Rapa - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Class distinctions are not visible in Rapan society. Some persons are more active in church, Political, and other affairs than are others, but such involvement depends upon individual leadership qualities. Voluntary associations are organized along village lines. Both villages have funeral clubs, which manage the feast and other practical matters connected with the funeral at the death of someone from a member household, and youth clubs, which form soccer teams, organize entertainment for the 14 July Bastille Day celebration, and undertake other projects for the benefit of the village.

Political Organization. In 1964, the Austral Islands formed one of the five administrative divisions of French Polynesia. Local government on Rapa at that time was vested in a district council, consisting of seven members elected at large for five-year terms. After their election the new council selected from its number a chief and assistant chief. The District council had relatively little power, and the role of chief was largely ceremonial, but it was coveted nonetheless for its salary. In recent years the government has been reorganized in French Polynesia, giving the territory more internal autonomy from France and increasing the power of local councils.

Social Control. In 1964 Rapa fell under the jurisdiction of a French gendarme stationed on Ra'ivavae, some 180 kilometers to the north. Since then, one Rapan has held the position of local police officer. Social control is provided for the most part, however, by the church. Nearly all Rapans are affiliated with the Protestant church, and one of the primary responsibilities of the elected deacons and their wives is to visit and admonish those whose behavior is not satisfactory. Rapans believe, furthermore, than one should not take communion while harboring ill will toward others, so they often make efforts to resolve their disputes prior to the communion service on the first Sunday of every month. Finally, in this small Society there are few secrets and a good measure of social control is achieved by gossip or the fear of it.

Conflict. Disputes occasionally erupt over accusations of petty theft, hostilities between stepparents and stepchildren, or the location of boundaries between coffee groves. These seldom go beyond shouting matches, which usually take place around mealtimes when many people are in the village and which invariably and instantly draw large crowds. More Permanent factionalism exists between the two villages and Between vaguely defined and shifting groups of families. Issues at stake usually involve the distribution of benefits received from the French government. The head schoolteacher, an official appointed from Tahiti and the individual with whom visiting officials interact most frequently, is a center of factionalism for she is in a good position to steer government jobs and other benefits toward those Rapans who get along with her and away from those who do not. The pastor, probably the most powerful person on the island, may also become a center of dissension if it is sensed that he does not treat his parishioners equally. Factionalism is fueled by a contradiction in the Rapan value system. Those who have nothing special to expect from an individual in a public position trumpet the ideal that such a person is bound to act in the interests of all, while relatives and others with special ties to him or her operate under the expectation that a person's first obligations are to kin and allies. Both of these values are honored in Rapa, and anyone in a position of authority finds it difficult to walk a line between them.

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