The Effects of Limited Anthropological Theory on Problems of Fijian Administration

[NOTE: In my “humble” opinion the issues raised here have a great deal to do with recent political events in the country. But the lesson is that, as  anthropologists, we (including me) are not always right]

IN DEALING WITH FIJIAN MATERIALS, it is apparent to any serious research worker that for a colony of its size Fiji has not only been richly endowed with natural resources, but that it has been unusually fortunate in the research interests of its administrative and technical staff. The natural fauna and flora are well known and have been described in considerable scientific detail. Mapping has reached an advanced stage, and exhaustive material has been recorded on such matters as soil types, land tenure, and forest resources. When the Burns Commission on Population and Natural Resources took up its task, it could use as data voluminous studies dealing with a wide range of agricultural material. The census data at its disposal went back to the early years of the colony and reached a high standard of effectiveness in the portrayal of demographic trends.

The interest in systematic gathering of data began early and extended into several social fields. It is not my intention to present a highly documented historical account of the ways in which administrators and others assembled social data, and of the development of the ideas which formed the framework for research, although strictly speaking my thesis would demand such a study. It is my hope, however, that there can be tentative agreement on the main outlines of these developments, sufficient at least to demonstrate that there is a significant hypothesis to be tested by a future social historian.

It is indeed remarkable that the accepted knowledge of Fijian anthropology and society has been obtained largely through the work of long‑term professional residents, notably administrators and missionaries. One of the most perceptive accounts of land ownership was published by Fison (1880), a missionary, and this itself was largely a protest against interpretations current in the administration of that early time. Men like Henry Balfour (1904), A. B.


64                               Induced Political Change in the Pacific

Brewster (1922), R. H. Lester (1940), G. K. Roth (1953), Basil H. Thom­son (1908) – administrators all – published scholarly works which provided a more or less consistent view of Fijian society. This view was also reflected in official minutes, surveys, and policy documents. Indeed, one might say that the view began with observations made during official work, which became extended through additional contacts and refined by scholarly ambitions. In­terestingly enough, many of these men were not averse to counting, crude though some of their methods of assessing affinal relationships may seem to present‑day theorists.

It would be interesting to know the influence of Hocart (1929, 1931, 1952) in all this. Some of the enquiries, of course, preceded him, and it is at least possible that his interest in anthropology (he was a schoolteacher) was encouraged by his contact with missionaries and administrators of similar broad interests. There is also little doubt that his view of anthropology, and of the nature of societies such as the Fijian, was very similar to that of his colleagues. It was part of the Cambridge tradition of the early century, reinforced by contact between like‑minded persons, by formal training during periods of leave, and by discussions with members of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

The first nonresident professional anthropologists to spend lengthy periods in Fiji were American. Laura Thompson (1940) and Dorothy Spencer (1941) made important contributions, but they were young, the significance of new approaches to field work were still only in the making, and they had to contend with an image of Fijian society which had already become firmly established in the minds of administrators, missionaries, and even Fijians. Only Buell Quain (1948) broke through the limitations the image imposed, but he was fortunate enough to be dealing with a clearly distinct variant of Fijian society and to have a theoretical perspective which forced him to ask new questions.’

It is a little difficult to be sure which came first as a factor influencing the formation of the image of Fiji, the “chicken” of administrative convenience or the “egg” of anthropological theory. The data were certainly scrambled, and many of the questions were posed in ways which could lead only to unsatisfactory answers. Yet it is important to realize ‑ and central to my thesis ‑ that whatever the motivations, the questions and answers were consistent with a respectable body of anthropological theory. What is more, when they were related to practice, they worked and could be seen to work. Anthropological ideas and administrative policies were meshed together. Both were posited on the notion that a society described in ideal theoretical terms could and should work in practice; that variations from the ideal represented social impurities which administrative practice should treat with suspicion. Where anthropology

1 See also a later work, Sahlins, 1962.

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recognized social movement, as it did by implication when it recorded the distribution of variants of custom, it thought of movement toward or away from some stated ideal. Fijian society, in theory as well as by administrative reference, became the society of Bau. If the administrators had succeeded in making Bau the model for all Fijian society, as in effect they tried to do, there would have been little protest from the anthropologists. (As a matter of fact Fison did protest vigorously, which is perhaps why he is little quoted in the later literature.) Even before the advent of formal functionalism, stability was the theoretical norm of society and the ideal of administration. Unfortunately, stability became confused to some degree with stasis.

I shall now set out some of the typical formulations of the static viewpoint, contrasted with a point of view which incorporates my own personal bias.

There was, for example, the use of myth as social evidence. The relevant myths in this context were those which bore upon the exploits and migrations of social groups.

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