Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Urban Social Change in Oceania: What is it? Why is it happening? Why is it important?

Urban Social Change

Lucas Watt

This website’s primary aim is to track urban social change in Oceania. Urban social change is deserving of academic attention because the ways cities change has implications for the everyday lives of most of the region’s population. It underscores how traditional ways of life are pursued; livelihood activities carried out, conventions of social interaction established, and the way people and goods move across space. Climate change, the presence of political independence movements, international mining projects, and infrastructural development are just a few of the vast array of processes and developments that are changing how urban life is experienced in Oceania. This website, with an urban social change perspective, fundamentally focuses on how these broader developments affect how everyday urban lives are fostered and pursued in the region. In this article, I describe how the study of cities has over time progressively acknowledged how global developments interact with local urban lives. I then provide an overview of the unique context of urban social change in Oceania.

What is Urban Social Change?

Simmel argued in 1903 that a city is a place devoid of interconnecting personal relationships because money removes the need for personal relationships to satisfy needs. People satisfied their own rational needs from specialized and compartmentalized groups of other often socially distant peoples. Theorists considered that the city was a place governed by institutions, rules and laws that seek to maximize the utility of its inhabitants efficiently. These governing institutions and ideas include those associated with industrialism and capitalism. In this regard, Simmel painted the city as purely utilitarian where residents pursue uniform and lifeless goals with the use of money with little differentiation across cities. This was largely reflected in the study of the lives of cities until anthropological work in the late 1960s when analysis of cities took a drastic turn. This work called for the separation of the governing ideologies of industrialism and capitalism from urbanism, and rather to take a contextual historical perspective on urban social change.

This work led by The Manchester School of Anthropology analyzed the production of variable cities based on context-specific interactions between western and local cultural ideologies in Africa. They specifically analyzed the imposition of western social order through European forms of governance, the paternalism of the mining company, and city design and layout. They also analyzed the relationships that city inhabitants had with peoples and cultures outside of urban society. They analyzed inter-relationships with peoples and cultures coming from rural society and the importation of certain cultural ideas. The difference here is that the historical interaction between western and local ideologies culminated into urban environments that were unique in their social and cultural composition. This re-conception of the urban environment opened its analysis as a dynamic place of social change where various historical and cultural interrelations alter the everyday operation and norms of the urban environment rather than it been preemptively known and characterized according to Western conceptions of the city.

This re-conception of the urban environment parallels other analytical frameworks focusing on the contingent and historic processes that produce urban environments. The “urban assemblage” developed by Deleuze and Guatarri recognized that the way in which capital, culture, materials and natural ecologies interact are contingent on a unique set of relations specific to the context, that culminate these parts into a whole. It recognized like The Manchester School of Anthropology that there is a heterogeneity of terms and their resulting relations form unique historically contingent environments. The assemblage framework advanced the analytical conception of the urban environment in a few ways. First, it more incorporated the concepts of materiality, and how expressions of meaning are defined in material objects, flows, and spatial connections. Second, it also considered how the imaginary of the inhabitants of a city could lay its imprint on the socio-material production of the city. It gave an agency and possibility to morph the assemblage of the city in line with their goals and preferred ways of life. Third, this imaginary of assemblage is relational and therefore still highly political. Other contesting visions held by other citizens, institutions, and capital of what the city is and should be contested and supersede others potentially leading to inequality through assemblage.

An additional element to get at the heart of the production of the urban assemblage draws from “critical urbanism” with its focus on the power relationships that create inequality through assemblage. This framework recognized the presence of institutions and capital that attempt to colonise and discipline urban inhabitants. This recognition is not a return to Simmel’s hollow impersonal city. This framework argues that monetary resources can consign power over other resources; material, time, space, and authority that allows for control over social reproduction. Unequal power relations can constrain the ability for the powerless to reproduce social relations in the city of their mind’s eye. However, critical urbanism also recognizes counter to the oppressive impacts of unequal power relations that there are possibilities from which the assemblage could be arranged differently. Indeed, even the utilization of monetary resources in an environment of unequal power relations need not tend to one societal form but can form many different types of other assemblages. Also, despite unequal power relations, there is the real potential for political and social mobilization from the bottom that can have a real impact upon the assemblage. 

From critical “urbanism”, there has been a revival of Lefebvre’s “right to the city”. This framework entails analyzing urban populace’s political, social, and cultural actions to influence the production of the urban assemblage, making the city compatible with how they wish to conduct their own lives. Lefebvre argues that in a society of oppressive and unequal power relations, disenfranchised inhabitants of the city are entitled to assert their right to the city through political and social mobilization. This assertion to the “right to the city” hints at more active participation of urban inhabitants in the shaping of the urban environment as an ethnic project. It brings to life the imaginary of urban inhabitants into a conscious project of reproducing social relations and place rather than that of passive influence or determinism.

The way the study of cities has changed since Simmel’s proclamation in 1903 show that there is an increasing amount of factors considered that impact its overall composition. Urban social change refers to how these factors continually intersect to produce a unique and dynamic urban environment. As this overview has shown, residents of the city have great agency to transform the city how they see fit, even as they struggle against other institutions, corporations, and ideologies, with their visions of how the city should operate, as well as outside pressures such as climate change and political environment that force adjustment.

Why is Urban Social Change happening in Oceania?

This is a bit of a deceiving question as all cities around the world are undergoing urban social change. No city operates in a static, unchanging universe. What I want to state here is that cities in Oceania are undergoing a rapid form of urban social change. As I have stated, there are many evolving contexts and pressures in the region that are forcing cities to respond and adapt. In particular, urban population growth is affected by a multitude of compounding issues in the region in ways that are stimulating new and evolving residential forms and ways of life. As an example, here I focus on the factors behind urban population growth and how it is affecting urban social change in Oceanic cities.

Ever since the independence of many island nations from colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been a greater opportunity for rural-urban migration. This started with a so-called “circular migration” where citizens migrated to urban centers temporarily for the opportunity to earn cash before a return back to home islands. There has always been a proportion of these migrants who stayed in the city permanently, even if they had every intention to return their home island. This proportion in the 21st century is increasing. More rural-urban migrants are opting to stay in the city because of the opportunity and lifestyle it offers. They feel as though they can take advantage of these opportunities without feeling compelled to return home permanently. They don’t need to. New communication and exchange technologies enable migrants to fulfill their traditional obligations to their home islands at a distance with only periodic visits. Traditional kinship relationships and networks are also reproduced in urban centers that replicate social structures on home islands. With the presence of urban opportunity and the presence of emerging tradition in urban centers, there is the option of having your cake and eating it too.

This is not to say that all rural-urban migration is occurring by choice. For many citizens, during the period of colonial rule, their ancestors had been removed from their traditional lands or did not have their land ownership recorded in colonial records. This has implications today as they do not have land which they formally own to return to. Their traditional land is either owned by the government or is owned by freehold landowners. This forces them to live in urban spaces. This is there the only option. For others, there is not enough land on home islands forcing out migration to cities. Social exile from islands is also not uncommon. For citizens of Kiribati, displacement resulting from climate change is a reality. Many are forced to relocate to the urban capital of South Tarawa. However, even this urban center is threatened by rising sea levels. The Kiribati government has even resorted to purchasing land in Fiji where their citizens could relocate to in the scenario that their islands “sink”.

These factors, among others, are accelerating permanent migration to urban centers shown in statistics. Many island nations such as Fiji, New Caledonia, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia have more than half their populations living in cities. More island nations will reach this threshold in the not so distant future as urban population growth rates in the region drastically outpace national growth rates. The outlier in these statistics is Papua New Guinea with only 13% of its population living in cities. Despite this, even their urban population is set to double by 2030 to 2 million.

Urban Population Statistics for Oceania

Jones, P. (2016). The Emergence of Pacific Urban Villages: Urbanization Trends in the Pacific Islands.

This degree of urbanization presents challenges in accommodating such an influx of people. Historically, this challenge has largely been unmet. Oceanic governments have not created suitable urban housing policy that accommodates new rural-urban migrants, forcing much of this population to live in squatter settlements. This squatter population has only continued to increase as Oceanic governments continue to ignore solving the problem. At the same time, these governments vilify these urban residents hoping that they will return to their home islands. To encourage this, there has been a perpetual campaign of moral regulation, social exclusion, and moral panic, dividing those living in settlements from supposed “good citizens” that fit antiquated definitions of urban citizenship. In the media, residents of settlements are painted as criminals, beggars and prostitutes living in unhygienic conditions. This, of course, has been an unproductive, and these settlements only continue to grow in size.

In the face of governmental opposition, these settlements are one of the main sources where urban social change is incubated. In the context of a growing urban populace and poor urban management, urban residents are forced to reproduce the city as they see fit. They recreate these settlements to resemble more “urban villages” where urban forms of traditionality are sustained and disseminated across the city. Residents of urban villages produce land ownership narratives on the land that their settlements are located on, reconnecting them to lands in the urban settlement. Agricultural and fishing activities are actively pursued. Traditional ceremonies are carried out in the urban village where food grown in the village is collectively consumed tying residents together. Kinship networks and relationships are maintained along with the traditional norms of social interaction. These practices are not pure rural replications. They are adapted according to urban realities and circumstances creating an urban hybrid form of tradition. Through social networks between urban villages, this form of tradition is disseminated across the Oceanic city. It does not go uncontested, however. Urban development that aimed at reclaiming the land on which these settlements lie to make way for upmarket residential areas and exclusive hotels challenges this form of urban tradition. Oceanic governments are complicit in this strategy, approving such plans and ignoring the way of life urban village residents have created for themselves.

Urban population growth in conjunction with the factors stimulating rural-urban migration, a legacy of poor housing policy, and these migrant’s desire to pursue traditional ways of life in the city, culminates in the production of urban villages. This provides only one such example of the extent of urban social change in Oceania. Many other factors are combining that are changing the social, material and physical landscape of the Oceanic city that I endeavor to address in the future.

Why is Urban Social Change Important?

So here I return to why paying attention to urban social change is important. It is a process that affects the majority of the region’s population (a growing majority!). But it is more than that. Investigating urban social change helps us to glimpse at how cities currently operate and how they may operate in the future based on how these factors interact and evolve. Cities idealistically are democratic spaces where regardless of who you are, you can pursue and achieve your ambitions. Through investigating urban social change, and the factors that affect it we can assess if this lofty vision is obtained. If not we can approach how we may affect urban social change to create a more just society through policy or community engagement. Or better yet assist and not hinder the project of urban residents that are pursuing that very goal.


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

Leave a Reply