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What Were Gender Relations Like in Tongan Society Before Contact With Europeans and the Emergence of Class Stratification?

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A Tongan history from a pmely local perspective, if there is such a thing, is only a different version of mythology. On the other hand, a scholarly history of Tonga without consideration of local values and applying Christian value judgements is a sterile academic exercise

If we are to accept the view held by many sympathetic historians, either of European or indigenous descent, we are committing ourselves to treating mythology as real history.

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A recurrent issue in our understanding of the transformations experienced by Pacifi c Island societies, and societies of the developing world in general, is the extent to which traditional social arrangements (eg, rank-based systems, inequalities predicated on colonialism, or local forms of egalitarianism) are being displaced by social-class structures. A focus on these historical transformations demands that we address what constitutes a social class—an almost unsolvable problem, but nevertheless one for which we are fortunate to have a distinguished intellectual genealogy. The work of two of the founding fathers of modern-day social science, Karl Marx and Max Weber, can be understood as lifelong projects to understand social inequality in the West in terms of social-class stratifi cation. Yet, as social scientists, we continue to have diffi culties apprehending social class, particularly in contexts that are not traditionally viewed as the locus of class hierarchies

This article seeks to address these diffi culties in the context of one Pacifi c Island society, Tonga. The problem is particularly acute when one deals with the middle classes, as opposed to the working or elite classes—those who are betwixtand-between, caught in a liminal position that, like other forms of liminality, are supposed to go one way or another, while in fact they remain in suspension. This suspension is particularly pertinent to the “middleness” of the middle classes and renders their very nature unstable, in contrast to the solidity that Marx attributed to both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, groups whose self-consciousness is fi rmly ingrained in their identities, and who theoretically have little trouble fi nding a common “enemy”.

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Traditional society had at its top the ha'a tu'i (kings), followed by the hou'eiki (chiefs), ha'a matapule (talking chiefs), kau mu'a (would-be talking chiefs), and kau tu'a (commoners). All titles were heritable and followed the male line of descent almost exclusively. This hierarchical social structure is still essentially in place. Tribute to the chiefs was paid twice a year. Agricultural produce and gifts such as butchered animals, bark cloth, and mats were formally offered to the Tu'i Tonga and, through him, to the gods in an elaborate ceremony called 'inasi . The king now visits all the major islands at least once a year on the occasion of the Royal Agriculture Show (Campbell, I. C., 1992). The gift giving and formalities at the show closely resemble those of the 'inasi . The 1875 constitution eliminated the title of chief and introduced the title of nopele (noble), which was given to thirty-three traditional chiefs. Only nobles and the king are now entitled to own and distribute land

An increasingly market-oriented economy and an expanding bureaucracy have recently added a middle class that runs the gamut from commoners to chiefs (Ferdon, E. N., 1987). Newly acquired wealth, however, does not easily overcome social barriers rooted in history. Often claims to higher social status are established by claiming kinship to holders of aristocratic titles.

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For the most part, the rise of stratified societies fundamentally alters access to certain foods by individuals based on their status, and the potentially complex interactions between diet, migration, and social status can greatly affect health

In past populations, social status can be inferred by examining dietary differences with regard to access to certain foods, especially those considered ‘high status’ by a particular community.

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Campbell, I. C. Island Kingdom: Tongan Ancient and Modern , 1992.

Ferdon, E. N. Early Tonga: As the Explorers Saw It 1616– 1810 , 1987.

Gailey, C. W. Kinship to Kinship: Gender Hierarchy and State Formation in the Tongan Islands , 1987.

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