Languages of Governance in Conflict: Negotiating Democracy in Tokelau 

The Pacific has consistently been a rich site for exploring political systems, conflict, and emerging forms of leadership and governance. This book adds much to that history, as well as to understanding the complex confluence of multiple systems for organizing moral behavior and governance, both local and non-local, something that concerns most, if not all, communities today. The focus of this particular study is Tokelau, a dependent territory of New Zealand made up of three atolls, with an area of 10 square kilometers and a population of approximately 1,400.  The author, who has studied the area for over 20 years, takes readers through a case of incest, which, during its resolution, brings to light the way that individuals and communities struggle to adapt systems that can flexibly confront community threats in the face of the instability wrought by outside influences, including movements for self-governance and democracy. If you’re wondering what incest has to do with democracy, this book is a fascinating read.

Hoem uses the narrative of the incest case in a clever way to flesh out the day-to-day political discussions surrounding whether or not Tokelauans should vote to change their relationship to New Zealand (through two referenda). Tokelau is a society which has been a part of New Zealand since 1949 (when Tokelauans who were then British subjects gained New Zealand citizenship). Whether some Tokelauans believe they should vote to change their relationship to New Zealand, as Hoem describes the situation, has everything to do with how disruptive moral behaviors like incest are adjudicated. The incest case forms a way for readers to see how a vote to stay dependent on New Zealand can also be, paradoxically, a vote for independence (on an individual level), since many Tokelauans value the role New Zealand can play as an arbiter of conflicts over the rights of individuals to choose particular forms of social expression and over traditional vs. civil matters of punishment.

Important themes in the book are the role of language in translating across systems, and changes in the value of types of knowledge when leadership institutions and principles of representation change. In the Tokelau case, the representative leadership has changed from a male elders model to a model that includes younger people and women. In the course of New Zealand’s response to UN efforts at fostering self-governance of former territories, the traditional village council leadership based on family representation has lost power (Tokelau’s chiefly system was abolished in 1914), and important decisions are made not by heads of families, but by majority vote by all adult individuals. Former systems of consensus-based discussion processes to reach a decision have been replaced by voting. In addition, the introduction of written documents as important vehicles of the deliberation process privileges younger people and those “educated elite” who understand the language of governance terms and how to employ them, have familiarity with public service manuals, and understand international laws and politics. Traditional ways of organizing the distribution and exchange of resources are now in conflict with a system of audits and moral accountability based on credentials other than kinship. The shift to democratic voting procedures, together with a shift from an inter-atoll assembly to a national government institution, has meant that fewer and younger people now hold power.

The central governance structure has resulted in disputes over which land area should be chosen as a capital, a familiar conflict exacerbated in particularly Pacific Islander ways. The pragmatic choice of rotating the geographical center of administration among the three atolls resulted in, as Hoem describes, enough stress on the administrators and conflict among the atolls as to influence a retreat to a previous position where some administrative offices were located in Samoa (about 500 kilometers to the south).

Hoem uses the Wittgensteinian metaphor of language games to suggest the dynamic nature of this process, as well as to emphasize that she is interested not in ethnic differences, but in another way of framing conflict: that between a system where “individualism is antithetical to the collective spirit that…defines Tokelau society” (131). She is also interested in the geographically-transformed nature of society, including the problem that the Tokelauan leaders must often now spend time away from their local constituencies, which makes communication more difficult. Hoem details, in the best ethnographic sense, the everyday outcomes of particular decisions and both the way that democracy is influenced by local practice and the way that outside models are resources for dispute resolution and adaptation in the Tokelauan case. Hoem also notes (and this point could be amplified) that what has been lost are opportunities for co-presence and the control of time and spatial orientation.

One way to demonstrate the richness of this book’s investigations into emerging governance structures across multiple cultural systems is Hoem’s discussion of how New Zealand’s sizable Pacific Islander population (almost 22 percent Maori and non-Maori Pacific Islanders) is a resource for discussions about what is and isn’t morally possible in Tokelau. One woman’s distress over managing community conflict is notable when she cites the practice of the Maori haka as a powerful vehicle for the expression of defiance in New Zealand that, nonetheless, to her would be an unthinkable way to display dissent on Tokelau. There are many quotes throughout the book from discussions with Tokelauans, excerpts from relevant documents, and other cultural details used to present a nuanced picture of the challenges facing Tokelauans, and processes of cultural transformation. The book nicely weaves the complex elements of political process in the Pacific into the narrative, and shows the importance of looking at political systems and trying to understand them on their own terms.

The book does an excellent job of showing how when new systems are introduced or adaptations made to old systems, the displacement of power and expectations can be understood through a detailed examination of particular events and activities where new opportunities are considered in a space of heightened uncertainty and imbalance. The point Hoem wishes to make is how forms of governance are entangled with sociomaterial conditions and ways of life. This is a fine study and worth reading for its thought-provoking relevance to political relationships and ideas within and across diverse societies, striving for moral and economic viability.

Elizabeth Keating, University of Texas, Austin

Hoem, Ingjerd.  Languages of Governance in Conflict: Negotiating Democracy in Tokelau. John Benjamins Publishing, 2015. Read more at John Benjamins Publishing


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