Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: February 22nd, 2021

Article Discussed: Dobrin, L. M. (2020). A ‘Nation of Villages’ and a Village ‘Nation State’: The Arapesh Model for Bernard Narokobi’s Melanesian Way. The Journal of Pacific History, 55(2), 165-186.

Lucas Watt

I was interested in reading this article because there is a strand of literature that argues that the village provides the basis from which life operates in Oceania. Paul Jones (2016) in particular argues that networks of urban villages create a traditional socio-cultural order that gives urban areas in Oceania a “village city” type feel. From the urban village; tradition penetrates all spaces across the city including markets, malls, bus stops, and streets, and informs the social norms those spaces operate by. In this perspective, the urban village has a central relevance in the way urban life operates. In relation to Jones’ (2016) work I was interested in how influential PNG politician, Bernard Narokobi, considered the transcendence of the rural village in everyday Oceanic life.

As the group discussed Dobrin’s (2020) perspective of Narokobi’s work, we came to appreciate that Narokobi shared this idea that the village was a central social unit from which Oceanic interactions/impacts emanated to equivalent social units (such as other villages) and larger collective social units (such as the nation). For instance, he considered villages as nation states in themselves from which mutual interactions with other “village nation states” took place. The connection of the the village to the broader nation seems to be more partial and restricted however. Narokobi believes western national institutional structures adopted from colonial times have prevented a distinctly PNG appropriate form of nationhood. From this critical perspective, Narokobi’s work can be seen as an appeal to how the village can be further elevated as a guiding force in an appropriate form of PNG nationhood.

In particular Narokobi advocates for the urban middle class to continue connecting and contributing to their village, fostering village sociality through traditional games, and ensuring traditional village practices and knowledge are recorded and remembered. His suggestion that village affiliation should be a prerequisite for citizenship and public office is one (of many) policies that would ensure that village norms, sociality, and morality spreads to the national level. As the reading group group argue however, the sheer diversity of languages and practices across PNG villages makes a coherent nation based on village life infathomable. However, just as all countries across the globe deal with diversity and multiculturalism, this is PNG’s challenge to find norms that are shared. Narokobi’s “nation of villages” does not assume homogeneity, but looks for shared village values across this diversity that can be used to build an appropriate form of PNG nationhood.

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


  • 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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