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.


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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. The figures occurring in such myths were sometimes recent ancestors, although they often went back to the days of religious heroes whose descendants populated the islands. The anthropologists used such material to obtain data about social structure as well as migrations. Most of Hocart’s work, Northern States of Fiji (1952) (note the implications of that choice of title) was of this kind. There was a tendency to see myth as reflecting actual events of the past, and since there could be only one true description of an event, there could be only one true myth. One task of the anthropologist in dealing with the evidence was to sort out the accepted or valid versions from the “peripheral” or “false” ones.

The approach had direct relationships with procedures used in the administration. It became evident very early, for example, that analysis of land ownership depended upon (a) views about the relationship between types of social groups and property, and (b) the validation of the claims of social groups which were based upon settlement and land‑use patterns, and thus upon historical events which linked the groups to the land. One clearly had to know something about the history of the social groups. To the administrator and jurist ‑ indeed, to the Western mind ‑ there could be only one history, and the job of the administrator was to unearth it. This was done by a series of highly systematic and well‑organized commissions of inquiry, which used myth as evidence. By public hearing, the commissioners elicited evidence; they assumed that any counterevidence would be forthcoming through the lips of rival witnesses. But supposing there were two versions from two witnesses? There were no clear rules laid down as to how the commissioners should judge between them. But judge they did, for in the interests of administration there could only be one story, one claim to title, recognized. It seems fairly clear that the judgment was based on the social status of the witness, insofar as it could be identified. If one witness were identified as an elder of a senior mataqali, his

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story would prevail over the mythological interpretation of a junior. Lands commissioners in effect decided upon the prevailing social order and recorded a mythology which supported that order.

My own inquiries indicated a very complicated and confused situation. It is clear that the social order ‑ by which I mean in this context the status relations of families and groups, as reflected in claims to property ‑ was not in fact “fixed” at any time that we know of. Those who had rival stories to tell either lost out in the judicial inquiry because they were temporarily eclipsed, or did not turn up to give evidence because they could foretell the outcome. The inquiries resulted in the recording of land claims, and hence came down on the side of stasis; but behind all these records there have been numerous adjustments based upon social processes which the myth reflected as an outcome, but which were not adequately stated in the text of the myth. Of even greater significance is the fact that the recorded proceedings in most cases merely state the bare bones of the decisions, without indicating the reasons for them or the nature of conflicting evidence. Today many Fijians do not recall myth, believing that it has been recorded for them in the documents of the Native Lands Commission. But here we now find decisions, not mythology, and hence the function of myth as a manipulable social charter has all but disappeared.

Fison was one of the few observers who raised his voice against the aristocratic and static interpretations of Fijian society which even in 1880 were beginning to dominate administrative thinking. The family‑mataqali‑yavusa-vanua‑matanitu hierarchy of social groups was used as a universal interpretation of social structure, and the mataqali, somewhat arbitrarily, identified as the land‑holding unit. Hocart’s choice of the term “state” to describe the largest social units reflected somewhat the Westerner’s desire to see and interpret permanence for such units, or at least to make them stable. The hereditary element in the acquisition of title and status was emphasized in social analysis to the detriment of the achievement element. The use of Bauan words to describe positions and processes spread through Fiji as administrators exerted their influence on the side of conformity. Sir Ratu Sukuna even compared Fijian society with an emergent feudalism (Mander, 1954). In his analysis of Fijian custom the patrilineal linkages of family were all‑important. Affinal processes were of course recognized, but their political and property‑transmission implications were almost ignored.

This kind of analysis enabled the administration to achieve particular goals. From the first days of Sir John Thurston’s administration ,2 it allied itself

2 Acting British Consul, 1867‑1869; Chief Secretary to Cakobau, 1872; Colonial Secretary, 1874; Governor, 1886‑1897. This view is presented in a paper he wrote in 1874.

Cf. discussion in Legge, 1958, Ch. VIII.

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with the chiefly families and reinforced their status and powers. It emphasized the communal elements in Fijian society and denigrated the powers of democratic decision. Building upon the notion of communal duties, it created a whole new superstructure of such obligations. Building upon the notion of dutiful allegiance to one’s status superiors, it created an authoritarian Fijian administration related to the elite families of traditional position. It was able to impose a uniform and static system of land administration, which regularized jural relationships, although it contributed nothing to economic growth. Through the system of land rents and the stabilization of customary payments, it enabled (in certain areas at least) recognized families to accumulate wealth in the name of tradition. It established a Council of Chiefs which became the aristocratic voice of the Fijian people (although much modified in later years), and it could comfortably rely on the idea that by custom and tradition the people religiously accepted authority. The idea seemed all the more valid because of the absence of any well‑defined or organized movement to the contrary. The static, authoritarian, aristocratic view of Fijian society thus had profound consequences for the structure and operation of the Fijian administration. But was it a correct view?

This is not the place to present a detailed analysis of my views about Fijian society. But I can at least indicate a number of issues in which my conclusions differ radically from those set out above. In particular, I shall select those issues in which my data support my bias toward flexibility and adjustment within society rather than stasis. Even here, I shall have to content myself with a summary statement.

Firstly, relationships between social groups were highly uncertain and mobile, and the status of family representatives within social groups could be altered by achievement. Despite the static effects of administrative policy, these factors can still be observed in operation today as families and social groups vie with each other for titles, social position, and property. Statements about the nature of social bonds vary according to the position of the person who is speaking. In general, those who have become dependent upon administrative recognition for their family position lean toward a hereditary explanation of that position and an authoritarian interpretation of its power. Representatives of groups in a somewhat junior position stress the voluntary nature of alliances and of the support of family groups. Thus the Tui Serua, for example, who is himself regarded as a high‑ranking chief, is quite emphatic in his interpretation of his relationship with the Tui Bau as being one not of junior vassal, but of ally. Furthermore, if at any time the Tui Bau wishes to make use of the Tui Serua’s forces, the Tui Serua would consider the approach on its own merits. It is likely that the request would be met, but the response would by no means be automatic. Similarly, each of the component groups which at a given point

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in history provided support for the Tui Serua could withhold its support and even transfer its alliance.

Similar considerations apply to the make‑up of the smaller groups such as mataqali, yavusa, and vanua. Fijian villages are a patchwork of varying combinations of such units, and they combine in almost every possible permutation for purposes of ceremonial, political, and economic alliance. The nature of such combinations does not derive from the ideal structure set out in the classical articles, a structure which is in the minds of most Fijians and easily recognized by them. It depends upon the answers to immediate problems of self‑interest, seen within the context of certain recognized processes. Fison (1880) made what at first sight seems to be an unpardonable error. He states that a number of yavusa make up a mataqali. Normally this is the other way around, and in fact I do not personally know today of any instance in which the mataqali do not make up the yavusa. Fison’s statement can be explained in one of two ways. Perhaps he was confused by the muddled combinations of village residence indicated above, which I must admit is the more likely explanation. Or else he observed one or more yavusa which had shrunk in size without losing yavusa status, and alongside of them some mataqali which had grown in size and political importance, even perhaps sheltering a former yavusa, but which had not yet been accorded the full ceremonial status of a yavusa. I have come across many instances today of similar flexibilities.

In this kind of rapidly adjusting context, myth and ceremony are used to symbolize position. It is necessary and useful to define the relative position of families and groups. A leader wishes to know which of his allies are still with him. An ambitious man gains in status if he can be invested with the ceremonies attendant on rank; such ceremony pays handsome political and economic dividends. Thus every ceremony, every myth, is capable of infinite manipulation.

After I had partaken of several scores of the yaqona or kava ceremonies, early in my field work, and had observed the exchange of hundreds of whale’s teeth, to say nothing of the other items of ceremonial exchange, I became quite disillusioned about the treatment of these matters in the literature. I now know, for example, that a man in the position of the late G. K. Roth, a respected and admired colonial administrator who became Secretary for Fijian Affairs, could never in his later career participate in ceremonies other than those he describes in his book Fijian Way of Life (1953) . Here they are with all their complexity of ceremonial honour, elaborate ritual and pomp, colour and symbolism. By the same token, I, as a humble field worker without a position in the Fijian hierarchy, could see such ceremonies only as an observer, never as a participant. Yet I, and all my Fijian village acquaintances, took part in so many ceremonies as sometimes to drive me to despair. There was an infinite variety of them, but each variety was carefully manipulated to honour, to embarrass, to give support to, to jibe at, to reach a policy decision or to prevent

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one from being taken, to emphasize that this was an intimate domestic occasion, to indicate that the event was in some sense of historical note ‑ one could go on through every type of social relationship and every kind of social situation that called for recognition. The voice of conformist authority ‑ and you hear it speaking time and again in defence of Fijian purism ‑ characterizes variants as being unworthy of Fijian culture. Yet in my interpretation they are a fundamental part of the living, vital processes which enable Fijian men and women to achieve what they want to achieve by their own subtle, yet incisive, methods.

Consider now land use, land tenure, and the succession of landed property. The decision to recognize the mataqali as the exclusive land‑holding unit carried with it the recognition of patrilineal succession as paramount. A few of the qualifications of mataqali ownership were admitted by the form of rent division which allowed larger groups to exercise a relationship through their leaders. The important rights of individuals and individual families were all but ignored in the formal law, although they are still observed as paramount in Fijian practice. Again, the relationship between the groups in respect to a given piece of land is highly variable, depending upon the interplay of self‑interest, sentiment, power, and political ambition, to name a few factors. More significant is that land use gives a kind of title, and that an individual who gains the use of land without reference to any of the officially recognized procedures nevertheless, in Fijian eyes, cannot be dispossessed except by ingenuity or agreement ‑ certainly not by law or force. Thus the unrecognized principles become important, and these include use of land by agreement following the performance of appropriate ceremonies, and the use of one’s wife’s or one’s mother’s land.

Indeed, the manipulation of affinal ties for personal or family advantage is one of the major preoccupations of Fijian life. It has been recognized to some extent in the literature by references to the vasu‑right principle, in which a man has access to the property of his mother’s brother. This, however, is an extreme and not often used principle which can be extended over a much wider variety of relatives and a much greater number of uses. We have so emphasized the patrilineal (political and succession) elements in Fijian society that we have all but ignored the paramount importance and concern of affinal relationships. These predominate in the intimate and emotively charged arrangements which accompany the rites of passage. They influence a great deal of day‑today behaviour, including the composition of production teams, visiting, and recreation. And they provide a highly flexible series of links with other communities which cut across the hierarchical patrilineal pyramid. I calculated, for example, that for one small village of 24 households, links established through wives and married sisters provided opportunities for the manipulation of social and property relationships with some 61 other villages scattered

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throughout Fiji. These did not include other links created through mothers and the secondary relationship of vasu vata. Many of these opportunities were fully used.

It is very tempting to argue from these kinds of data that my own type of approach represents an accurate and useful method of building up a more adequate kind of Fijian administration. I suppose that to some extent this is what I, being human, am trying to say. But this is not the point I wish to make.

An emphasis on processes rather than on structure gives a different kind of a model for social analysis, and I happen to prefer it. I also believe that Fijian society has been limited by an unduly conservative administration, and I am delighted when my analysis and data uncover what seem to me to be principles within the Fijian society which permit a more malleable and flexible approach to administration.

But to say this is not to say that my own analysis is the only accurate analysis. Hocart, Roth, and Sukuna each thought that his own was accurate, and they were able men, at least as well trained for their day as I am for mine. The judgments will be made for tomorrow, not today, and the viewpoint of anthropology will again change and its methods become more refined.

Let me emphasize the inherent limitation by yet another example. The most sophisticated anthropological theory today is undoubtedly that which deals with social structure viewed from the basis of kinship organization. The approaches associated with this interest have had highly significant predictive value. Writers have been able to uncover new and unsuspected elements in field descriptions, and theorists have been able to make coherent sense out of what seemed to be patchy and untidy field reporting. I have a great deal of faith in these approaches as contributions to theory and regard them as among the most significant achievements of contemporary anthropology.

Certain aspects of Fijian kinship organization have been extremely well reported (see Nayacakalou, 1955‑1957). Scholars such as Rivers (1914, 1924), Hocart (1929, 1931), and Capell and Lester (1941, 1945‑1946) have pointed up many details of regional variants, and in so doing have recorded a great many useful data. Indeed, we have more than enough data for theorists to offer some predictions as to the basic model of Fijian society.

We already have some moves in this direction. It is largely accepted, for example, that patrilateral cross‑cousin marriage is a common if not a modal occurrence. Claude Lévi‑Strauss goes further: he writes

Le systčme fidjien apporte, en tout cas, une indication précieuse. On l’a longtemps considéré comme un exemple caractéristique du mariage entre cousins croisés bilatéraux; des études récentes limitent et précisent cette interprétation. Les relations entre groupes patrilinéaires mbito, dans la partie occidentale de Viti Levu, suggéreraient assez l’échange généralisé; pourtant, et d’une façon générale, le mariage des cousins croisés serait plus rare qu’il da paru jadis, et il se produirait surtout avec la cousine patrilatérale . . . . Comme

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un patrilatéralisme croissant accompagne le déclin de l’échange généralisé dans l’Inde, il se pourrait que la męme manifestation, ŕ Fidji, marquât la frontičre orientale de l’aire occupée, d’une façon prédominante, par cette forme d’échange (1949, p. 572).

Again, there is a notion circulating, based on interpretations inferred from field reports, that Fijian kinship could be described on the model of a two‑section system. One could argue endlessly about the slender facts upon which these stories are based, and I shall in another context introduce field material which would hardly support the facts or the theories indicated here. But this is not my major point.

What is essentially at issue here is that theory at the moment demands that various discrete models be drawn up for Fijian society. The hope would be that one model would do, but if regional variants refuse to be consistent with the model, modifications of the basic model will apply to various parts of the country.

My own review of the literature and my field experience lead me to feel that such an approach will be too limited to be regarded as the most adequate way of dealing with a society such as that of Fiji. The tako‑lavi age grades, which are among the bases for the idea of a two‑section system, do not, in the area with which I am familiar (the Baravi coast line), have any effect whatsoever on marriage. They may well do so, however, in other areas. In Ruwailevu, despite Capell and Lester (1945‑1946), the practice and theory of marriage put emphasis today on bilateral, not patrilateral, cross‑cousin marriage. Against this statement, note (1) in other areas patrilateral cross‑cousin marriage does seem to exist; and (2) it is probable that a kinship model with cross‑cousin marriage at its centre does violence to the functioning realities of the system of linkage between affinal and patrilineal relatives, which is highly mobile and political in its implications. Again, in certain parts of Nadroga, there is a clearly symbolized and structured system of formal communication between residential and political units, which in this form is quite absent in other parts of Nadroga. And so we could go on, for almost every element in the social system.

If we approach these questions with the views that seem typical of theory at the moment, we do violence to certain issues which are central to the interests ‑ or ought to be ‑ of administrators and applied anthropologists. The model of Fijian society must be capable of considering all these things together. This is by no means merely a question of saying that if a man is brought up in Bau he behaves in ways which are different from those which apply in Navosa. Marriage preference is for women from outside the village. The villages concerned are from many variants of Fijian culture. In each village, therefore, there is a microcosm of Fijian society. It is a fact of daily importance to a Ruwailevu villager that he can behave with due accuracy and sensitivity toward Bauans, or people from Sigatoka or Serua. Any Fijian has kinship links of

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importance with people who do not share his model of kinship, if it is interpreted in puristic terms. This is the reality with which the administrator and the Fijian must deal.

My conclusion, then, is this. Progress in anthropological theory consists in replacing one approximation with another, more useful to answer new questions more adequately. Modern theories are approximations, just as were the older ones, and their limitations will seem strange to us in 20 years. Older theorists helped to lead administrators into policies which, from the vantage point of hindsight, were inadequate and perhaps even damaging. Modern theories may do precisely the same.

Does this mean that the anthropologist and the administrator must each go his own separate way? This certainly is not part of my conclusion. A more refined approximation is surely more useful than a less refined one. But in addition it might well be argued that we should use the test of application a little more in judging the comparative value of theories.