Anthropologist finds cultural emphasis on group over individual might hinder democracy

When it comes to establishing democracy, a me-first attitude isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, it might be a necessity, according to Northern Illinois University anthropologist Giovanni Bennardo.

Bennardo spent the tail end of the summer in Tonga, the only remaining Polynesian monarchy. Budding democratic movements there have failed to take firm root, and Bennardo says the problem can be traced to a culturally ingrained way of thinking that always puts groups before individuals.

“Democracy puts the rights of the individual first, but Tongans are trained from birth to do the opposite,” Bennardo says. “In their society, the extreme importance is attributed to the group over the individual. The ego is highly constrained. That doesn’t mean they can’t understand freedom and democracy, but putting individuals ahead of the group is a tough task for them.”

Bennardo won a $35,000 grant from the National Science Foundation earlier this year to continue his research on democratic movements in the Kingdom of Tonga. He spent a month there interviewing some of the country’s nobles, government representatives and church officials about their notions of democracy.

The interviews complement data Bennardo collected previously from the nation’s commoners as he examines how culturally informed ways of thinking might slow down democratic movements in Tonga. He is a specialist in linguistic and cognitive anthropology.

“Ultimately, the research will inform policymakers and development specialists about difficulties they may encounter when encouraging democracy in countries with historically different ways of thinking about social and political hierarchy, including nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Cambodia,” Bennardo says.

The Kingdom of Tonga consists of about 170 tropical islands. The nation boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the Pacific, with its 98,000 inhabitants receiving free education. The current monarch, King George Tupou V, is heir to a dynasty that goes back at least a millennium.

In November 2006, political riots broke out in Tonga’s capital city, leaving widespread damage from fire and looting and eight dead. While the debate between loyalists to the monarchy and the recently established democratic movement has been exacerbated, the legitimacy of the monarch system has largely gone unchallenged.

“My research has shown that among both commoners and the nation’s elite, Tongans feel that their cultural history is congruent with their monarchy,” Bennardo says.

Bennardo’s latest research is an extension of work that began by examining the way Tongans conceptualize spatial relationships. He found they use a frame of reference that differs from Westerners. Unlike Westerners, Tongans typically don’t use themselves as a reference point but instead seek out an object of importance in their environment.

For example, a Westerner might describe a building location as “in front of me,” whereas a Tongan would describe it as being “toward the church.” In experiments, Bennardo asked test subjects to draw pictures of their island. They typically placed the major town in the center of the island, even when in reality it was at or near the coast.

Working with researchers in Germany and at UCLA, Bennardo demonstrated that this way of thinking also applies to concepts of time, kinship and social relationships, the latter of which is closely tied to the political realm.

“One person, one vote is difficult to implement,” he says. “Tongans aren’t accustomed to viewing themselves in terms of equality of individuals.”

Bennardo found no major differences between the views of the country’s commoners and the elite. “Members of the elite also talk about the group as paramount in the social fabric,” he says. “They say political change is inevitable but must occur slowly because the real Tongan way cannot be uprooted, which is a contradiction. Tradition is at odds with the concept of democracy.”

Charles Cappell, a professor of sociology at NIU, is working with Bennardo on an analysis of social networks in Tonga. Lisita Taufa, a graduate student in anthropology who is from Tonga, and six NIU undergraduates also have participated in the project.

Source: Northern Illinois University

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Oct 12, 2007
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Oct 13, 2007
Tongan culture is directly linked to the semi-deification of the King and Nobles.
This system of deification is common throughout ancient world culture, and as in the case of Tonga, has been used to suppress, control and enslave the masses or commoners.

The pre-Christian history of Tonga was one, with the Tongan religion consisting of a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses%u2026 whom the chiefs were related to%u2026 but the commoners not.
This relationship to the deities, provided for the souls of the Chiefs%u2026 but not the commoners.
Thereby, the Chiefs had a place in a Tongan Heaven and an afterlife%u2026 whereas the commoners did not. The commoners had no souls and upon death%u2026dirt.
This system justified the enslavement of the commoners by the Chiefs%u2026 and the ownership and right of disposal of all commoner%u2019s assets and their very lives%u2026

King George Tupou was the first Tongan King. It is he who ended the fifty years of Tongan civil war that was brought about by the introduction of modern weaponry into Tonga. This newly acquired weaponry disrupted the traditional balance of power and relative cultural peace, which had been Tonga%u2019s historical legacy.

King George, in his life long efforts to bring unity and National Independence from foreign powers, to Tonga, adopted the Western model of a hereditary Kingship. Previously, in Tonga and all Polynesian traditional cultures, there were no hereditary Kings or Kings at all. There were Chiefs, and these Chiefs held power by might of arms or by common consensus of lesser chiefs.

What existed in Tonga was a complex structure of shared powers through family and religious titles and powers as chiefs and warriors.

King George, set about unifying a people devastated by civil war and European disease, through the means of conversion to Christianity, and the establishment of individual rights, through a Constitution based on English Common law.

Christianity brought equality amongst all Tongans as Children of God. God%u2019s children, all possessing Souls and a place in an afterlife and a Heaven.

His Constitution freed the commoners from enslavement from the Chiefs and provided for individual rights, through rights to property and civil liberties.

Compromise, was the manner in which he extracted the agreement of other powerful Chiefs. A compromise which was to become Thirty-three hereditary Noble families and one hereditary Royal family.

In effect, he created a Feudal State, based upon historical European models.

His success in this brought about the current Kingdom of Tonga and a legacy of continued submission of the commoners to the Nobles and the Royal family.
This Feudal State is rooted in the ancient Pagan religion of Tonga and the inherent superiority of the Royal Family and the Families of the Nobles, over the common population of Tonga.

This commonly held submission is the basis for the %u201Cgroup%u201D view of Tongan culture.

This %u201Ctraditional%u201D cultural view is indoctrinated in the people, through schools and Christian Religions. The schools of Tonga are controlled by the State, and the State is controlled by the Royal and Noble Families. The Christian Religions use this traditional submissiveness, to further their particular religious agendas and adherence to Church doctrine.

Literacy is not a measure of cultural independence. What is read, what is made available to read are the measure of a culture. In a controlled culture such as Tonga, literacy becomes a tool of indoctrination, whether by the State or Church.

Fortunately there are as many or more Tongans, who have immigrated to Countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States of America, as live within the Kingdom of Tonga.

Amongst this population, the view of life, as an individual, is providing a powerful counter balance, to the controlled cultural view of the group, that is existent within the Kingdom of Tonga.

No study of the anthropological status of current Tongan culture and its views toward the individual and democracy can be complete without a study of the majority of Tongan people, who do live outside of the Kingdom of Tonga.

The influence of this majority cannot be discounted in any credible study of Tongan culture, whether in be Religious, Political or Economic.

At least 50% of Tonga%u2019s annual economic product is made up of remittances from relatives living overseas. Without this economic contribution, the Kingdom of Tonga is a failed State.

Tongans do indeed think of themselves as individuals and they so demonstrate by their migration to countries of economic possibilities for the individual.

Those who do still live in Tonga are a mixture of vested interest, frustrate ambitions, youth and old age.
They take succor in religions which offer a Soul and afterlife. They take refuge in a constitution that guarantees them some rights to land and sustenance and individual rights and liberties.

Some 75% of those living in Tonga are sustained by sustenance agriculture.

They do not have the right to political and economic self determination and as such either leave the country or resign themselves in the hope that God the Father will deliver unto them.

The King, the Nobles and the Christian Church feed off of this Fatherly patronage and advance the view of a slow change towards democracy and individual rights and self determination.

Tongans survive within the Kingdom of Tonga, by virtue of the extended family group, whether it be family members living overseas or through shared sustenance farming.

The vast majority of those able to obtain foreign visas have already left. Those who would leave, if given the opportunity, are no small number.

Yes, the elite see the group as central to Tongan tradition and their survival. Yes, the commoners see the group as central to Tongan tradition and their survival, but from an entirely different point of view.

Sustenance agriculture is no easy task to be taken up by any individual. It is a group activity and way of survival.

It is interesting to note that the vast majority of Nobles live overseas or at least maintain a residence outside the country.

The compromise King George made with the now Nobles forefathers, was a compromise of political expediency. A compromise made necessary for a peace to be made, for commoners to be given individual rights to land and liberty, a compromise amongst competing Warlords.

The Nobles no longer have their private armies and as such the time for compromise, the need for compromise is over.

The freedom that King George sought to bring to all Tongans continues to be made self evident. The fact that the majority of Tongans, as individuals, elect to live overseas is evidence of that.

This freedom, this need for individual freedom, is the cornerstone upon which the current Tongan State was established by King George Tupou. Equality amongst individuals, in the eyes of God, was the gift he gave to the people of Tonga. Political compromises, with the then armed chiefs of Tonga, is how he established individual rights to freedom and self determination.

But, it was a compromise and as such his work remains yet undone.

Democracy does not find itself at odds with the Tongan culture of the family and group survival. It does find itself at odds with the Tongan culture of the Nobles and their survival as a special privileged class and group.

The Royal Family stands a symbol of their great forefather%u2019s contribution to all the people of Tonga and Tonga as an Independent Nation. This tradition of the Royal Family is intrinsic in the need and actuality of the identity of Tongan Nationality and existence as an Independent State.

This has been the case in many former feudal States across the world, but perhaps nowhere can one look to one man who did more to establish a Kingdom and become King, while bringing peace, and equality amongst individuals, than you can find in King George Tupou.

So, is Tongan tradition at odds with democracy, or is the work once started still left undone?

Oct 23, 2007
I have to say that Tonga's posting was much more informative than the article itself. It certainly makes much more sense that the groupthink the article tries to paint as some quaint pacific tradition was the result of typical hierarchical suppression of the commoners by the chiefs...

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