Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: December 7th, 2020

Article Discussed: Besnier, N. (2004). Consumption and cosmopolitanism: Practicing modernity at the second-hand marketplace in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Anthropological Quarterly, 7-45.

Lucas Watt

Besnier (2004) analyses how the fea, or second-hand marketplace, in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa provides ways for everyday Tongans to practice modernity. The Tongan fea sells foreign second-hand goods that are often gifted to fea sellers from kin within the Tongan diaspora that are dispersed across west coast of the USA, as well as New Zealand and Australia. Common items sold in these markets are clothing, electrical appliances, cosmetics, and tableware. All such items are subject to assessment by local Tongan fea goers on their style and fashion according to global trends. Through talking about items for sale with friends, Besnier (2004) argues that the fea is a place where local Tongans can demonstrate their cultural competence or worldliness as a sign of modernity.

Besnier (2004) emphasizes the idea that this assessment of foreign objects by fea goers is a “practice”. It is a “practice” in the sense that it is a repeated and somewhat experimental social action. The repeated practice of becoming familiar with the fashions of other countries is not restricted to acquiring foreign goods or making objective assessments of their fashionability. It includes becoming familiar with certain ways to discuss foreign goods as a modern consumer. The fea is a place where assessments of foreign fashions are compared to more distinctively Tongan objects and the Tongan ways of being they represent. This act of comparison demonstrates an ability to differentiate between local and foreign styles as a signal of worldliness. Fea goers can use foreign accents to invoke a certain legitimacy in making this local-foreign comparison. Whether it is assessing international fashionability, making a cross cultural comparison, or trying on new ways to discuss objects, the “practice” element of demonstrating worldliness means that fea goers often fear not demonstrating their worldliness correctly. Their acquisition of modernity through the presentation of cultural competence in this sense is something that needs to be continuously worked on, improved, and repeated.

Besnier (2004) also highlights that the popularity of the fea and the subsequent practices within it is a response to the stifling presence of Tongan hierarchy. For the everyday Tongan, there are few opportunities to demonstrate modernity due to entrenched social and economic inequality within Tongan society. In absence of opportunities to acquire “modernity” through economic and social ascendance in Tonga, the fea provides alternative ways for local Tongans to do so. The reading group further discussed the democratically leveling and subversive nature of the Tongan fea.  


  • 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.

One response to “Reading Group Summary: December 7th, 2020”

  1. […] to such as Auckland in new Zealand, Sydney in Australia, or Los Angeles in the United States. We have discussed in a previous review, an article by Besnier (2004), which discusses the development of consumer cosmopolitanism in the […]

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