Robert Levy told his graduate student, Paula Levin, that he really disliked small talk, except when he was doing field research with the Tahitians, with whom he constantly conversed in an informal manner. Levin writes, in a recent issue of Ethos devoted to Levy, that his ability to engage people in such informal conversations were the “key to [his] success in describing Polynesians’ private experiences” (p.469).
Levy had done the bulk of his research in the early 1960s and his book, Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands, had gone to the publisher in 1972. At that time, Levin began her graduate research on a different Tahitian island from the one where Levy had lived.
Since her mentor had just written a masterful book on the islands, she had to overcome her feelings of intimidation and focus on a subject he had not concentrated on—the study of Tahitian children. A lot of what she observed was already familiar from her reading of his book. She was struck by his comments about Tahitian gentleness. She quotes a passage from page 279 in his work: “Gentleness, defined negatively as behavior in which manifest hostility or violence is unusual, is still very saliently characteristic of Tahitians of French Polynesia.” Their low crime statistics and the “pervasive lack of violence in everyday life,” in Levy’s words, reflect that gentleness.
While she saw the same level of gentleness in the Tahitian homes as Levy had, Levin had a very different impression of Tahitian social interactions when she observed them in their schools. There she saw a sustained absence of gentleness. She spent many hours observing the children and teachers in a primary school, and she interviewed students and former students about the disciplinary approaches of the teachers. She found that many of the teachers frequently used strenuous corporal punishment on the pupils.
One adolescent recalled, “when I was in that class, we had a big man for a teacher. He would unbutton the shirts of the boys and twist the skin on the chest, lifting you out of your seat and pushing you back and forth several times, if you had done something wrong” (p.471).
Levin observed, from the back of the classroom, “numerous physically hurting actions, in this very public setting” (p.471). She heard teachers frequently use all sorts of insulting, disparaging terms for the students, and she cites examples from her notes of teachers hitting, punching, slapping, and whacking the hands of the students.
Levin particularly notes that the teachers were frequently frustrated by the lack of responsiveness from the students. Often they were silent and reluctant to speak, even if asked a question directly. While the teachers understood the reluctance to speak out in their homes—caused, if appropriate, by feelings of shame—they seemed to feel the same reaction was inappropriate in the school. One teacher yelled at her unresponsive class, “you must not be ashamed to speak. Speak loudly!” (p.472).
Her analysis is that there are two different systems of socialization that conflict with one another. At home, Tahitian children are (or were in the 1970s) socialized to suppress personal displays and desires in order to be good, while at school those same characteristics are punished and ridiculed. She feels that the students were in a definitional bind, a result of the colonial system that forces two different models on the students to follow: the traditional approach followed in the homes and the more outspoken model of the schools, a structure imposed by the French educational system.
She explains that Levy’s book provides explanations for these seeming anomalies. He described the way traditional cultural institutions connect to individual psychological patterns, and how changes in the systems of the society—such as the introduction of an alien approach to educating children—can also affect the psycho-cultural structures of the people.
Levin, Paula F. 2005. “Changing Childhood in Polynesia: The Impact of Robert Levy’s Tahitians on Psychological Anthropology in Oceania.” Ethos 33 (4):467-474