MicSem Publications

Effects of Modernization on Three Areas of Island Life

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

September 1991 (MC #04) Cultural Social Issues

A Word on Development

When we use the word "development", we imply a process or movement, presumably forward or upward or generally toward something better than what was. But this immediately raises all sorts of questions. Take the case of the man in the village who has spent the day fishing. Today in many parts of the Pacific he is liable to bring his catch into his home to feed his own household. In years past he may have felt obliged to share his catch with his whole lineage group and possibly a good part of the village as well. By today's standards the fisherman could be called provident and enterprising for providing inexpensive protein for his family; by yesterday's norms he would be judged stingy for failing to share his catch with the wide circle of kinfolks towards whom he was obligated. By which norms should he be judged?

The matter becomes still more complicated when we consider other possibilities. Suppose that the way the man disposes of his fish is intimately bound up with other values and attitudes that are the effect of modernization. Suppose that the very same values that lead him to limit the distribution of his fish also dictate that he will avoid beating his wife, send his daughter to school, and take disciplinary action against a brother-in-law who is working under him in a government bureau. Does this pattern of values to which the man now subscribes represent genuine development or regression? What if the very changes that undermine his broad kin group are also responsible for greater individual freedom and a vision that looks beyond the boundaries of the village for the first time? The dilemmas of modernization do not yield easy answers.

Looking Beyond the Kin Group

Family come first, in Micronesia and just about everywhere else. Our fisherman–or farmer, if you prefer–is bound by a set of well-defined obligations to his own kin. In most societies, moreover, he takes on the additional burdens of contributing to the support of his wife's family. Sometimes these can be as onerous as the obligations to his own kin. In Chuuk, a married man used to be expected to contribute free labor to his wife's lineage and help in any of the many tasks that the lineage group carried out, whether by providing food, offering his special skills, or assisting in meeting any of the other needs of her family. He was very much at the beck and call of his wife's brothers and any of the other senior members of her lineage, even as he met his responsibilities to his own lineage.

To balance this various and sometimes conflicting responsibilities was something that put him under tension aplenty. Frequently enough failure to handle his duties to his own kin and his wife's resulted in the breakup of the marriage. On top of this, the man was expected to fulfill other obligations related to his status in the community. This might take the form of tribute to chiefs in those places where there were sectional chieftainships. It also meant reciprocating to other members of the community for favors received or anticipated. Since the advent of Christianity to the islands, it has also entailed making contributions, sometimes quite sizable ones, to the church to which he belongs, especially at times of a celebration or construction project.

Our traditional fisherman or farmer, then, was not exactly a happy-go-lucky individual who enjoyed a carefree life together with a multitude of relatives who would support him when his luck or energy ran low. The fact is that he stood at the hub of a series of concentric circles representing the different groups to which he was obligated and from which he could in turn expect assistance in time of need. Even in relatively simple societies he was a man emeshed in a rather tight system, not without its pressures and sources of anxiety.

Suppose our fisherman should find a paying government job as a health aid in his village or even in his provincial capital. The fact that he is now bringing in a paycheck biweekly rather than occasionally carrying home a string of fish or a basket of yams in no way diminishes the responsibilities that he has incurred to his kin, his wife's kin, and the other members of the community to whom he is obligated. If anything, it means only that the medium of payment is changed. Instead of labor or produce, those who have a claim upon him may demand their payment in some other form. His kin can call upon a share of his salary for their own personal needs or for furthering a lineage project. His brother-in-law, instead of asking him to lend a hand in farming his wife's estate, may approach him about using his influence to get him or another of his family a job in health services. He may be asked to use his position as a health aide to benefit his kin in other ways–perhaps by obtaining preferential treatment for someone in the hospital, or by secreting out of the village dispensary certain medicines that someone in his family needs.

Our fisherman, in short, is using his new government position to meet old obligations. Yet even as he resolves traditional tensions by doing so, he finds that he confronts new ones. He lays himself open to the charges of nepotism, misuse of government property, and in general milking his position to advance the welfare of his family. And all this because our poor fisherman made the mistake of looking upon his government job, with its entitlements and privileges, as merely a substitute for the fish or breadfruit that he would have provided his family in former days. What he did not realize, unfortunately, is that his government job was not only multiplying his resources, but also increasing the number of groups who could make legitimate demands upon him.

A government job, and participation in the modern society that it represents, means an increase in the series of concentric circles circumscribing the employee. In signing his contract with the government, our fisherman is expected to serve the needs of the entire village, and to some extent the whole province and nation, under entirely new terms. As a government employee, he is obliged to offer his services to any and all who seek them regardless of their traditional affiliation to him. His salary, of course, is his own to allocate in any way that he chooses; but his skills, his workday time, his influence, and the equipment that he utilizes in performing his work is to be placed at the service of the community at large. No longer is he free to use any and all resources entrusted to him as best he might to meet the traditional kin and community obligations that have long vexed him. He must learn that there are some things, many things in fact, that are at the call of that large faceless group of people to which he formerly had few or no real ties. He must, therefore, take account of new and larger groups with claims on him that are as legitimate as those of his kin. In doing so, he must put aside that social map that he had used to guide him through commitments to his society from birth. Finally, he must begin making tricky little distinctions as to what resources can be used to discharge what obligations to what group of people.

Is it any wonder that the fisherman finds the transition to a salaried job with the government a difficult one? Or that expatriates, and possibly older and more practiced countrymen, complain of tribalism or kin loyalties interfering with essential government services? Modernization involves many different things, depending on the angle from which one looks at it, but surely one of the most significant changes for all is that new roles are superimposed upon the old. This can only mean conflict for the individuals caught in the throes of modernization.

Such, then, is the problem. What is the ethical solution to the dilemma? While the fisherman is learning just what the broader community has a right to expect of him and what the proper limits of his new position may be, his fellow villagers come to the dispensary to solicit medical treatment and sometimes seek referral to the urban hospital. While he is being acculturated to his new roles, others' health and even lives may depend on his response. For this reason if for no other, it seems critical that our fisherman make his transition as rapidly as possible. To make the transition successsfully does not mean that the government employee must ignore traditional roles and the obligations that flow from them, although it may sometimes appear that way to his disappointed kin. It simply means that he must learn to limit these, especially where they impinge upon his government position, so that he can achieve a balance between old and new roles.

Although we have elaborated at some length the example of the man who has taken a government job, it is essential to remember that even his cousins and brothers and nephews who have not been put on the government payroll also incur certain obligations to the community-at-large. Nation-building and all that it implies moves ahead, while infrastructural build-up and the development of an economy that can respond to the legitimate needs of citizens of the twentieth century proceeds apace. Needless to say, this rules out any more limited vision of the village or tribal area as the farthest reaches of one's concern. One can understand such a limited vision and take a compassionate view of those who still hold it, but one can hardly endorse it in a society that has become part of a nation. The price of the money and services that the government provides is the willingness to make a place for the new and broader roles of the fisherman who has become an employee.

The Breakdown of the Extended Family

The word "family" may have as many definitions as there are cultures. Under the impact of modernization today, however, people almost everywhere are witnessing the breakdown of the traditional extended family into what we can call standard packaged families–that is, nuclear families composed of father, mother and children, often with a few spare relatives added to the household. This is not to say that the traditional larger kin groupings have vanished; but that while very much alive in many parts of the Pacific, they are steadily losing ground to the nuclear family in terms of the functions they perform.

Since it is impossible to identify a typical traditional kin group, let us settle for an example from Chuuk. Perhaps this example may serve to illustrate how and why the breakdown of the extended family is occurring and what important questions all this raises.

The basic unit of Chuukese life has always been the lineage. The lineage is a kin group that is traced through the females in the family back to the oldest surviving woman. Hence a woman and her children (but not her husband), his sisters and their children, her brothers (but not their wives or children), her aunts and uncles through her mother's side, and her maternal grandmother would make up the lineage group. This lineage group formerly lived together on the lineage estate and ate from what was produced from the land belonging to the lineage. The lineage group might be made up of three or four households, each with a single nuclear family and perhaps some other relatives added. The members of these households, especially the younger ones, were subject to the authority of the lineage chief, the senior man in the lineage. He was empowered to oversee the lineage land, assign work responsibilities to other members of the lineage, and supervise the distribution of the food among them. When a woman married, she would generally bring her husband to her own lineage's estate where her children could be raised in their kin group and her husband could discharge his obligations to her family. In short, then, the lineage group functioned as a single unit: members ate together, they worked together, and their children were raised together. The single cookhouse in which food was prepared symbolized the unity of the lineage as an economic and social group.

But times have changed in Chuuk. As jobs and a cash income became available, some of the men in the lineage had at their disposal a source of livelihood other than the breadfruit trees and taro patches that were the common property of the lineage. A salary provided them with a measure of independence from the resources of the lineage, especially since this salary was kept by the wage-earner rather than turned over to the lineage head for distribution. This was the first wedge driven into the economic monopoly of the lineage, although other forces later helped to accelerate the breakdown of the traditional system.

As time went on, the households that made up the lineage assumed more and more responsibility for feeding themselves. Store-bought goods were routinely used for the household for whom they were bought rather than shared with the rest of the houses that made up the lineage. This meant that each family–usually the nuclear family plus a few other close relatives–began to assume the responsibility for feeding themselves. This was symbolized by the multiplication of cookhouses (or in some cases kitchens); and soon the single lineage cookhouse had given way to one for each household. This, in turn, affected the way in which local food resources were collected and prepared for eating. The head of the lineage, while retaining his nominal position, gradually lost much of his authority over these resources. No longer did he supervise the work tasks in the garden or on the sea. Now each family head prepared breadfruit pretty much when and as he saw fit, although he would usually give some of the food to the other households that made up the lineage grouping. Sharing of local resources and sometimes of purchased goods continued, but it was increasingly the head of the households rather than the lineage chief who now divided up the food.

As the lineage head lost more of his hold over the economy of the lineage, he suffered a corresponding loss of authority. More and more, children were expected to remain under the supervision of their own biological parents, even after adolescence when they would have normally come under the authority of the lineage seniors. Whereas in the past the lineage chief would have had an important role in selecting a marriage partner for the younger members of the lineage, today he has hardly more than a nominal voice. The decision as to whether or not to send a child away for further education is now made by the father rather than the lineage head. The lineage head still has a strong say over the disposal of lineage land, but the latter has been devalued in recent years as an ever greater share of the family's resources are provided by cash income. In many parts of Chuuk today the head of the lineage does not even dare discipline his brothers' and sisters' children, something that he always did as a matter of course in the past.

If the authority of the lineage head has declined with modernization, that of the parents in each household has increased greatly. Parents are now, virtually by themselves, expected to steer their children through the stormy season of adolescence. Furthermore, with the growth in the number of surviving births, they often have larger families than in the past. Thus, today they are supervising more children over a longer period of time with less help from other kin.

This radical shift in family structure has serious implications for Chuukese society. In some of our recent studies, we have linked the breakdown of the lineage system, and the increased tensions in parent-child relations that accompanies it, to the extraordinarily high suicide rate in Chuuk over the last fifteen years. Other studies of child abuse and runaways have indicated that the tensions generated within the family in recent years manifest themselves in these other ways as well. In recent decades the Chuukese family has become a two-parent family, shorn of the surrogate parents and other supports that had assisted in the difficult child-rearing tasks in former years. By just about every measure, the family in Chuuk–and we may imagine in other parts of the Pacific as well–has become much more fragile than ever before.

The effects of the change in family structure are felt most acutely when one of the parents is lost either through death or divorce. If the surviving spouse remains unmarried, he or she will have to assume the burden of raising the children with only minimal help from kinfolk. If he or she should remarry, however, the situation is frequently even worse, particularly when the new spouse also has children from a first marriage. Let us illustrate with an example. A woman with three children from her first marriage moved to the family estate of her new husband who had two children of his own by a previous marriage. Her children, ranging in age from nine to fifteen, soon came to feel unwelcome in their new home as their step-father continually showed a clear preference for his own children over them. They were not bought new clothes as their step-brothers were; they were fed last in the family and were never given the treats that the others enjoyed from time to time; and they were often scolded by their step-father. After a few months the two older ones had run away from home, while the youngest waited in the hope that attitudes would change. In former times these children would have had a much easier adjustment at the death or divorce of their father. They would have simply remained under the care of their lineage, where they would have had a secure home and sense of affiliation regardless of any problems they might have had with their new step-parent. The lineage would have functioned as a buffer between them and their step-father as well as a focal point for their identity as a family.

What is true in Chuuk may well be true of other islands in the Pacific. The breakdown of the traditional family, caused in good part by the spread of the cash economy and the alternatives this offers people, has meant greater freedom for family members; but it has also meant greater tensions and strains on personal relations. While it has afforded individuals new opportunity and removed some of the shackles of custom, it has also left them without the broad social network that served as a safety net in the past. The price of modernization has been high.

Whether to accept such changes or to attempt to return to more traditional family structures is not a real option in places like Chuuk. The change in the form and function of the family is already well advanced. To be sure, churches, governments, and other institutions representing the modern sector have repeatedly urged that the parents assume more responsibility over their own children. Even if these institutions could not themselves effect such changes, they did endorse them. Hence, it seems to me that these same institutions have a responsibility to assist parents in meeting the unfamiliar demands of Western parenthood. At very least this would seem to imply a serious effort at educating adults, who themselves were raised in more traditional extended family settings, in western-style parenting. Among the themes that might require attention are these: how to discipline effectively without nagging, the importance of affirming and providing support for children, and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

There is perhaps one more important educational task that churches and other institutions can undertake to make the transition in family styles easier. They can encourage the creation of new structures, or the rehabilitation of older structures, to answer to the needs of today's family. A prime example is the need for freer discussion between family members, something that was not as critical in bygone days when children had easy recourse to older lineage mates to serve as intermediaries between them and their parents. As the boundaries of the family group shrink and the tension between members mounts (as it inevitably must at times), it is important for family members to have the opportunity to express difficulties among themselves. This is by no means to propose a Western remedy for a Pacific problem. Chuukese traditionally gather as a family to do this at times of funerals, while Polynesians have their customary family circle meeting, the ho'oponopono. Is there any reason why these age-old customs can not be adapted to serve the more acute needs of today's family?

The War Between the Sexes

We are witnessing today in many parts of the Pacific the onset of the war between the sexes. It may not be termed a war, but that is the way that it is conceived by many males and females in those areas that have begun to modernize.

In traditional Micronesian societies there was a sharp division between the roles of males and females. Women were expected to do the weaving and plaiting, care for the children, and perform the householding chores, while men did the deep-sea fishing (and in most places the offshore fishing too), constructed houses and canoes, and conducted warfare. The work of food preparation was divided differently from one island to another, but men's and women's roles were always complementary, with some tasks clearly assigned to women and others to men. Traditional society was characterized by its clear distinction of gender roles; men and women had their own respective spheres of influence. Often enough in Micronesian societies it was the women who exercised a large measure of control over land, particularly over the allocation of use rights within or outside of the family. Men, on the other hand, were usually the spokesmen for the family and the village. It was they who almost always held the titles and chieftainships. Many of us today are misled into believing that the function of men was to rule while that of women was merely to obey. Appearances to the contrary, this was certainly not the case in Micronesia. While women generally were expected to avoid "center stage" positions and were barred from speaking in public, they were very often the real movers behind the scenes when it came to allocating resources and even initiating political intrigues.

In gender relations as in other aspects of traditional life there was a strong note of reciprocity. Just as women were required to show certain kinds of deference to men, especially to male relatives, men were also required to practice respect behavior towards women. Men were prohibited from using certain kinds of language in their presence, and this to a far greater degree than was practiced in Victorian Europe. What we might call "women's rights," limited as they may have been, were well protected in traditional society. It is true that these "rights" fell considerably short of today's standards. Women for instance, might be beaten by their husbands. Even so, however, the woman's family kept a close watch over her and were ready to intervene on her behalf in the case of excess. Women in traditional Micronesian societies surely did not enjoy equality with men, but they were not without a considerable measure of security and even power in these societies.

What changes has modernization wrought? In the first place it has caused an upheaval in men's traditional roles. With increased dependence on store-bought food items, it is common enough today to see young men, who would have formerly been fishing, picking breadfruit or working in the farms, loitering in town with little to do. The only warfare in which they now engage is with rival gangs, and their role as builders has been usurped by skilled carpenters, masons and tradesmen. Their sisters, meanwhile, continue to be occupied with much the same household chores that they always performed. The inactivity and freedom that young men today experience brings with it a liberal dose of pain and insecurity. Stripped of former roles, many young men no longer enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that they are making a real contribution to their family and community. The dislocation that they experience may be manifest to some extent in the high rates of delinquency, alcohol abuse and juvenile arrests in our own day. It is worth noting that in Micronesia the rate of serious mental illness among young males is four times as great as that among females. In the first instance, then, modernization seems to have had a far more unsettling effect on men than on women.

This is not to say that there are no new roles available to men in modern society. Indeed, there are a variety of salaried jobs as well as new political positions that offer money and influence. Volunteer organizations, churches, and even athletic associations provide new avenues of status. All these are attractive alternatives to the traditional roles that men have lost with the advent of the modern society. But herein lies the problem. Men see women scrambling for these same positions and intruding in a domain that they regard as rightfully theirs. Women work in government agencies, they drive cars, they play basketball and volleyball, and they even run for elected political office. In doing so, they are seen as flouting the traditional cultural distinction in roles between the genders. Hence, women are perceived as competitors rather than partners.

Women themselves suffer considerably in the transition, to be sure. In Chuuk, interestingly enough, much of the traditional respect behavior that men once showed to women has been lost, although most of the respect behavior in the reverse direction survives. Most young Chuukese men today are not even aware that such forms existed, much less practise them. The scrupulous use of polite language forms in the presence of women, particularly kinfolk, has been lost in recent years. There is evidence that other traditional rights of women are being increasingly ignored by men. In many families today men are preempting the rights of senior female lineage members to decide how land is to be distributed. Moreover, the kinsmen of married women are showing a growing reluctance to intervene to stop the wife-beating that seems to be increasing with time. It is almost as if the society has ordained that the rules for reciprocity that once prevailed shall no longer be in force. Henceforth, it will be each sex for itself in the battle to stake out new turf.

The generation of older anthropologists who worked in Micronesia shortly after the war frequently made the observation that men seemed to show more anxiety than women in these island societies. This observation appears to be confirmed by the much higher incidence of psychosis among males than females throughout Micronesia. Yet male anxiety and insecurity can only have intensified as a result of the enormous role changes and other forms of dislocation that men have experienced in the course of modernization. As women began to take on what were regarded as traditional male roles–or their modern-day substitutes–men may have begun lashing out at them in an effort to protect their own shaky position. After all, one speaks gently when one is sure of oneself and one's status. It is normally when one is backed to the wall that he begins asserting himself and flailing out. All the while, moreover, the old sanctions that had afforded women security and respect began breaking down, although not necessarily by deliberate design.

The problem today, therefore, is how to bring about a just peace in what has to be called the war between the sexes. Educated Pacific women today rankle at the fact that they are often denied opportunities to exercise new roles in modern society that men have monopolized in recent years. Yet, even more fundamental and serious a problem is the gradual attrition of those traditional rights that women once held. The old norms of reciprocity between the genders are quickly being lost.

At bottom the issue may be this: Shall women be regarded as competitors for men's roles, or shall they be seen as partners with complementary roles? Clearly the traditional Pacific societies were organized in such a way that there were clear divisions between gender roles. Among other things, this served to minimize conflict between the sexes. Shall this continue to be true in the future?

It is difficult to imagine that women will be forever denied the job opportunities to which their education and talents entitle them. Indeed, it seems that their contribution is much needed by a Pacific society that faces the daunting task of providing adequate modern services to its people. Somehow the society will have to accommodate to the presence of both men and women in government and private sector employment. Given the strong bias in Pacific societies for sharp distinctions in gender roles, however, it would not be surprising if certain types of jobs were defined as men's work and others as women's work.

More progressive women will perhaps be impatient with this as a half-measure. What women are demanding throughout the world today is real equality with men. They are asserting their right to pursue not just certain careers that have been preselected for women, but any of their choosing for which they have the necessary talent and training. They are seeking access to any field of endeavor on an equal footing with men. In short, they are seeking a definitive end to the system of gender differentiation that undergirded traditional Pacific societies. This, then, is the dilemma that we face today. Should we use basic equality as our ethical norm for determining what women are entitled to today? Or should we settle for less in the way of personal freedom and judge women's rights within the context of the old system of role distinctions? Answers to this question will vary. My own feeling is that it may ultimately be to the advantage of Pacific women not to have role distinctions lost altogether, at least until the rights and safeguards that women have lost in the course of modernization are restored.


When one engages in the sort of exercise that we have performed here, it is tempting to retreat into a romanticism of the past. After all, the traditional society, for all its problems, was tightly patterned; the pieces fit together so neatly. But alas, this is not one of the real choices that Pacific societies are offered today. Modernization is a fact and cannot be wished away. Nor is there any real hope that tomorrow will bring a sudden halt to the process that has begun in earnest throughout Micronesia.

We have seen three dramatic and far-reaching areas of change that modernization has brought to island societies. Although the particulars may vary from place to place, the broad areas of change described here are probably universal. It is hard to imagine areas of life that are more crucial than these, for they all involve relationships that lie deep at the heart of village life. The result of these changes has been to disrupt the unity of the traditional society, leaving it far less integrated than formerly, with inconsistencies that cannot be easily worked out and tensions that will not be quickly resolved. Today's society is neither fish nor fowl, not yet integrated according to modern patterns but no longer unified by the traditional. This tension between what has been and what will be is at the root of the dilemmas that we have discussed in connection with each of the major areas of change.