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Chapter 1 (Michelle and Rene)

May 3, 2012

In chapter one, titled “Straddling the Edge of the Global,” Niko Besnier focuses on the overall concept of what modernity is and how it affects people.  Besnier describes how people negotiate between modernity and tradition, and how it is affects their everyday life. Besnier begins the chapter by describing the riots on November 16, 2006, called “16/11”. He points out that the looting and arson happened in a climate of anxiety and unprecedented nature. The Tongans have had to struggle with their indigenous identity (traditional ways) and the colonial powers (Western modernity) that threaten the existence of that. Pressure to democratize into a Western format of social organizing, the Tongan people have since had to succum to and demonstrate “good governance”. This was a precondition for economic assistance to the other monetarily poor islands in Tonga. Besnier breaks up the concept of modernity, and applies it into the Tongan frame, into several sections: theoretical contexts, plurals, bifocality, sites, selves, objects and bodies.
Besnier touches on the sociological concept of imagination. In this meaning, the agents recognize that modernity happens and they have the capacity to shape and change modernity while still taking part in their own lives. He describes that the imagination is a powerful tool that is very grounding. This is important to the Tongan people as they identify strongly with their culture. They were capable of imagining life on other islands and the possibility of new exchanges. They especially take pride in their home country if they happen to move away to another location. In this sense, modernity is considered and viewed “as a matter of mobility of people, ideas, resources, and signs” (13).
As the outsider, Besnier explains how an ethnographer can focus on modernity from two extreme forces that  blend and overlap: one extreme being “global forces” and the other being “grounded locality” (12).  Each have their pros and cons; Besnier explains that one can avoid the “pitfalls”.  He explains that to recognize that modernity “does not ‘mean’ the same thing to different people within the same society” (14). And indeed to the Tongans, modernity is much more performed and enacted rather than talked about. The ethnographer must see that there are “multiple modernities” and that “modernity is with us, wherever we are” (6). Besnier states that Tongans keep tradition and modernity apart which is what he  states that he is interested in.  He states that, to Tongans, modernity threatens tradition (10), but Besnier believes “both emerge from the same social and cultural forms” (10).
The sites or locations of where modernity happens with social action is very contextual. Besnier describes that these sites are not only where social action takes place but, it is where ideological and structural configuration is being negotiated and enacted in specific forms This sites help authorize these social actions and keep them preserved in a way that can be built upon or what can be rebuilt. “…modernity’s enthusiasm for change may in fact be remarkably similar to tradition’s fervent allegiance to continuity” (19).
Besnier approaches modernity from not only a cultural form, but a material as well.  He states that the “ideas of the self are never divorced from materiality” (23).  The self is not only created from the acts that one does. The items, such as clothing and food that one chooses to purchase, is also an act and the result is the material.  He goes on by quoting Wilk: “Just as people use objects to invent tradition, they also use them to invent the future” (24). The negotiations that Besnier analyses are compared in pairs: “past and future, continuity and change, and locality and extralocality…” (24). His main argument is that Tongan modernity is not static or seen as a “monolithic entity”. It is emergent and seen within different sites, which he considers different and varied and in connection to a larger global context.


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