A Social History of Youth in Samoa: Religion, Capitalism, and Cultural Disenfranchisement

By Cote, James E. | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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A Social History of Youth in Samoa: Religion, Capitalism, and Cultural Disenfranchisement

Cote, James E., International Journal of Comparative Sociology


The problems faced by young people in developing countries are massive and widespread; and, in comparison with many other issues, have been largely unaddressed. One reason for the inattention to these problems, I believe, is that their roots run deep into the history of the power structures of many modem nations affected by colonialism. In this paper, I trace the roots of these problems in the Samoas(1) to the Western colonial practices that culturally disenfranchised young Samoans.

The problems to which I refer came to my attention when I was investigating what has been called one of the biggest debates in anthropology (Crocombe, 1989). In this debate, Margaret Mead's seminal study of youth in American Samoa came under severe criticism from the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman, who took exception to her characterization of Samoans and various facets of Samoan society. The details of this debate, and my views on it, can be found elsewhere (Cote, 1994). Here I present elements of a social historical analysis that led me to document the roots of the problems experienced by the young people of the modern Samoas.

I originally constructed this social history of youth in Samoa because Freeman argues that the transition to adulthood was stressful in Samoa before contact with the West, yet Mead's main conclusion was that this transition was largely unstressful in the 1920s and likely had been throughout Samoan history.(2) This paper does not dealt deal with the "adolescent storm and stress" issue per se, however; instead, it traces the demise of a well-structured and meaningful period of youth in Samoa and the growth of a conflictual and alienating one. As we see, this rise of a stressful transition to adulthood can be directly linked with a century and a half of contact with Western religious and economic practices.

This story has been lost in the Mead/Freeman controversy, partly because Derek Freeman seems unwilling admit to a Samoan history that does not correspond with the ideological revisions of conservative power structures in the post-colonial Samoas (Cote, 1994).

Coming of Age in Precontact Samoa

The written documentation left by the missionaries who endeavoured to convert Samoans during the 1800s, and the anthropologists who have since studied Samoan culture, reveals a number of features of precontact Samoa that should have provided for a relatively continuous and stress-free passage from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps most crucial to the issue of continuity was the fact that Samoan children were not protected from the hardships and "evils" of the world; they were not economic liabilities to the household; and they lived in the real world of adults. By their teen years Samoan young people were already "worldly" individuals in their own right, with a working knowledge of that world. They possessed socially-recognized capacities and skills upon which they could build an adult sense of identity (cf. Holmes, 1987), and there was a well-established quid pro quo between the young and adults which dictated that all individuals contribute to the collective welfare to the extent that they were capable, and all receive their share as they needed. And, there were institutions that guided them to adulthood, welcoming them into the community and respecting their place in that community.

During their teen-aged years, young Samoans would learn or hone most of the skills, and perform most of the tasks, considered part of the "common-sense" knowledge of the adult world. In addition, many would adopt a specialization that would constitute a foundation of their adult identity. According to the Samoan historian Malama Meleisea (1987a, p. 33):

Although every adult Samoan knew how to perform the basic economic tasks appropriate to their sex in order to survive, there were dozens of specializations recorded by early observers. The basic economic tasks for men were agriculture, carpentry, hunting and fishing; and for women, weaving, tapa making and oil making.

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A Social History of Youth in Samoa: Religion, Capitalism, and Cultural Disenfranchisement


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