Introduction 2012

New Introduction 2012


This ethnography is based upon living as an anthropologist among the Sikaiana people of the Solomon Islands. I lived there for a total of about 3 ½ years between 1980 and 1993. The material in this ethnography was written between 1988 and 1994 and was intended to be published.

It was never published because no one wanted to publish it. I tried about 10 publishers, a couple trade publishers and some of the better-known academic publishers. Only twice did it get beyond the editors, who are rarely professional anthropologists, to a reviewer. Both reviewers were somewhat positive, but were not certain that the book would sell well or fit into the publishers’ series.  I wrote the book for a general audience including intelligent, interested lay people, college students and some professional colleagues. It was meant also to be something of a discourse on the nature of fieldwork. At the time, there was a strong post-modern movement that emphasized the subjectivity and contexts of ethnographic descriptions. I wanted to describe my subjectivity as a vehicle to understandings that I believed had some empirical validity: if not objective they were somehow intersubjective enough so that there was a common ground between me and the Sikaiana people that could also be shared with outsiders. Alas, publishers and the reviewers did not seem impressed with the point.

In 1995, I was tired of trying to find a publisher, my first child was born, and my research interests were shifting to regional ethnography in the United States. I stopped working on the book and it sat on my computer.  In 2012, I took a sabbatical to resurrect it as part of a website about Sikaiana.

Readers are cautioned about a couple things besides the fact that no one ever wanted to publish this book. The book is based upon my understandings of Sikaiana life in the 1980s. I make no claims that the material is an adequate representation of their lives today. I suspect that some things may still have relevance; other things may not. This book should be understood as history, not contemporary anthropology. The theoretical and comparative references are also dated. Indeed, the tact that I took in the book to examine Sikaiana life in terms of some classical theories of modernization and differentiation was considered very passé even in 1990. Nonetheless, I still think it is a useful perspective. Readers should know that there are many professional anthropologists who, if they ever took the time the read the book, would be unimpressed. They would find the theoretical sections dated, and they would not be interested in the descriptive sections. In short, readers should not take this as an exemplar of contemporary anthropology, although in my view that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Readers are also warned that this ethnography has not been edited by a professional proof reader. I apologize for typos and any convolutions in exposition.

Nevertheless, in re-reading the book for the first time in about 20 years, I admit that I still like it. Perhaps someone else will find something useful in it. Perhaps some Sikaiana people will appreciate it as a source for understanding their cultural heritage.

I have done very little editing in presenting this version. I have not updated any of the literary or theoretical references.  I have left the book in the “ethnographic present,” that is I use the present tense to describe general cultural patterns that took place in the 1980s.  An earlier generation of anthropologists developed this writing technique in writing ethnographies. It is justly criticized for masking the temporality and dynamics of human life. My use of the present is worse because, as described above, the book has become something that really is grounded in the past. But I have a problem in that I wrote about things that happened in the past from the perspective of 1980 when I was writing the book about 10 years later and need the past tense to describe them. I find that in all my writing, including in writing about contemporary events in Pennsylvania, it is challenging to decide what tense to use. I simply do not want to try to develop the words to describe something in a more remote past from the perspective of a more recent past.

I have changed the title. The original title was Polynesian Voyagers in the 20th Century and was meant to be vaguely reminiscent of Malinowski’s famous book, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. I always had some doubts about the original title for being too pretentious. The new title reflects my main feeling, even after 25 years, that there was a deep intimacy and closeness in Sikaiana life. It also makes clear that this ethnography is now about things that happend in the past. I suspect that Sikaiana is still a very intimate community, but there probably are statements in this ethnography that are dated and no longer relevant.

I am not concerned with addressing the anthropological theory of the past 20 years. Generally, present-day anthropologists seem concerned with globalization and mobility, the complex manners in which people and cultures are interacting and merging. They often take a critical view of contemporary economic conditions, especially critical of modern global, capitalism, something that is now being called “neo-liberal” economics. (I do not recall this terminology being used in the early 1990s, and at that time I was far more interested in keeping abreast of contemporary trends in anthropology than I am today.) My description of Sikaiana life in the 1980s certainly includes the effects of globalization, but I have a much greater focus on a particular community and my understandings of its cultural coherence than the trends that seem to be important in contemporary anthropology. At the time of my stays, most people on Sikaiana wanted to participate in what they viewed as the advantages of a global economic system, especially the modern technology. But they also lamented the costs in terms of their personal relationships and lost traditions. A few younger people,  including ironically some of those who through advanced education had been exposed to Western-trained professors opposed to capitalism and neo- colonial domination, were more critical of the exploitation of the global economic system.

I have changed some names and deleted a couple sections to preserve confidentiality.  Since I wrote the book for a wider audience than Polynesian specialists, I did not include extended sections of the Sikaiana vernacular; instead I only include the English translations.

Robert Sisilo and Priscilla Taulupo read an earlier version in about 1991. I am grateful for their comments but they are not responsible for any inaccuracies or deficiencies.

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