Academic journal article Oceania

All Things Go in Pairs, or the Sharks Will Bite: The Antithetical Nature of Fijian Chiefship

Academic journal article Oceania

All Things Go in Pairs, or the Sharks Will Bite: The Antithetical Nature of Fijian Chiefship

Article excerpt

In his postface to Homo Hierarchicus, Dumont argues for a theory of hierarchy as `the encompassing of the contrary' whereby

At the superior level there is unity; at the inferior level there is distinction ... complementariness or contradiction is contained in a unity of superior order. But as soon as we intermingle the two levels, we have a logical scandal, because there is identity and contradiction at the same time. (1980:242, orig. 1966).

He contrasts his `hierarchical schema' with the `Hegelian schema' where `transcendance is produced synthetically, instead of pre-existing.' (ibid:243). Ideas implicate values, and for Dumont

To adopt a value is to introduce hierarchy, and a certain consensus of values, a certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people, is indispensable to social life (ibid:20).

So he implies that human thought is hierarchical in its nature and thus makes hierarchy itself an ultimate value in which other values are nested. His thesis has been influential, particularly in so far as it has given rise to the view that the anthropologist's aim should be to analyse the hierarchy of values that informs the behaviour of people with whom he or she is working.[1]

But what if analysis reveals a profound resistance to the very possibility of an encompassing value? A resistance that itself informs those relations between people we characterise as kinship, political economy, religion, and one that consists precisely in positing contradictory values as equally important? At this point, far from being `indispensable to social life' and given in the nature of mind, Dumont's `'hierarchical schema' becomes vacuous and the `Hegelian schema' triumphs.

This essay addresses Dumont's argument with Hegel via an examination of ethnographic material concerning the historical and contemporary nature of Fijian chiefship. In so doing, it deals with hierarchy as a value and with Dumont's theory that values are hierarchically ordered. It does not address his analysis of his Indian data, rather it argues that in so far as his theory of hierarchy is based on historically specific data and in so far as his `hierarchy of values' is naive with respect to the model of mind it implies, there are sound reasons to reject its universal application. The essay argues that ethnic Fijians' ideas of the relation between hierarchy and equality are Hegelian rather than Dumontian; that for them, `transcendance can only be produced synthetically' precisely because complementariness and contradiction cannot, ultimately, be contained.

Fijian ideas of hierarchy are constituted through the transformation in ritual of balanced, reciprocal exchange into tribute. Chiefly ritual appears to contain, and thus to render non-threatening, equally powerful notions of equality, such that Fijian villagers come to conceive of hierarchy as given (Toren 1990). However, chiefly ritual does not encompass the whole of life. So, for example, an analysis of representations of compassion and desire as experienced over time by people at different stages of life show that these two most salient forms of love inform and are informed by hierarchical and equal relations within and across sex, such that each kind of love becomes the grounds of the possibility of the other (Toren, in press a). Compassion and desire are rendered cosmogonic in various stories of the old Gods and inform hierarchical and equal relations within and across groups; moreover, Methodism (the religion of the vast majority of ethnic Fijians), which contains its own inherent tension between hierarchy and equality, is taking on a distinctively Fijian form (Toren, forthcoming).

Equality and hierarchy are the warp and woof of the fabric of Fijian village life.[2] There is an attempt to make hierarchy contain relations of equality and a simultaneous recognition that this hierarchy itself depends for its very continuity on the dynamic of relations of equality which cannot in their nature ultimately be contained by chiefly ritual, but only by raw power -- that is to say, by superior physical force. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.