Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: October 5th, 2020

Article Discussed: Spann, M. (2019) ‘Sorcery and Negotiating Economic Agency: A Critical Observation from Solomon Islands’, Oceania, (1), p. 89-103.

Yitong Zhang

By using case examples from central Kwara’ae, Malaita, Solomon Islands, Spann (2019) contextualizes the accusation of sorcery in relation to changing economic context. In the first section, Spann (2019) argues that Malatia has become more capitalistic compared with the past. Instead of using traditional goods for reciprocal exchange, Malatians now rely on cash and commodity exchange. Rural land has also become increasingly commodified. This more capitalist economic context has increased economic inequality and local land disputes. In the second section, Spann (2019) applies Taylor’s (2015) analytical framework of ‘distributive’ and ‘possessive’ agency to argue that this new economic context has increased the prevalence of sorcery in Malatia. ‘Distributive’ agency stands for dividualization of person, where personhood is sitting as part of a clan and kinship. Conversely, ‘possessive’ agency emphasizes the western meaning of ‘individualism’, which has been evaluated as selfishness that clashes with the Malaita’s value of collaboration. Spann (2019) argues that sorcery in Malatia, is used as a tool to balance the “‘modern’ developmentalist individualism (possessive agency) and ‘traditional’ dividual obligations of reciprocity and sharing (distributive agency)”. In the third section, Spann illustrates how a visible member in Malaita, named Sale, manages his dual role as a local entrepreneur and as a member of the community. On the one hand, Sale owns a permanent house on the customary managed land, which might be subject to sorcery from people who are against the commodification of the land. However, on the other hand, Sale strengthens his distributive network by providing a bus service for rural people and distributing plenty of goods for the mortuary feasts held in the community. The way Sale distributes help allows him to maintain a balanced and palatable form of personhood to avoid sorcery from being inflicted upon him. In conclusion, the fear of sorcery maintains community harmony through balancing ‘possessive’ and ‘distributive’ agency in economic life.


  • 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.

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