Oceania: An Introduction to the Cultures and Identities of Pacific Islanders

By Strathern, Andrew; Poyer, Lin et al. | Anthropologica, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Oceania: An Introduction to the Cultures and Identities of Pacific Islanders


Strathern, Andrew, Poyer, Lin, Feinberg, Richard, Macpherson, Cluny, Stewart, Pamela J., Carucci, Laurence, Facey, Ellen E., Anthropologica


Andrew Strathern, Pamela J. Stewart, Laurence M. Carucci, Lin Poyer, Richard Feinberg and Cluny Macpherson, Oceania: An Introduction to the Cultures and Identities of Pacific Islanders, Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002, 249 pages.

The material is presented in three independent parts: "The South-West Pacific" by Strathern and Stewart (67 pp. of text), "The Eastern Pacific" by Feinberg and Macpherson (53 pp.), and "The West Central Pacific" by Carucci and Poyer (52 pp.).

In their very brief Introduction to the volume, Strathern and Stewart reject the common anthropological areal terms-Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia-in favour of compass directions, except where they use the older terms in quotations marks, to signify their dissatisfaction with them. Feinberg and Macpherson are of a different opinion, as indicated by the quotation marks they place on the phrase the "Eastern Pacific" in the title of part 2. Strathern and Stewart say that the sections ("parts") into which the book is divided "... correspond to geographical, historical, and cultural differences within the region as a whole, but we do not stress these broad divisions as such." Yet, having named the parts of the book for those divisions does indeed give stress or emphasis to them.

Stewart and Strathern provide the volume's aim: "... to provide an overview of ethnography, history, and contemporary changes in a broad range of societies across the Pacific region" (p. 3). They say that their intended audience is undergraduate college students; however, knowing that the average college/university student already finds Mela/Micro/Polynesia sufficiently hard to keep straight, I would rather that Strathern and Stewart had either used the traditional terms, or had taken the more sophisticated approach of avoiding this classificatory problem altogether. They state that "contemporary processes," "common ethnographic themes" and "dynamic differences" in Oceania as a whole are their primary interest (p. 4). Actually organizing the book around these concepts, rather than according to geographic areas (whatever one might call them), would have provided a unique treatment of Oceanic ethnography.

Additionally, in their Introduction, Stewart and Strathern note that they "...have written this book in the conviction that this Pacific world...is a world worth knowing, as much today as it was perceived to be by its earlier explorers, whether captains of ships or writers of books" (p. 3). While I agree with this, I also wonder why they feel they need to make this statement. The underlying issue is not how "worth knowing" Pacific cultures are, but the noxious habit of Westerners' judging other cultures as more or less interesting and therefore worth knowing in direct correlation with how "exotic" they appear to be. I wonder which audience Stewart and Strathern are trying to convince of the value of knowing contemporary Pacific cultures: students, their own colleagues, or the general public?

Part 1 of the book focusses on the South-West Pacific. The first section is overly detailed. For an undergraduate textbook, providing accurate content is essential, of course, but so is building a sense of place and context, visual clues and cues to aid students' memory and understanding, and that sense of "being there." What few pictures there are-nine-only appear at the end of the text of this section, preceding the References, very much like footnotes. None is in colour. Five are from Mt. Hagen, and not one is from outside Papua New Guinea.

The pictures seem like archival footage, frequently focussing on ritual moments-the National Geographic type of native (Lutz and Collins, Ch.5), strangely dressed, frightening or scowling, and more often than not, nameless: "a female mourner," "a male dancer," "a newly married bride," "a younger man."

Part 1 also contains 16 "Case Studies": two on Fiji; one each on New Caledonia andVanuatu; three on the Solomons; and nine focussed on Papua New Guinea. …

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