Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: November 2nd, 2020

Article Discussed: Clua, E., & Guiart, J. (2020). Why the Kanak Don’t Fear Sharks: Myths as a Coherent but Dangerous Mirror of Nature. Oceania, 90(2), 151-166.

Lucas Watt

This article by Clua and Guiart (2020) allowed the group to discuss how local myths have an enduring relevance in contemporary Oceania. This article particularly focuses on how myths and perceptions of sharks continue to affect how local populations approach social relationships and their surrounding environment.

Clua and Guiart (2020) argue that sharks have been sensationalized as killing machines in western discourse. They argue that the dangerous nature of the shark has largely been propagated in fiction, most notably in media such as Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel and subsequent film adaptation, Jaws. Through media such as this, this view of the dangerous shark has since been etched into western imagination. In contrast, Oceanic people do not hold the same sensationalized view of the shark as they are embedded in a much different social discourse in Oceanic communities.

For some Oceanic communities, the shark is a totemic animal that offers protection, guidance, and power. Sharks are often said to assist in fishing activities for those communities that hold them as a totemic animal. Many myths concerning Oceanic migration also involve sharks transporting travelers in their belly, or upon their back, to other distant islands. The reading group theorized whether the use of the shark in migration myth is used as a way of explaining the death or disappearance of a family member within a cosmological framework. It was also suggested that such migration myths could also be used to create historical social relationships with communities that the traveler supposedly arrived at.

Oceanic people still recognize the potential danger that sharks pose; however, shark attacks are typically explained within broader social and moral processes. Sharks are often seen as “righters of wrongs” when certain individuals or groups violate certain moral norms such as fishing taboos. In such cases the dangers of nature are highly embedded within social process and custom. This integration of society and nature is much different to the prevailing western perspective that sees these two realms as separate and dichotomous.

Clua and Guiart (2020) start to argue that these differing perceptions of sharks explains differences in policy in response to shark attacks. Western policy typically advocates for the culling of shark numbers after shark attacks to protect society. Local populations rationalize attacks within local sociality and morality, and therefore do not set out to solve the issue of shark attacks with retaliatory culling.


  • 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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