Literacy, Emotion, and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll

By Skar, Sarah Lund | Anthropological Quarterly, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Literacy, Emotion, and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll


Skar, Sarah Lund, Anthropological Quarterly


Literacy, Emotion, and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll. NIKO BESNER. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 234 pp.

Literacy is one of important topics in which anthropologists have debated the extent to which and in what ways modes of thought have a common crosscultural core. The contrast between literacy and preliteracy has been proposed as a means of demonstating qualitative differences in cognitive processes that are associated with the west and the rest of the world in a more or less deterministic fashion. The causal role of literacy and the serious problems associated with constituting the categories defining literate and pre-literate societies have recently been under critical scrutiny by scholars in a variety of fields, including social anthropology. Central to this criticism is the idea that literacy is not a monolithic phenomenon which can be studied independently of the particular social, political, and historical forces of which it is a part

Niko Besnier's Literacy, emotion, and authority commences with a useful introduction to the development of these discussions in modern anthropology. He positions himself clearly within the critical perspective (ideological model, as it has been called) that gives priority to understanding literacy in its ethnographic context, yet would go further to propose theoretical perspectives that can incorporate generalized and comparative understandings of literacy and its sociocultural context. Thus, Besnier's ethnographic analysis of reading and writing on a Polynesian atoll transcends a preoccupation with the particularities of the ethnographic context and, in so doing, suggests ways in which literacy and context interface cross-culturally.

While his objectives are theoretical, Besnier couches theory within his ethnography of literacy practices on the Nukulaelae atoll in the SouthCentral Pacific, part of the island groups and nation of Tuvalu. In contact history of the island, particularly in the last half of the nineteenth century, he documents the introduction of literacy practices on Nukulaelae. Missionaries, slavers, and colonizers made their impact on the local community and in various ways were influential in creating contacts between Nukulaelae Islanders and other communities throughout the Pacific. Today, the approximately 350 inhabitants of the atoll are eager travellers and are part of kin and friendship networks that spread far beyond the atoll. Distance and mobility are an important aspect of writing and reading on Nukulaelae.

Letter-writing is one of the most common forms of literacy practices on the island today; it is influenced by literacy practices historically inherited from the outside. From as early as the end of the nineteenth century, letter-writing has played a crucial role in keeping kinship networks alive and is one of the two everyday forms of literacy which Besnier analyzes in depth in the book. While literacy was introduced for the sole purpose of reading the Bible, islanders were adept at redefining literacy skills to suit their communicative needs for maintaining contact with people in residence away from the atoll. Thus, literacy technology was empowered with a distinct meaning shortly after its introduction, and islanders were not passive recipients of the new technology.

On the basis of a collection of 327 letters addressed to both resident and non-resident islanders, young and old, men and women, Besnier is able to provide a highly convincing analysis of contemporary letter-writing. One of the central motives for writing a letter is to monitor and control economic activity. In this connection, insight into the economic circulation of goods and the dynamics of reciprocal obligations that generate such exchange is provided as background to a variety of letter excerpts, but the particularities of the economic context relating to individual letter are restrained. The general treatment of context in the discussion of other motivations for writing letters, such as narrating events, gossip, and moral admonition, highlights the wide scope of the textual material without jeopardizing the thrust inherent in using such materials. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Literacy, Emotion, and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

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

    Oops!

    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.