents are retrieved to justify the position being taken, but in the process they become part of something larger than those incidents taken separately. Just as the discussion of transforming the problematic situation relates the present to the future, the citation of these incidents relates the present to the past.

In statement 4, the chairman gives form to the elements of his own interventions when he says that “the annuity and the bonus are the money of your lands.” The nature of the construction was adumbrated earlier. The bonus and annuity are given structural form by, and give tangible content to, land. The annuity and the bonus are also money, a necessary means to gain European goods and services (this is made more explicit in later statements). Land 142thus enters as a resouce and as something that belongs to these people. A frame is set for structuring the problematic situation and its transformation—especially as the government itself had on Ocean Island approved the distribution of this money.

The chairman begins to develop a structure in terms which are critical—the contrast between using the money (of your lands) “for work” and giving it to “you,” the people. Two elements must be elaborated here: the “work” element and the “you” element.

People had said that if the annuity were distributed, it would have to come out of the money presently used for work (the two-thirds-one-third plan). But the contrast is more powerful than the fact might imply. The organization of the various activities involv­ing construction and labor into the category “the work” is a cul­tural organization itself. There is no a priori reason why the cate­gory should exist in this form. Nor is the suggested contrast with “the people,” which explicitly recurred several times during the meeting, an a priori necessity. This structuring suggested the evaluation placed on it, if not the concrete course of action neces­sary to transform it. Quite clearly, things for and to the people are superior to things that are not. What is disputed between some and problematic to others, however, is what “things for and to the peo­ple” are.

Given the historical incident about stopping the money in the first place, it is ambiguous whether the council was the subject of the problematic situation in that it stopped the annuity or whether the council was the instrument of the people who were the subject. This was played out later. But the people were the object (in being denied the annuity), and the means was using the money for work rather than distributing it to them.

The chairman elaborates further. In statement 2 he spoke of the councillors wanting to meet with “the people.” In statement 4 he speaks of “your lands” and says that the money is “your money.” The emphasis now is on “you”: “If you want it … if you want the money to work … if you want the money, then you will get it.” The “you” refers to the Banaban people in general (not the Rambi people in general, which includes non-Banaban residents) and to the people at the meeting (later specified as the landowners). In some way (later made problematic and elaborated), the people at the meeting are a tangible form which “is” the Banaban people and, furthermore, they can make a decision one way or another. 143What is now being set up is this: the objects of the problematic situation (the people) can transform it by becoming the subjects of the transformation (telling the council what to do). The council (the position of which was unspecified earlier) then becomes the instrument; the means is then giving the money to the people rather than to the work; the object (as the subject) of the transfor­mation is the people themselves. The now more highly structured problematic situation (not having more of the money of their lands) links to a set of relations which is both a delineation of reali­ty (what the people can do, what the council can do, what hap­pened in the past) and a proposal. This is achieved by means of at least three transformations. First is the transformation of the pres­ent or possible subject, the council, into an instrument. The coun­cil’s position is ambiguous in any case, since whether it was acting as a subject or instrument by holding onto the money is itself prob­lematic. By transforming the council into instrument (having it distribute the money), the ambiguity is resolved for the future. Second is the transformation of the object (the people) into subject (the final arbiters). Third is the transformation of the means into their antithesis: money for work versus distributing the annuity. The bonus and annuity are tangible content for “the money of your lands” and the land (money) belongs to the people, who can decide what to do with it, and so forth.

This definition of the situation is contradicted and made prob­lematic by the two councillors (statements 5 and 6). Using the money for work rather than distributing it to the people has al­ready been a means of transformation (rather than an element to be transformed): more money in the form of matching funds had been granted by the BPC, and an understanding had already been reached that the money would not to be distributed (who reached the understanding is not made explicit here and became prob­lematic later). Thus the people could not become the subject of the transformation and, continuing as now, more money might be forthcoming in the future. Note that the first councillor addressed the question of the people’s “suffering, poverty,” but not the ques­tion of the people’s lands. The second councillor began by placing himself on the horns of a dilemma.

The chairman (statement 8) gives further form to the problem­atic situation and its transformation. He asserts “freedom under the money of Banaba,” thus linking the whole affair to freedom, 144with a stress on freedom as something which belongs to the com­munity (which can make a decision) and the money as something which belongs to the individual.16 Then he performs one of his feats of rhetorical brilliance which is conceded even by his oppo­nents and which contrasts with his low-key beginning: “Who is the person in whose hands it has been received?” Having stated or closely implied some of the most general symbols and meanings, having raised the discussion to a high order of generality, he then takes the whole thing down to the actual person.

The chairman has done a number of things here. First, “the per­son” (closely linked to “freedom”) is in context a symbol with a special character: its tangible content is the actor himself. And the actor himself becomes form for the problematic elements which had become tangible in that—literally—he holds or does not hold them in his hands. In the succeeding statements (to be described), the chairman deals with many relationships in a manner so per­suasive as to be mesmerizing. What bears underscoring is how the chairman, through the progressive transformations of levels of form and content, set the whole thing up.

In the development of the discussion, the statement “in whose hands” has a special role. The challenge to the chairman’s earlier construction was made on the grounds of an agreement having been made, the fact that more money had been received, and the likelihood of even more money being received. But here the chair­man is asking which individuals have the money as opposed, say, to having seen the products of the money in houses or roads. The individual/collectivity problem is thus brought into the argument. To project to future interventions, no one has “it” in “his hands,” even though some are receiving money from wages, because the “it” here is the money of Banaba which can be construed to be all the money distributed in freedom, unmediated by things like em­ployment. That these two constructions are possible should not be surprising. It is one of the ways a persuasive argument is built up. Furthermore, one must “complain all the time” to get more, and the demand for the annuity could be interpreted as a special case of complaining against the existing situation.

The chairman broached another matter which was portentous in terms of the meeting and events after it. Observe closely the paragraph in statement 8 regarding the adviser. Until this point, although making a definite construction of the situation, the chair­man 145 had actually avoided coming out directly for the annuity or directly against the adviser. Here he enters the fray in an interest­ing way. In our terms, it is ambiguous whether the adviser is the subject or the instrument of the problematic situation defined by the people’s and the council’s relationship to outside authority. The adviser stopped the people from going to the governor, but this is placed in a more generalized context: “There should be one person here who is not paid by the government.” Note how this ambiguity could structure a number of antiadviser positions—being against the man but not the role, being against the role but not the man, or being against both.

The delineation of the resident European’s position is given structural form by something that might have had great resonance at least because the chairman had made statements like it before. Alluding to a statement of the first adviser (and thus an adviser can say something like this, just as the government could approve the annuity), the chairman pointed out: “In Fiji we can state our grievances better. The land of grievance stating is here.”

In his statement the chairman defines a relationship between the presence of an adviser paid indirectly by Banaban monies (the adviser is actually responsible to the Fiji government) and Rambi as a place where grievances can be stated. This relationship is not the only one possible between these elements, nor is it the only re­lationship in which either the adviser or the stating of grievances can be major components. The relationship as stated does, how­ever, have its place in the meeting as a further structuring and clarification of the problematic situation in the following manner: the relationship posited by the chairman is a structuring of two other relationships—(1) Banaban–European (government) and (2) Ocean Island–Rambi. Banaban nationality is, in an important sense, a product of the Ocean Island–Rambi relationship; there­fore, one of the Banabans’ most critical problems is that of arriv­ing at a consensus on that relationship. The meanings of both Ocean Island and Rambi can be given structural form by the sym­bol of Ocean Island land, since Rambi was purchased with phos­phate royalties derived from that land. Certain things in one place are seen in terms of certain things in the other place. Rambi things affect Ocean Island things and vice versa. Implicitly here and ex­plicitly elsewhere, Ocean Island and Rambi relate in what we might call a “transitive metonym.”17 146

The question remains: What are the “certain things” that affect each other implied by the chairman’s statement? Ocean Island af­fects Rambi in that phosphate royalties, which purchased Rambi, maintain Rambi public works projects and pay its workers. But land also symbolizes in Banaban kinship (which is closely tied to Banaban nationality) its code for conduct. Land is what connects the Banaban-government and Ocean Island-Rambi relationships in a single structure. The actions suggested by “grievance stating” involve phosphate, which is something in Ocean Island land. Rambi is therefore related to Ocean Island (affecting Ocean Island things) in terms of action.

The revised status of a resident European is a special case of this structuring. A European responsible to the Banabans alone, rather than to the government, becomes the advocate of Banabans, the instrument of Banaban action. Having thus structured the prob­lematic situation and having suggested an instrument for its transformation, the chairman brings the transformation back to the people: “The decision is your decision.” He has made a con­struction in which action is inherently possible.

By the time we reach statement 9, the chairman has given the meeting a frame. When the people begin to speak, the money to the people/money to the work contrast begins to be elaborated.

One of the oldest men on the island (statement 9) rose and said, “We need money for the old people. The worker eats the money.” The wage earners were using up the money which rightfully should go to the people. The contrast money to work/money to the people as a means was now transformed into workers/old people as subject/object. The workers were, in effect, victimizing the peo­ple; just as it had been suggested by the chairman that the Bana­ban adviser (in role or in person) had wronged the council or the people (statement 8), the people may have been wronged by the council (statement 4) and by various outside authorities (state­ments 6, 7, 8). In statement 10, after reaffirming the reality of situating the matter vis-à-vis freedom, speaker C asks whether some on the council (including the adviser) may be holding the money and thus, following the theme as I decipher it, be victimiz­ing the people. The issue brought up by the old man was put more forcefully by speaker E (who has a way of putting things forceful­ly) in statement 11, when he baldly stated that there were two modes of livelihood, copra cutting and wage earning; the workers 147“live on the money of the community,” and not everyone might be able to get work.

One may say that speaker D was presenting himself as repre­senting the interests of the old people whereas E was presenting himself as representing the interests of the copra cutter. Moreover, one may say they were relating the position and experience of old people and copra cutters to both the problematic situation and the meeting itself. It seemed to me that in their highly charged re­marks they were doing this, and something more, in a very critical way. The chairman had retrieved the historical incident of the old men saying there was no money (statement 4), and here was an old man saying old men had no money and stating the reason. In his giving of form he was presenting himself as tangible form. Similar­ly, the copra cutter injected another element into the problematic situation—copra cutters. The elaboration of the money to peo­ple/money to work contrast as a structure proceeded by constitut­ing classes of victims (old people, copra cutters) who were there at the meeting and victimizers (workers) who were also there. The elements of the structure were not the invisible behind the visible but the made-visible organizing other meanings.

Although the frame given the meeting by the chairman is elabo­rated by the people, there are counterproposals and contradictions of that frame as well. Speaker E contradicts the delineation of the adviser as subject of the victimization: it is, rather, the board. And Speaker G (statement 13) contradicts the indictment of the board by suggesting that, through the election of their councillors, the people are the subject as well as the object of their own dilem­ma. Perhaps as a response to this, the chairman then calls for a vote, which will be a record in case the government objects. The chairman might have been hedging his bets on whether the people are totally free on the matter after all, and (with no massive move­ment yet against the adviser?) he notes that the people will be “free” after the three years of the adviser’s contract are up.

The counterargument regarding money to work/money to the people, introduced in statement 5, was elaborated later. It was proposed that the workers had been serving the community as a whole and as individuals. Here the alleged means of victimization are depicted as a means of transformation—that is, the transfor­mation of the island into a more modern, comfortable place to live and work. 148

The statements of speakers E and G—that the board or the poli­ty responsible for placing the board in office are the subjects of the victimization—both imply that the councillors (from whom the board is selected) are vulnerable. The chairman, indeed, began with a kind of public confession that something had gone awry with the council. Later he suggested that the younger generation could carry the burden which the elder generation (his own) was having trouble with. But the councillors were workers, too. One woman articulated part of the problem later when she stated, “You councillors are landowners [too].” A councillor who spoke little articulated his own dilemma and the general dilemma:

There is the problem of the council and the board. We didn’t want the bonus and annuity because of the money from outside. There is the question of freedom under the money. Some people complained about the annuity. They said: “You do not like it because you are on salary.” No. We look at the future. From the side of the board, I think: hold it. From the side of the council: give it. About the adviser, there is trou­ble knowing what is right. We agreed for three years. If I say I like him, you will say it is because he feeds me. We agreed for three years.

Another councillor, also an office worker, articulated a similar dilemma but resolved it:

I have worked with the adviser for three years. He is helpful in my work, yes. But for the people [‘the land’], no. If he stays you will be un­fortunate. The adviser is not worthwhile…. He is good in the office. But we still have not seen the money on the ground. We just eat cassava. We will not be fortunate quickly…. There is a side that he cannot deal with…. For the Banaban race. There is just money for housing and the road. Our group just salts cassava. If we are for­tunate, we will all be fortunate; if we have misfortune, we will all have misfortune. A Banaban who does not work is not fortunate.

The councillors were put on the defensive and were vulnerable on several counts. They had in fact voted for years to withhold the annuity and bonus. They were also receiving salaries from the money being withheld. Yet at the same time no one could deny that the policy of “money for work” had in fact resulted in some houses and a road where there had been no road before—tangible contents for the argument adduced in statement 5. Nor could one deny that the adviser was in part responsible for those results. The adviser as victimizer was not, then, all that unambiguous. 149

The dilemma is resolved by the position that although the ad­viser had accomplished good things, those accomplishments were beside the point. This is a definite construction of the situation: of the range of desirable things to get done, one was singled out, and by this singling out, an ordering was achieved.

By saying “we still have not seen the money on the ground,” the councillor meant in individual hands. (Thus the collectivity is in­voked—we, the people, our group, the Banaban race—but it is de­fined in this context as an aggregate of equal individuals.) Later in the meeting a man contrasted “work for the money” and “work on the ground” (the latter in the sense of the works projects in which the adviser was so personally as well as ideologically in­volved), stating that the former was more important than the lat­ter. In the closing segment (analyzed below), the issue was stated as that between getting more money and keeping the adviser. Here may have been a way in which the problem of “the work” was resolved in a manner which was actable in terms of the process of the meeting. The “work” pattern was rehabilitated, as it were, by stressing some of its features to construe two kinds of work: one was oriented to getting more money from the phosphate and into individual hands; the other was selective in its benefits if not downright wasteful from the people’s point of view. The island’s senior officialdom (including councillors) is properly involved in “working for the money” (as contrasted with giving “money for the work”), and thus their own positions are not essentially threat­ened.

The “carry on as now” position was essentially a general re­statement of the people as victims, outside authority as victimizer, the means of victimization as money being denied by outside authority, the problematic situation as not having enough money, and local authorities (the adviser, councillors) as the means of transformation.

But when the matter was raised in the meeting, even those argu­ing for the “carry on as now” position could not guarantee that the additional money would be distributed. Some, indeed, were in­clined toward a “development centralism” and (more forcefully outside the meeting) argued that position. There are fundamental differences in the conceptions of how the community should go about conducting its business and what that business is. Those dif­ferences are not, however, in the presence or absence of certain 150elements (there should be more money, there should be some plan­ning) but in their structuring vis-à-vis one another. Some people have not achieved a structuring of these features vis-à-vis one another; this is what confusion means.

The increased money might go for more “work” and thus not to the people as a community of individual landowners, the position of the individual landowner being linked to land, freedom, and the person. The people might not be getting individual payments, which would also be individual returns from the lands they indi­vidually own, and would assert freedom on their property. Be­sides, there was the “promises, promises!” sentiment expressed in statement 11.

The “carry on as now” and development centralist positions, then, could not be articulated with the higher-level symbols (land, freedom) in as many ways as the position for the distribution of the annuity. They were symbolically unproductive.

After the proannuity sentiment had been expressed, the adviser himself said that using the money for the distribution of the annu­ity would not stop “the work” entirely. Thus individual workers may not have construed the situation as an absolute choice be­tween agreement to the annuity’s distribution (loss of their jobs) and maintenance of the status quo, even if they did not agree that more money would be forthcoming anyway. The proannuity posi­tion, then, was more in line with the “maximize your options” principle of the Banaban value system (see Silverman 1969).

The counterargument was weak in another respect, one which was crucial to the process of the meeting itself. The counterargu­ment did not spell out in any elaborate way a means of victimiza­tion or a means of transformation having anything approaching the power of the money for work/money to the people contrast. The means, of all the terms in the pentad of delineation, has the highest structuring potential because once the means is given tan­gible form, it clearly implies all the other terms. Thus a wide field of possibilities is opened up for identifying and structuring actors and events as subjects, objects, instruments, and so forth (includ­ing actors and events particularly meaningful to different people for different reasons).

The identification of money for work as a means of victimiza­tion encompasses relations between Banabans and the outside—the 151outside in general, outside public opinion (which held that Ba­nabans were well off), the government, and the BPC. Money for work also encompasses relations of internal victimization—the old people and copra cutters by workers, the people and council by the adviser and the board, a religious group by the adviser and the council, and even the people by themselves. Money to the people is an equally powerful relational term, since it defines the transfor­mation of the problematic situation while encompassing precisely the same wide net of relationships as the means of victimization. These relationships could be identified and structured vis-à-vis one another or they could be left safely ambiguous for the moment. Lacking an elaborated means, the counterargument lacked the re­lational power inherent in the money for work/money to the peo­ple contrast.


The details of what went on during most of the meeting are, of course, beyond the scope of this chapter. It is sufficient to say that there was a “movement” and a “filling in” among the various elements of this paradigm, with a good deal of questioning and un­certainty. A consensus on the annuity developed and was both questioned and spelled out. The pace of antiadviser interventions increased toward the end in a form that crystallized what had been prefigured earlier. The adviser was more or less in the wit­ness box as defendant, and those who felt particularly aggrieved by his actions acted as public prosecutors, judge, and jury. After these exchanges, the adviser left the meeting.18

It was not long after the adviser’s departure that one thing be­came quite clear. The people were not only collectively construc­ting various symbols and meanings; they were also in the process of creating a symbol—the meeting itself. Actions as well as words and objects can be symbols.19 The notion of a symbol as a vehicle for conceptions can be sustained here only if we insist that the vehicle and the conceptions are in a dialectical relationship—that in the flow of action their forms may be problematic and their boundaries elastic, and that vehicles and conceptions are not sim­ple things but structures. In their statements, movements, and feel­ings, the people were struggling to give form to a vehicle for a 152number of conceptions. They may have recognized this at the outset, but toward the end of the meeting their struggle assumed a quite explicit reality.

One context for understanding the symbolic nature of the meet­ing itself may be that it was not just any meeting but a maunga­tabu, an event which may have a special status because of its infre­quency.20 The calling of a maungatabu may be a structured part of a social drama (see Turner 1957) or a social-conceptual drama in which the number of problematic elements in the people’s lives has become great. In the simplest interpretation, the whole thing may be seen as an attempt on the part of some leaders and would-be leaders to get a public mandate that would strengthen a council case with outside authority. But even on those grounds there would be a major bind in internal relations, external relations, or both.

Not every member of the Banaban community was present at the meeting—or, rather, not every Banaban landowner was pres­ent (and it was only Banaban landowners, Banabans by birth or adoption, who spoke). But if one were to compare this assembly with political meetings in the United States, it is clear that the meeting was one of a significant proportion of a group of people who think of themselves as a total community. There developed an “in-touchness” with the total community, and the history and fu­ture of that community, which is lacking in many meetings else­where. (By this I do not mean to suggest that the Banaban meeting was a unique event from a cross-cultural point of view. Far from it.) The people were putting themselves in touch with their own history and their own future. There was very much a feeling of be­ing part of Great Events. How was this symbol construction final­ly realized?

Toward the end, the meeting reached a new dialectical phase, although elements of that phase had been broached earlier. Now the focus shifted to the form that the final action in the meeting would take. The creation of that form was now the problematic situation, and the content included what had gone on in the meet­ing before.

For the sake of brevity I shall not treat this material in sequen­tial detail. The alternatives presented and discussed were not all mutually exclusive; they involved the issues of what should be done inside and outside the meeting. Alternatives for action inside 153the meeting included nothing more than signing papers on either side of the argument, dividing the house, and raising and counting hands. Alternatives for action outside the meeting were to have a plebiscite conducted, presumably by the council; to communicate the results of a vote in the meeting to the governor and the BPC; and to send the results of a vote to the council for its consideration.

The chairman, it seemed, was first calling for a plebiscite or at least the taking of signatures. Speaker H, a young man prominent in the affairs of church and state, made the critical interventions in this latter segment (as he had done earlier by “cross-examining” the adviser). Speaker H argued as follows: “On a paper for the decision: this is the maungatabu. The heads of families are all here. If the maungatabu is called, it is decided. [Next sentence unclear; probably: As you, our old men, have done from the past to the present.] … Who else is there to call? Are the people here valueless? … Then it will go to the council.”

Another man echoed the point: “What is worth more? The heads of families or the council?”

And later, speaker H said: “How many Banabans are there? The government can see how many. When this man [that is, some­one] comes, he speaks for his spouse and children.” And later, “We call people here to sign for their families.”

The chairman then shifted his own position: “Ask the com­munity of Banaba. Stay on the maungatabu of Banaba.” And fur­ther on: “It is the decision of the maungatabu. Make worthwhile the decision of the maungatabu…. Pray that the governor is guided [by God] in his decisions.”

Speaker H used Banaban tradition to give form to the maunga­tabu as the maungatabu gave tangible content to Banaban tradi­tion. He stressed the continuity of that tradition and the unique potential of the maungatabu for producing decisive action. The maungatabu became a tangible form which structured the trans­formation of “the people” into the “heads of families,” the power­ful images of kinship perhaps now becoming content for the maungatabu. While some role for the council was maintained, ac­tion in the meeting itself was presented as critical and historic. That action would then give form to the other structures.

One well-known supporter of the adviser and opponent of the annuity argued for a plebiscite or a paper vote (which one was unclear to me) in the meeting: “The word can be changed. The 154paper cannot. This is not the time for unenlightened thoughts [‘thoughts of darkness, ignorance’]. The light [‘electricity’, point­ing to the fluorescent light above] is lit.” The ‘time of darkness, ig­norance’ and the ‘time of light, understanding’ are often used to indicate the contrast between the Banaban way of life before and after missionization or, more generally, as a contrast between an­cient and enlightened times.

Later, speaker H came back to the issue by making of the maungatabu a “special case” of modern political thought. He said that the people were acting in a “democracy,” that the maunga­tabu was called so that people’s ideas could be made known, one after another, and that each person is precious in this system. The maungatabu thus became tangible content for both the continuity of Banaban tradition and political advancement.21 Here is the art­ful rhetorician situating the maungatabu at the interface of two conceived systems, the relations of which are often quite problem­atic to the people—‘tradition’ and ‘progress’ (or, more generally, the nature and demands of the modern world)—and stressing the actability of both. Here a relationship can be made through ac­tion, through that action. As a young man said with great feeling, “We want to see the power of the community of Banaba!”

The chairman had put two papers on the stage and a few people went up to sign, but there was hesitancy. The proposal for a count of hands won out; perhaps the raising of hands on each side was a more collective and momentary act. And hand counters from both ‘the council’ and ‘the people’ joined together in legitimizing the act. The vote was read as 110 against and 18 for the adviser.

The winning side at the meeting, crystallized through the ‘heads of families’ route, made the Banaban community tangible by constituting the people at the meeting as the Banaban com­munity who by a concrete action could give form to such tangible symbols and meanings as freedom and land, the worth of the per­son and the sanctity of kinship, the preservation of Banaban tradi­tion and the commitment to progress.

During the course of the meeting, many relationships had been set out as the problematic situation and its transformation were elaborated. The people explored various definitions, subjects, ob­jects, instruments, and means, which were given form by various symbols and meanings and which gave form to various events. Toward the end of the meeting they had the problem of building 155the structure for the transformation (action) which would be ac­complished now, a structure which could operate on the wide-ranging sets of relations which had emerged.

There was obviously an “audience present” which included outside authority, and many ambiguities remained as to the role of the council—what power lay where, and so forth. But the position that “the maungatabu can do it” meant essentially that the Banaban community, in their action, could become the subject, object, instrument, and means of their own transformation, giving form to and being formed by themselves.

The symbol which was constituted by the action of the meeting might be termed a “reflexive symbol,” since the symbol and much of the universe to which its referent applied were simultaneously present and identical. The people were both the instances of the Banaban community and the components of the symbol in that they were participants in the action. Thus what in other contexts are general symbols are given form by every individual, and every individual becomes more than an individual by becoming the component of a symbol.

This is not to suggest that specific grievances, alliances, and hostilities were irrelevant to the meeting, that the meeting con­cerned only matters of policy and practice. Insofar as it was suc­cessful, the ordering represented by the meeting was successful because a diversity of concerns, complaints, and strategies—a no­ble concern for the future of the community, a grandstand play for position, an intense grudge against the adviser—could be given form by that ordering. This is what any politician knows. The commanding problem is not why certain people did what they did, but the creation of the set of forms which enabled them to do what they did, for whatever reason. All was not enthusiasm and harmony at the end of the meeting. Far from it. Those opposed to the position that “the maungatabu can do it” were profoundly unhappy with what was going on and questioned its legitimacy. Others were not sure how they felt about the outcome of the meeting. The meeting did not resolve fundamental conflicts; it ar­ticulated them. But whether people voted one way or the other, sat it out, made a dramatic exit, quietly slipped through the side door—or did not attend in the first place—something was going to hap­pen and something did happen, out of a multiplicity of events and apart from a multiplicity of events. As Althusser (1969:126) 156observes: “What makes such and such an event historical is not the fact that it is an event, but precisely its insertion into forms which are themselves historical.”22


Just before the voting began, one man suggested that there should be a film showing afterward. After the chairman called the meet­ing to a close and said that people were free in their opinions, there was a discussion on the availability of a film. The suggestion on the film was not out of place, because films are shown there from time to time. In fact, a film was shown that evening but some peo­ple, including myself, left before it. I eternally regret that my ex­haustion compelled me to withdraw from the scene.

With the people (or what was left of them) now collectively in the same position vis-à-vis an outside entertainment, they demar­cated the end of the previous form. The Banabans are often quite energetic film-goers, talking and commenting. The film may have provided some kind of release from a trying event filled with hos­tility, latent and manifest. Perhaps the performers in the action unwound, or rewound, themselves into an audience involved in something entirely different: the medium (the meeting) had become the message, bracketed itself by the final action, and hav­ing accomplished this feat, further bracketed itself by the in­troduction of another medium.


Every analysis has its black boxes. Something goes into the box, something comes out of the box. But what goes on inside the box—a “how,” a process—remains essentially unexplored. The analyst may consider the “how” to be understood, irrelevant, somebody else’s business, perhaps describable in the future. One can easily label the box without opening the lid but thinking that one has, and then confuse product with process (for instance, some uses of “self-interest” and “adaptation”).

One “how” becomes illuminated or even restructured (Lévi-Strauss on how a myth means, Peacock on how a drama works, Schneider on how kinship articulates, Turner on how a ritual works) and others are created.157

My own analysis has its black boxes, too, many of them of noble antiquity. How do symbols really symbolize? What really goes on in the conjunctions? What are the operations and rules that specify how one thing can lead to another and how one thing cannot lead to another? How does what I have described articulate precisely with local social relations and with larger structures?23

If this chapter has any theoretical utility, it may help to delineate certain aspects of the how of events like the meeting, events which are, if you will, macrocosms of the symbolization process, where forms are under construction which enable (or, to play it out, restrict) the—quite literal—making of sense.

Ethnographically, the chapter documents the microsystem-macrosystem problem, discussed by several other contributors to this volume, as one with an urgent reality to a people struggling to become themselves and struggling to restructure at least one aspect of the world they live in.


I would like to thank Stephen A. Barnett, Vern Carroll, Michael D. Lieber, James L. Peacock, David Schneider, Peter Seitel, and Victor Turner for their extraor­dinarily useful comments on a previous draft of this chapter. A theoretical dia­logue with Barnett has been particularly critical to the present effort. Lieber labored mightily and sympathetically to make the chapter more readable, re­writing some of the more obscure sections, and in so doing contributed substan­tively to it. I must alert the reader to the fact that the details of the methodology of the analysis were formulated after the conclusion of the fieldwork. I offer deep apologies for being able to find only rather obscure and convoluted ways of stating many of my fundamental points. Many of these points are simple, well known, and even commonsensical, but I have felt the need for a certain degree of formal abstractness to enhance the chapter’s possible utility for those interested in the comparative analysis of symbolic actions. My apologies are deepest to the Banabans themselves.

1. One can also approximate Peter Berger’s terms: people are, collectively and simultaneously, “externalizing” fields of meanings, asserting a “shared fac­ticity” by objectivating meanings, and “internalizing” the objectivated pro­duction. The element of ambiguity, however, complicates the picture. See Berger (1969).

2. Much of the material in this section is repeated from Silverman (1971).

3. I note especially for comparative purposes that “direct dealings” with phos­phate company and government personnel continued on Ocean Island in several respects.

4. The four centralized villages on Ocean Island were apparently consolidated 158in the early colonial period from five village districts (composed of many hamlets) which were in effect maximal units (beneath the level of the island itself, which was relevant in some contexts) in the ritual, descent, and ter­ritorial systems.

5. Certain services are listed in old records as being paid for by deductions from Banaban funds. I know nothing of how this process occurred or what role the Banabans had in it. I am operating on the assumption that the role bears no real comparison to the Rambi structure.

6. A “radical” suggestion was made early on Rambi that much of the phos­phate money should be distributed to the people and that the council would obtain what additional funds it needed through taxation. I do not know how general the sentiment was in favor of this proposal, but apparently it was not well received by the government.

7. The “right will inevitably be done” attitude has been losing ground recently.

8. These connections are explored in detail in Silverman (1971).

9. There was a complex set of rules about the distribution of the annuity and bonus, discussed in Silverman (1971). For “full-Banabans” (the regulations were somewhat different for others), there was recognition of the equal iden­tity of Banaban individuals (since individuals received the same amount of money, qualified by age) through the annuity and also recognition of the dif­ferentiation of Banabans as individuals with different amounts of land through the bonus—or all Banabans are landowners, but some own more land than others. Had there been no upper limit on the bonus, the case would be much nicer: the annuity going to the person (but one, of course, whose status was partially conceived in terms of his being a landowner) and the bonus going to the land. The setting of the upper limit, however, does not preclude the presence of that conception. Indeed, it suggests it. Which features of the rules were initiated by the government and which by the Banabans is obscure, although it is reported that a committee of Banabans approved the rules.

10. The figures are presented to be suggestive. Consideration of the household as a social unit is a very tricky matter for Rambi. The full-time job category is somewhat deceptive since some of these people, too, engage in agriculture, fishing, and entrepreneurial activity.

11. The term “problematic situation” is borrowed from Laura Thompson, who uses it in applied anthropological contexts.

12. The connections being made may overlap with an anthropologist’s descrip­tion of social organization or social structure. I want to recognize but not ex­plore an extraordinarily important theoretical problem here: the similarities and differences between the anthropologist’s delineating activity and the delineating activity of the people he is studying.

13. The point recalls Geertz’s distinction between the “model of” and “model for” functions of symbols (Geertz 1966). I refrain from adopting that lan­guage here because of complications which are provided by the elements of vagueness and ambiguity for the “template” notion and my (admittedly un­even) stress on structure in use. A solution might be to look for the principles of template construction, some clues to which are given in Geertz (1964). 159

14. These points draw upon Dumont (1970) and Black (1962), although I am not using “stressed” in the same sense as Dumont and do not want to situate this discussion vis-à-vis Dumont’s encompassing/encompassed distinction. Al­though I schematize the process of conjunction as if only two things are be­ing conjoined, that is, of course, a gross simplification. The point may ap­pear to be vulnerable in that it says nothing more than that B meets C on the street and they talk about what they have in common. Two responses: first, “what they have in common” is not given a priori, given B and C; second, I stick to the special case since I do not want to bring up the question of change, which is really the most interesting question. For example: what happens when B meets C and one or both are not what they used to be? I hope to develop these matters in future publications.

15. Without knowledge of other maungatabu, it is impossible to know whether one can write a generalized scenario (or a limited number of scenarios) for a maungatabu of which this one would be an instance. I was struck at several points by the search for forms—the procedures to be followed were themselves problematic. The mode of the search, however, might constitute a form in itself. If there is a maungatabu form of which the meeting is an in­stance, then one would also have to demarcate that form vis-à-vis other forms in order to understand the Banaban’s behavior in the maungatabu itself. Serious attention to matters of this kind is given in Peacock (1968). The literature on judicial proceedings also provides a clear line of comparative and methodologically illuminating inquiry. But I do not want to expand what is already a lengthy chapter, and I am not familiar enough with the literature to enter that fray at this point. The exclusive attention to verbal communciation in my analysis is a serious deficiency.

16. Aspects of ‘freedom’ are treated in Silverman (1971). It is a cultural label for the “maximize your options” principle. It is through events such as this that its meanings may become established.

17. Other contributors take up the question of the specific mapping of presettle­ment structures onto the post-resettlement situation. The mapping, of course, goes the other way, too, and it is the dialectic between them that is really in­teresting. The construction of the bonus and annuity, as well as land subdivi­sions, settlement patterns, and electoral rules, are all part of the mapping problem, which is treated in detail in Silverman (1971).

18. One crucial feature of the intervening exchanges must be mentioned but remain undocumented here. The explicit bringing forth of the structuring symbols discussed, and the spelling out of form-content relations of the several kinds, tended to come from the protagonists in the debate—the coun­cillors and some of the people known before the meeting as strong partisans. One would have to situate this point in terms of Banaban rhetorical action in order to interpret it. Some strong partisans were important figures in their churches. Perhaps there is some relationship between this practice and prom­inent organizational activity. Which comes first—whether there is an ability which selects people for such activity, or whether such activity encourages the development of the ability or marks out some people as those who should publicly symbolize in this way—is a question I cannot answer. If the rela­tionship 160 is not with prominent organizational activity in general, it may be with church activity. Although my notes on them are pitifully incomplete, I suspect that sermons constitute the paradigmatic continuing form which ar­ticulates things so completely. Perhaps we are dealing with a feature of most Banaban persuasive discourse, discourse in a problematic situation, or both. Many have noted, but not explored in detail, the elaboration of rhetoric in Oceania. This neglect may result from a preconception that style is an embellishment of what really matters rather than being constitutive of it.

19. I recognize a problem here which is important at the theoretical level. It is appropriate to speak of acts as symbols and objects as symbols (as in Geertz 1966), but if one is trying to specify the nature and relations of symbolic systems, a good deal more careful thought is necessary on the implications of a symbol being an act, an object, or whatever.

20. My only other reference to an event being called a maungatabu was a gen­eral meeting of the cooperative society on which I have sparse data. There was a real problematic situation there, but it might have been called a maungatabu even if there were not. The maungatabu may be a label for “general meetings of the membership,” some of which are temporally regular and others of which are part of a social-conceptual drama sequence. I also note that the first adviser on Rambi got into many difficulties with the people, and one of the local interpretations is that the people (or certain groups) were instrumental in his departure. The whole affair regarding the adviser may thus be a replay, and there may have been a maungatabu in the earlier case. This does not, however, qualify the historical nature of the event. More data would answer some of these questions. For a meaning of maungatabu in the Gilberts, see Maude (1963).

21. It is interesting to note here that both speaker H and the man who made “the light is lit” statement were arguing in the same terms. If the discussion had been carried further, some of the terms (such as ‘progress’) may have turned out to be “essentially contested” concepts (Gallie 1962).

22. The quote is, evocatively and provocatively, being lifted out of context. James Peacock suggests that the actions of the viewers of the film shown im­mediately after the meeting may have carried forward and given new power to the actions-meanings constructed during the meeting by encoding, elabo­rating, and displacing those meanings through another medium.

23. I had intended to include a detailed analysis of the articulation of what occurred in the meeting with the social relations of the participants, but found that a book-length treatment would be necessary. While the omission is a serious one, I believe the content of the chapter raises enough questions of general interest to be justified.

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