When he arrived in Tahiti, Robert Levy observed that the village of Piri “had the typical Polynesian, South Seas, soft-utopian exoticism of outrigger canoes, coral reefs, lagoons, [and] a few long haired maidens with flowers in their hair …” But the exoticism faded quickly “to mosquitoes, to boredom, to closer views of the longhaired maidens …” (p.441).
Readers familiar with Levy’s book Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands (1973) will find he has a similar way with words in an article featured in a special issue of Ethos in 2005 that focuses on his work. Levy describes in this article the two communities he studied—Piri in the Society Islands and a village in Nepal. He compares the two communities, contrasting the public lives and the child-rearing approaches that foster different ways the people have of viewing themselves. The lecture on which this article is based was delivered in 2001, two years before he died.
Levy explains that in Bhaktapur, the city he studied in Nepal, the exoticism did not fade because the culture of the people constantly focused on constructing and maintaining the supernatural and exotic symbols of the Hindu religion. Piri is just the opposite. The people in the small Tahitian village had little use for such symbols. They were, he wrote, “very uncomfortable in encounters with the numinous and the extraordinary, and tried to avoid them” (p.444).
While the Nepalese city constantly generated meanings from supernatural and extraordinary events, Piri focused on the ordinary and the everyday. Women, he explains, were exactly how they appeared: what they did on a daily basis, how they moved. They constructed meanings from natural events—embedded symbolism as he calls it.
While the 40,000 people of Bhaktapur are coordinated through the sacred rituals of the city, the 284 people of Piri are integrated by the closeness of their lives. Everyone knows how everyone else is behaving, either by what they hear through the plank walls or through gossip. Conflict resolution, cooperation, decision-making, and exchange practices are all controlled in the village through moral values that are shaped by shared assumptions. These shared beliefs include convictions about what kinds of deviations are natural and what sorts of behaviors are proper.
In answer to Levy’s question, “who are you?” the responses in Nepal and Tahiti differed considerably. In Nepal, people answered with lengthy replies by placing themselves in the history of their families and castes. One man answered that it depended on the situation: when he was with his wife he was a lover, when with friends a friend, when with his father a son, and so on. The same question frequently startled his contacts in Tahiti. The respondent would reply that he was exactly who he was—Poria or whatever. A unique, solid, individual—different from every other person in the village.
Perhaps the most striking part of the paper is his explanation about the contrasting ways that adults in the two communities feel they should handle their children. The communities differed widely in their perceptions of proper child-raising, but within each one the amount of variance was surprisingly slight.
Adult Tahitians believed that Piri children reared themselves. They would develop and learn in much the same way as they would grow physically: without much if any adult intervention. Children learned to walk, talk, and gain bowel control entirely by themselves, they felt. A father would allow his children to watch his horticultural work and assume that they would learn his farming techniques by themselves, by observation.
On occasion, when the Tahitian adults showed approval or disapproval of their children, those expressions were muted. Normally, adults did not openly applaud their accomplishments or correct their inappropriate behavior. They believe that to do so would be to intrude on the autonomy of the child.
When children make serious mistakes in behavior, adults will tend to wait until an accident has occurred and then indicate that their actions have caused the problem. Children learn that when people master proper behavior, they avoid the consequences of erroneous actions.
One of the consequences of children learning in an autonomous manner is that they then have a hard time accepting any other kinds of more structured learning. The child may feel, as Levy puts it, “I know what to do, now leave me alone” (p.448). This attitude may create problems for formal education, he indicates.
The conclusion of his article is that individual psychologies—understandings of the self—and traditional cultural forms are layered very differently in various societies. Detailed explorations of local cultural patterns and psychological realities will allow understandings of different societies to be developed.
Levy, Robert I. 2005. “Ethnography, Comparison, and Changing Times.” Ethos 33(4): 435-458.