Pacific studies in Oceania

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday 03rd August 2012

LAST week I talked about the importance of Asia Pacific Rim. This week I follow up with a discussion on the importance of Pacific Studies in the Asia Pa¬cific region.
It took me a while to really understand the three rationales of Pa¬cific Studies that Ter¬ence Wesley-Smith, the current Director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the Univer¬sity of Hawaii proposed some time ago. These are the (1) pragmatic ration¬ale, (2) laboratory ration¬ale, and (3) empower¬ment rationale.
The pragmatic ration¬ale is for metropolitan countries to know the places they were dealing with soon after the Sec¬ond World War.
This rationale is still used for funding of Pa¬cific Studies centers in the region and through¬out the world: “With the possible exception of Britain, all the imperial¬ist states that formerly colonised the Pacific have established centres of Pacific Studies,” ac¬cording to late Emeritus Professor Ron C Cro¬combe (1987: 120-121).
Both the United States and Australia, after the ‘Pacific War’ in the Sec¬ond World War, deliber¬ately enhanced research and teaching about the islands. American and Australian colonial poli¬cies, strategies and dip¬lomatic relations were informed by the advice given by academics. There were instances of colonial administrators becoming academics and academics opting for a career in colonial administration. Univer¬sities were recipients of government and private foundation grants, with a mandate to seek to un¬derstand Pacific island societies so that island¬ers could be influenced in ways required by the colonial powers.
In this regard, in 1946 the Australian govern¬ment established ANU in Canberra as an academic think-tank, amongst oth¬er things to inform and advise the government about its colonial and foreign policies. Like¬wise, the South Pacific Commission was created by the colonial powers to keep them abreast of developments in the is¬lands and also to have a shaping influence on the island nations’ so¬cioeconomic, cultural and technological trans-formation. So for the very pragmatic reason of wishing to influence and control island people, centres of Pacific Studies were established in the postwar period.
The same rationale also influenced a prolif¬eration of such centres in the rim countries during the more than forty years of cold war. This process was further fuelled by a range of factors: the wars in Korea and Vietnam; policies of strategic de¬nial; nuclear armaments testing including the re¬finement of ICBMs; an¬ti-colonial movements; and the nuclear free and independent Pacific movement. With respect to the American nuclear tests, scientists- includ¬ing those working at universities-engaged in experiments with human guinea-pigs in Microne¬sia” (Naidu 1998).
An entire production of k n o w l e d g e through research, public lectures, courses, and pub¬lication on Oce¬ania proliferated over the years. The justification for this produc¬tion of knowledge set in motion the laboratory ra¬tionale. Oceania became a laboratory to study human communities in small island societies: “The second rationale for Pacific Studies is that the relatively much small¬er and diverse human communities provide a laboratory for the study of the human condition and its transformation. In this view, the micro¬cosmic world of island¬ers provides manageable sets of information and data to study and thence to make perhaps wider generalisations about humanity as a whole. Thus, two decades ago Oliver declared: ‘I sug¬gest that because of their wide diversities, small-scale dimensions, and relative isolation, the Pa¬cific Islands can provide excellent- in some ways unique-laboratory-like opportunities for gaining deeper understandings of Human Biology, Politi¬cal Science, etc.” writes Terence Wesley-Smith 1995.
The laboratory ex¬planation is associated with the not insignifi¬cant impact that islands and islanders have had on European thinking in the last three centuries. In the natural sciences certain fundamentals were changed as a con-sequence of the findings of early European ex¬plorers. European phi¬losophy, art and litera¬ture were affected by the debate about ‘noble and ignoble savages’.
Pacific materials have had major impacts on the discipline of Anthropol¬ogy. Sir Raymond Firth, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Peter Worsley, Adrian Mayer, the Keesings, Chandra Jayawardena, Ian Hog¬bin, Jean Guiart, Irving Goldman, John Derek Freeman, Ben Finney, Cyril Belshaw, Marshall Sahlins and Charles Valentine-the list goes on and on of researchers who have been promi¬nent anthropologists with their scholarship firmly grounded on em¬pirical studies of Pacific communities. They have contributed enormously to anthropological ma-terials as well as to the development of the theo¬retical and methodologi¬cal dimensions of this discipline,” said Vijya Naidu (1998)
By the turn of the cen¬tury indigenous scholars found themselves in¬creasingly marginalised in academia and in artic-ulation about themselves against the so-called ex¬perts in Pacific Studies. A number of leading in¬digenous scholars agitat¬ed for recognition and to speak about themselves. Pacific Studies became a conduit for political de¬mands for empowerment rationale to emerge. This is more recent and is Island centred: “It has to do with the empow¬erment of islanders in their efforts to resolve a multitude of social, eco¬nomic and political-even psychological-problems. Perspectives about the nature of the problems and possible solutions to them are based on a critique of previous co-lonial and postcolonial policies and practices. Island centredness in his¬tory and in the apprecia¬tion of cultures that have survived and flowered over millennia, islanders’ strategies for national re¬source management and conservation, indigenous knowledge about sea¬sons, climate and medi¬cines, their intellectual property rights and the indigenisation of schol¬arship, and generally, the identification with things indigenous- such are the foci that characterise this rationale for Pacific Studies” (Naidu 1998).
The rationales have propelled Pacific Studies to shift from a research based engagement to development of courses, syllabus, and degree programmes. This shift is necesiated out of the need to make sense of roles and responsibilities of different players and institutional demands on relevance and socio-economic and political needs.
The Melanesian and Pacific Studies (MAPS) was set up within the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UPNG in 2002. I was its foundation director until 2005. The initial aim and objectives were established, laying the foundation for further development. Since my departure from it some years back the Melane¬sian and Pacific Studies has taken up new func¬tions and responsibilities to nowhere. Where is it heading to now?
Oceania became a laboratory to study human communities in small island societies