Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pacific Studies in Oceania


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 Pacific region.

It took me a while to really understand the three rationales of Pacific Studies that Terence Wesley-Smith, the current Director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii proposed some time ago. These are the (1) pragmatic rationale, (2) laboratory rationale, and (3) empowerment rationale.

The pragmatic rationale is for metropolitan countries to know the places they were dealing with soon after the Second World War. This rationale is still used for funding of Pacific Studies centers in the region and throughout the world: “With the possible exception of Britain, all the imperialist states that formerly colonised the Pacific have established centres of Pacific Studies, according to late Emeritus Professor Ron C Crocombe (1987: 120–121).

Both the United States and Australia, after the ‘Pacific War’ in the Second World War, deliberately enhanced research and teaching about the islands. American and Australian colonial policies, strategies and diplomatic 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. Universities were recipients of government and private foundation grants, with a mandate to seek to understand Pacific island societies so that islanders could be influenced in ways required by the colonial powers.

In this regard, in 1946 the Australian government established ANU in Canberra as an academic think-tank, amongst other things to inform and advise the government about its colonial and foreign policies. Likewise, the South Pacific Commission was created by the colonial powers to keep them abreast of developments in the islands and also to have a shaping influence on the island nations’ socioeconomic, cultural and technological transformation…. 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 proliferation 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 denial; nuclear armaments testing including the refinement of ICBMs; anti-colonial movements; and the nuclear free and independent Pacific movement. With respect to the American nuclear tests, scientists— including those working at universities—engaged in experiments with human guinea-pigs in Micronesia” (Naidu 1998).

An entire production of knowledge through research, public lectures,   courses, and publication on Oceania proliferated over the years. The justification for this production of knowledge set in motion the laboratory rationale. Oceania became a laboratory to study human communities in small island societies: “The second rationale for Pacific Studies is that the relatively much smaller and diverse human communities provide a laboratory for the study of the human condition and its transformation. In this view, the microcosmic world of islanders 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 suggest that because of their wide diversities, small-scale dimensions, and relative isolation, the Pacific Islands can provide excellent— in some ways unique—laboratory-like opportunities for gaining deeper understandings of Human Biology, Political Science, etc.” writes Terence Wesley-Smith 1995.

The laboratory explanation is associated with the not insignificant 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 consequence of the findings of early European explorers. European philosophy, art and literature were affected by the debate about ‘noble and ignoble savages’. Pacific materials have had major impacts on the discipline of Anthropology. Sir Raymond Firth, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Peter Worsley, Adrian Mayer, the Keesings, Chandra Jayawardena, Ian Hogbin, 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 prominent anthropologists with their scholarship firmly grounded on empirical studies of Pacific communities. They have contributed enormously to anthropological materials as well as to the development of the theoretical and methodological dimensions of this discipline,” said Vijya Naidu (1998)

By the turn of the century indigenous scholars found themselves increasingly marginalized in academia and in articulation about themselves against the so-called experts in Pacific Studies. A number of leading indigenous scholars agitated for recognition and to speak about themselves. Pacific Studies became a conduit for political demands for empowerment rationale to emerge: This is more recent and is Island centred: “It has to do with the empowerment of islanders in their efforts to resolve a multitude of social, economic and political—even psychological—problems. Perspectives about the nature of the problems and possible solutions to them are based on a critique of previous colonial and postcolonial policies and practices. Island centredness in history and in the appreciation of cultures that have survived and flowered over millennia, islanders’ strategies for national resource management and conservation, indigenous knowledge about seasons, climate and medicines, their intellectual property rights and the indigenisation of scholarship, 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 programs. This shift is necessiated 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 Melanesian and Pacific Studies has taken up new functions and responsibilities to nowhere. Where is it heading to now?

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