Academic journal article Oceania

The Systematisation of Tradition: Maori Culture as a Strategic Resource

Academic journal article Oceania

The Systematisation of Tradition: Maori Culture as a Strategic Resource

Article excerpt

Re-interpretations and re-enactments of tradition by states and indigenous minorities in the Pacific have, over the past decade, encouraged a developing interest among anthropologists in the objectification and strategic use of culture. Within the anthropological literature on the subject, a bewildering variety of terms have been employed to identify transformations of tradition in the colonial and post-colonial Pacific, among them; 'invention', 'reinvention', 'construction', 'inversion', 'fetishisation', 'folklorisation', 'objectification', 'reification', 'substantivisation', 'reactive objectification', 'codification', and 'formalisation'. This diversity reflects not only the varied and complex nature of the transfomations studied but also different theoretical assumptions about the location and salience of agency or intentionality in relation to them.

Initial explorations of the field focussed on transformations of tradition into non-localised political symbols. Keesing and Tonkinson (1982), and Philibert (1986) emphasised the ideological use of tradition (as kastom/kastam) by national elites in the context of nation-building in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, while Linnekin (1983), drawing upon her Hawaiian research, discussed its politicisation within an arena of ethnic politics. Subsequent debate has centred upon the political wisdom and scholarly appropriateness of an anthropological language of 'inauthenticity' that pretends to 'unmask' politicisation by state officials and indigenous minorities (Trask 1991; Keesing 1991; Linnekin 1991; Jolly 1992a). In the wake of criticisms of the writings of Linnekin (1983), Keesing (1989), Hanson (1989) and others by representatives of indigenous Pacific minorities, notably Hawaiian and Maori, there has been both a reaffirmation of the need to 'continue to assert the contingent and symbolic, rather than the 'natural' constitution of cultural identity' (Linnekin 1990:173) and calls for greater sensitivity in the way that this is done. Linnekin has since substituted the term 'construction of tradition' for the politically loaded (and misleading) 'invention of tradition' (Linnekin 1992: 253). Jolly and Thomas (1992:243) have questioned whether 'efforts to forge new cultures of national unity are exercises in cynical manipulation', and Jolly (1992a) has stressed the need to explore more carefully the complex articulation between local and national reifications and revaluations of tradition. In this regard, she criticises Babadzan (1988) for siding with the local against the national in his discussion of the fetishisation and folklorisation of tradition by Pacific elites.

Complementing this work on contemporary constructions of tradition, Thomas and Jolly have explored the objectification of tradition as a more general historical phenomenon which has taken place in the course of the colonial encounter. Individual agency is, in these accounts, subordinated to the social processes of objectification and rationalisation. Thomas (1992a) has argued, for example, that the Fijian custom of kerekere (soliciting goods, resources or services) was reified as a 'substantivised practice' during the colonial period when it became the target of state policies aimed at fostering individualism and dismantling a communal social order. He has further proposed that the colonial encounter has engendered 'reactive objectifications' of tradition -- forms of collective self-identification in which local beliefs and practices are selectively reified as traditional 'inversions' of colonial beliefs and practices (Thomas 1992b; Foster 1992:284). Taking 'process, rather than coherence, as his primary trope', Thomas asks 'against what are traditions invented?'; how does the dynamic of reactive objectification proceed? (Thomas 1992a:81; 1992b:22). Finally, Jolly (1992b) has compared the 'codification' of customary land-tenure in Vanuatu as kastom with its codification in Fiji as vakavanua 'the way of the land'. …

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