Tuvalu - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Apart from the primary dimension of kinship, many other social identities and collectivities are important. Individuals identify strongly with their natal island ( fenua ). Most of the centralized villages are divided into two "sides" (and on some islands there are four sections). These have competitive functions in games, gift exchanges, and certain kinds of fishing and communal projects. Class formation is incipient in Tuvaluan society, with the growth of specialized occupations, the cash economy, and business development. Chiefly status is more salient, however, with a few descent lines acknowledged as meriting traditional respect. High status can also be achieved through the Tuvalu church, with pastors commanding great prestige but less political power than before, since their tours of duty are now limited and they cannot be posted to their natal village. Consequently, deacons and lay preachers probably wield more longterm influence in the village. In comparison to the complex quasi state forms of some larger Polynesian societies, Tuvalu has always been fairly egalitarian.

Political Organization. Traditionally, each island was politically self-sufficient, though a wider grouping based on common ancestor worship and ritual hierarchy seems to have connected Funafuti to Vaitupu, Nukufetau, and Nukulaelae. Chiefs ( aliki ) headed the major descent groups and on most islands they deferred to one or two paramount chiefs (often termed "kings" in early accounts). The chiefs seem to have been as much religious leaders as political ones, though there were also religious specialists (spirit mediums, diviners, etc.). While the latter were suppressed by missionaries, the chiefly system survived. Its political clout was greatly reduced under missionary and colonial hegemony but has never disappeared and it is occasionally revived as a source of local prestige. Nowadays, elected island councils exercise direct political control over local affairs with advice from central government, including island executive officers. There are no organized political parties, however, and much of the requisite upper-level administrative expertise is provided by expatriates on short-term contracts.

Social Control and Conflict. A good deal of control is effected by such social sanctions as gossip, shaming, and public admonition. Tuvaluans try to avoid direct confrontation, placing emphasis on maintaining smooth and harmonious interpersonal relations. By reputation—and probably in fact—the society has lower levels of violence and crime than many others in the Pacific, even in the relatively urbanized capital. Nevertheless, serious fights did take place occasionally in the precolonial era. More frequent was low-intensity warfare between different islands in the group in which various male warriors ( toa ) took part. There are also oral accounts of invasions from Kiribati and Tonga, most of which were successfully repulsed.

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