Pacific Studies: A Brief Introduction (Part 1)

Charles McCrary

This is part two of a series on the Pacific Ocean and part one and a two-part post providing a short historiographical overview of "Pacific studies" and "Pacific history."

Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine, after Louis Choris, "Temple du Roi dans la baie Tiritatéa" (1822)

In the first post in this series, I asked about the place of the Pacific in American religious history, how historians of American religions might better incorporate the Pacific into our existing narratives and frameworks, and, if we were more conversant in Pacific history, how our larger narratives might change. Today and tomorrow, I want to back up a little bit and provide a short introduction to the Pacific studies/history. I studied 18th– and 19th–century Pacific history for a comprehensive exam last year. In my reading I focused largely on exchange among Europeans, Americans, and Pacific Islanders, so my posts will be geared toward those topics. Others, especially those with expertise in the twentieth century, East Asia, and/or the Philippines, should make suggestions in the comments. Today’s post focuses on “Pacific studies” and the Tomorrow I will take up historical work on the Pacific, done by historians working in the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Island nations.

First, of course, we have a thorny definitional question: What is “the Pacific”? Much work under the labels “Pacific studies” and “Pacific history” focus on the islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, although there are scholars who contest these categories. The divisions between Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, probably first made by Jules Durmont d’Urville in 1832, relied on essentially racial categories. Some scholars have defined the Pacific as a geological feature or ecological system, the “tide-beating heart of earth.” Islanders were mobile for many centuries before Europeans ever arrived, so determining how people got where they did is a difficult task for anthropologists. If the study of the Pacific is a study of Islanders, then there are many outstanding questions about classification and categorization, and many of the data needed to make these claims are beyond the realm of traditional historical study.

Once we have identified what it is we’re studying in the Pacific—ocean, land, people—there are various models for doing it. In the comments to this series’ first post, a few commenters brought up issues with the “flows” metaphor, since “flows,” while enabling a global history, can obscure the means of imperial control and the power relations that cause these seemingly flowing movements. Networks, using actor-network theory or in some other way, are another option. As I noted in the last post and will discuss further tomorrow, Pacific history has often been done as imperial or colonialist history, but many have found this model inadequate, since it relegates Islanders to roles as colonized or necessarily subaltern people, which was not always the case, especially in the early decades of contact. Furthermore, "the Pacific in the Age of Empire" was very different from empire in, say, British India or the American West.

There a few journals dedicated to the study of the Pacific. The journal Pacific Studies, founded by scholars at Brigham Young University–Hawai‘i in 1977, focuses primarily on anthropological and contemporary studies of the Pacific Islands. Some studies are historical, but many are ethnographic or sociological. Similarly, the journal The Contemporary Pacific, which was founded in 1989 and is housed at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai‘i, publishes articles primarily concerned with, as one would expect, issues in the contemporary Pacific. Many of their pieces are ethnographic and/or advocacy-based projects, concerned with issues of decolonization, political rights for ethnic minorities in the Pacific, and, increasingly, the many issues facing Pacific Islanders as the result of climate change.

In his 2003 article in The Contemporary Pacific, the influential political scientist and historian Stewart Firth described the state of Pacific studies as having two main modes: first, “Pacific studies in Hawai‘i and possibly New Zealand, and certainly Hawaiian and Māori studies, are mostly conceptualized as projects of cultural renaissance, in which the aim is to reclaim, disinter, rediscover, and reassert cultural identity.” In other words, Pacific studies often is a postcolonial political project meant to champion the cultures of Pacific Islanders. The second mode, practiced in the independent Pacific and in certain centers and university departments, such as the one at Australian National University that currently employs Firth, “Pacific studies tends to be conceptualized more, though not exclusively, as a project of modernization and development, and the fundamental research question becomes How can we understand the region in ways that will make people better off?” This is a tension among Pacific Islanders as they construct their identities in a globalizing world, and these cultural politics of representation shape not only the way sociology, anthropology, human geography, and political science are done, but also history and especially historians’ frameworks.

If Pacific studies has one widely recognized touchstone, it is probably Epeli Hau‘ofa and his 1993 article “Our Sea of Islands.” Hau‘ofa worked as a social anthropologist and public intellectual, and founded the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture and the University of the South Pacific, which he directed until his death in 2009. “Our Sea of Islands,” which is cited in the introduction to almost every book about Pacific studies, takes an anti-colonialist stance, dividing the data of Pacific studies into two groups: national governments/diplomacy and “ordinary people, peasants and proletarians.” The view that small island nations always will be dependent of larger ones, Hau‘ofa argues, might seem justifiable but is in fact based on a long tradition of “belittlement” of Islanders by Europeans. As a social anthropologist, he had advocated this dependence, but then wondered, “Is this not what neocolonialism is all about? To make people believe that they have no choice but to depend? Soon the realisation dawned on me. I was actively participating in our own belittlement, in propagating a view of hopelessness.” Thus, his center and many of his students became devoted to celebrated Islanders’ culture and to working for island nations’ political sovereignty and economic independence. The “cultural renaissance” model Firth discussed is linked to this postcolonial political and economic project. These movements have garnered more support in recent years due to pressing economic and environmental issues caused by climate change.


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