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Petty Capitalists, Professionals and New Elites: Transforming inequalities in and beyond Oceania


Church Willem, Sina Emde, Dominik Schieder

Session presentation

The people of Oceania's increasing entanglement with global capitalism in late modernity has coincided with the proliferation of novel socio-political and socio-economic differentiation. These changes include, for example, big-men transforming into business-oriented big shots (Finney 1973, Martin 2013), the appointment of ‘tribal’ trustee boards (Van Meijl 2003), the emergence of an Oceania-wide middle class (Besnier 2009, Gewertz and Errington 1999, Hau’ofa 1987) and the rise of tertiary educated professionals. In a region historically characterized by varying degrees of political hierarchy (Sahlins 1963), economic inequality as well as gender- and age-based differentiation, new forms of inequality, visible in rural, urban and transnational contexts, challenge emic and etic perceptions of Pacific Islander sociality. For example, throughout Oceania, new class structures ‘partly coexist with and partly replace older social orders’ (Besnier 2009: 218). Apart from a few notable exceptions, there is a scarcity of ethnographies that interrogate the life-worlds of these new elites and middle-classes, from, amongst others, local level village councillors to high-level civil servants and transnationally-mobile NGO employees. Hence, this panel invites papers that historically, ethnographically and/or theoretically interrogate the social processes which drive these new forms of socio-political and socio-economic inequalities as well as explore the new life-worlds they create within and beyond Oceania.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Office Makers and Office Holders: Historical Processes of Inequality Formation in Morobe, Papua New Guinea

Church Willem (University of Auckland)

As Papua New Guinea (PNG) became embroiled with colonial administrations and Christian missions, many older modes of difference-making, like initiation, began to decline as new opportunities for distinction emerged. These changes unfolded in regular patterns: missions attempted to subvert local sources of cosmological power, while government officials cooled conflicts and set-up points of contact. At the same time, who was appointed luluai (village representative), who became an evangelist, and what conflicts ended were contingent on local circumstance. By tracing the colonial history of two Wampar villages in Morobe, PNG, I query these processes of historical possibility and prescription. I ask: how and when are temporary and often accidental individual differences like political ambition or recruitment robustly transformed into persistent political inequalities? To explore these questions, I analyse the biographies of early Wampar councillors and the villages’ engagements with the government. In this case, I argue that converting temporary difference into intergenerational inequalities required that the reproduction be both (1) impersonal, in that privileges were not contingent on who held them, and (2) exclusionary, in that others could not produce or replicate these privileges. I argue that court rulings over land fulfil these requirements, while also creating high levels of contingency, as verdicts are based on the decisions of judges and a handful of individuals.

Maori "corporate warriors" and socio-political leveling.

Jorun Br Ramstad (University of Tromso, the Arctic Univerrsity of Norway)

Maori commitment to “survival” has often been presented using terms such as “sovereignty”, “self-determination” and kawangatanga (self-government). In the 1990s, this commitment in particular targeted the fields of education, health, social services and small-scale enterprises for development. These areas of focus corresponded with two main Maori concerns. The first was the practical concern with meeting “needs” among Maori. The second was more ideological, focused on supporting “projects” that were managed “for the people” and “by the people”. In this context, the project facilitators, i.e. “Maori professionals” otherwise known as “corporate warriors”, had to accomplish a double mission. First, they had to fulfill official (Pakeha) requirements of responsibility and accountability that were connected to governmental funding. Second, they were expected to demonstrate an ethic of agency, i.e. kaupapa Maori (‘vision of loyalty’), to “the people” in question. “Maori professionalism” alongside “survival” is vested with many socio-political concerns that reflect a colonial past, as well as a contemporary political adherence to the Treaty of Waitangi and its embedded principle of “partnership” between the Maori and the Crown.
Based on ethnographic research, this paper seeks to explore some factors that contribute to processes of modern “entrapment” and/or new forms of inequalities among Maori.

Vakavanua as weakness, vakavanua as strength: Discourses of self and belonging among Fijian professionals in Japan

Dominik Schieder (University of Siegen)

In recent decades, an increasing number of Fijians have moved abroad to further their education and seek employment, including in the diplomatic field. Similar to other forms of Pacific Islander mobility, Fijian migration brings into the spotlight the customary (vakavanua) duties of those leaving to support relatives and village communities staying behind. This phenomenon can also be observed among Japan-based Fijian professionals with whom I worked in 2012-2013. These Fijians faced a dilemma: while idealistic notions of vakavanua remained intrinsic to their identity, many lamented the disproportionate expectations into which vakavanua often transformed due to the supposed wealth they had accumulated in Japan. In consequence, my interlocutors reflected on the drawbacks of vakavanua and discussed some of the strategies they had designed in order to limit or avoid requests and obligations (e.g. by staying in hotels during home leaves and through unannounced visits). Drawing on interviews and conversations with diplomats, civil servant trainees, rugby players and language teachers, this paper demonstrates how Fijian professionals discursively engage with the changing economic and socio-cultural circumstances that shape their life worlds. It highlights how these Fijians reflect on the weakness and strength of vakavanua situationally and often within one discursive framework and thus pays particular attention to the dynamics and creative potential of contemporary Fijian sociality.

Walking the tightrope? Gender, education and professionalisation in Oceania

Sina Emde (Leipzig University)

As early as 1987 the late Epeli Hau’ofa (1987,3) wrote: “As part of the process of integration and the emergence of the new society, the ruling classes of the South Pacific are increasingly culturally homogenous. They speak the same language, which is English […]they share the same ideologies and the same material life-styles”. While Hau’ofa was one of the first to pay attention to these processes of social distinction and differentiation, he did not ask if these processes are experienced different by men and women or old and young. In this paper I look at gendered experiences of higher education and professionalization and suggest that women experience specific dilemmas and predicaments related to normative gender hierarchies, ascribed gender roles and political configurations. I suggest that women in the Pacific quite successfully navigate multiple worlds of kinship, tradition, education and professionalization but that these processes always remain a walk on the tightrope that becomes easier with age and success. My argument is based on long duree interactions with interlocutors and friends that I worked with in 1992/93 at the Uníversity of the South Pacific and in 2000/2001 in NGOs based in Suva Fiji.