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The Emergence of Class in the Pacific


Toon van Meijl, Dario Di Rosa

Session presentation

This session seeks to examine whether the concept of class might be usefully applied to illuminate contemporary Pacific societies, especially in relation to other forms of social inequality. We aim at assembling historical and ethnographic contributions addressing both the structural dimension of class and the experiential dimension of class belonging. The following questions may be guiding possible contributions: How is socio-economic inequality understood locally, and in relation to which other analytical categories? To what extent does the existence of class vary among Pacific societies? What are the most important factors that might explain such variation, e.g. degree of precontact stratification, differences in colonial political economy, incidence of migration and remittances? What is the actual composition of classes in Pacific societies? Does class intersect with social status or rank? How do lived realities of material marginalization and imagined geographies of wealth affect life trajectories and social efforts? Comparative research into these questions may not only demonstrate the relevance of the notion of class for the study of Pacific societies, but it may also contribute to a deeper understanding of class relations in general.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Transforming Rank in to Class in a Fijian Pentecostal Church

Karen Brison (Union College)

This paper examines the fashioning of an indigenous middle class among members of an independent Fijian Pentecostal church, the Harvest Ministry. Harvest Ministry leaders come from groups who were traditionally dominant in colonial and postcolonial Fijian urban society and for the most part are graduates of one of the elite secondary schools established by the British to serve chiefly Fijians. Church rhetoric, however, de-emphasizes indigenous Fijian culture and chiefly hierarchy. Instead, the church draws on transnational Pentecostal ideology to portray the church as like a business corporation where leaders can guide members to greater prosperity through channeling God’s anointing to the church community. The church also links its members to a transnational Pentecostal middle class through “exporting its brand” by sending missionaries to Africa, Europe, Asia and other areas of the Pacific. This paper examines the way that Pentecostal churches in Fiji appear to challenge traditional indigenous rank but, in fact, define traditional elites as belonging to a transnational middle class.

The category of "probable class": Beyond a Kanak/non-Kanak dichotomy

Mélissa Nayral (Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès)

Over the past few decades, South Pacific countries have witnessed the emergence of a sociological category of people comparable to the one of new elites. New Caledonia is no exception to this phenomenon, as the Kanak’s political struggle for independence led to profound changes in the economic, political and educational capital of Kanak people. Different programs which financially supported the training of more than a thousand Kanak played a significant part in this process. Although Kanak still constitute a minority, Kanak doctors, engineers, lawyers et cetera are more and more numerous throughout the territory.
This paper will make an attempt to understand how this emerging sociological category of Kanak elite may be considered as a ‘probable class’, in the Bourdieuan sense. Given that achievements of people belonging to this class often allow them to bypass what is commonly described as customary authority, it will subsequently investigate the implications of observed practices for a more theoretical approach. In other words, does ‘class’ intersect with social status or rank when it comes to studying political practices in New Caledonia?
Based on various case studies from the Loyalty Islands, this paper will finally argue that through the introduction of the concept of class in the study of political practices and social inequalities in New Caledonia, ethnicity may be bypassed so that we may be able to go beyond a Kanak/non-Kanak dichotomy.

The Emergence of Class in Maori Society

Toon van Meijl (Radboud University Nijmegen)

Although anthropology has been historically influential in the study of inequality, the concept of class has never been a key concept in the discipline. In the Pacific, too, class has barely been used in the analysis of hierarchical relations or inter-ethnic inequality. This is probably intertwined with the historical assumption of class as a bounded category, whereas in empirical analysis it invariably intersects with other key concepts, such as ethnicity, gender and age. This often leads
to complex combinations of difference and inequality that are difficult to distinguish in analysis.
In this paper, class analysis will be explored to interpret growing inequality in Maori society. For a long time, New Zealand prided itself as the most egalitarian country in the world, but this reputation has been shattered in recent years. The indigenous Maori population was not only structurally underprivileged until at least the 1980s, when a Maori renaissance took off and a process of settling colonial grievances began. At the same time, however, neoliberal reforms were introduced that exacerbated the inequality in Maori society that emerged as part of the Maori renaissance and the process that aims at settling historical violations of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Stratification in Papua New Guinea and on Facebook

David Lipset (University of Minnesota)

In the early literature on class in PNG (May 1984, 2001), the focus was on the relationship of state-based politics to older pre-state forms of hierarchy. In the new ethnography on emerging stratification in the recent postcolonial period (Gewertz and Errington 1999, Martin 2015), the focus has shifted to relations between urban and rural kin with reference to land tenure and place-based identity, marriage strategies, remittances and the values of generosity and “big-ness” as well as boundary-making and the withholding of support.

I will discuss emerging expressions of stratification on Facebook among the Murik of PNG. At the same time as class boundaries remain relatively porous because they are cross-cut by kinship and other pre-state Melanesian values, expressions of class stratification are clearly discernable in social media posts in the content of photography and language use both of which clearly express differential cultural capital.

The Distributivist State a Vehicle for Class Formation in Papua New Guinea

Thiago Oppermann (Australian National University)

Classical analyses of class in Papua New Guinea have suffered either by the limited analogy between Melanesian social conditions and formulaic understandings of political economic class, or by the limited analytical utility of cultural status concepts of class. In this paper, I consider class organisation in relation to emergent properties of political networks in Autonomous Region of Bougainville and Simbu Province, noting the centrality of the state in supplying resources used for the articulation of such networks. In an environment with limited production, control of the means of distribution is the critical juncture of political articulation. This system of political control establishes strategic positions with similar material interests, and is hierarchical in character. The increasing consolidation of such interests in the form of political economic classes is masked from a local perspective, partly because global features of these political networks differ from local features, and partly because similar values circulate with different evaluations amongst elites and nonelites.

Questions of Consciousness: Articulating Inequality in Kikori, Papua New Guinea

Dario Di Rosa (Australian National University)

The colonial past marks in Kerewo historical consciousness the beginning of new kinds of inequalities at different geographical scales. That was the time when ‘modernity’ became available through the encounter and engagement with Europeans and Christianity. Kerewo explain their socio-economic marginality and the differential access to wealth in contemporary Papua New Guinea in historical and moral terms.
Kerewo, whose ancestors have killed the LMS missionary James Chalmers in 1901, believe that their lack of development is due to the curse cast upon Kikori by that sin. Yet, that very event did put Kerewo at the centre of the regional colonial map, especially the evangelisation of the area. In mid-2010s Kerewo attempted to restore their past centrality by organising an atonement ceremony through which to uplift the curse and unblock ‘development’. The paper will pay particular attention to the ways in which local elites deployed their social, cultural, and economic capital in order to give shape to the ceremony, alternatively downplaying or stressing fractures within the Kerewo communities and among ethnic groups in the region.
Accounting for the ways in which communities structurally excluded from the processes of global production articulate their social identity and class position, the paper aims at outlining a theory of class analysis inclusive of the ‘political economy of the sign’.