Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: March 8th, 2021

Article Discussed: Bedford, R. (2016). Pacific migration futures: ancient solutions to contemporary and prospective challenges?. The Journal of Pacific Studies, 36(1), 111-124.

Lucas Watt

Influenced by Bedford’s works on population movement in the post-colonial period, I was interested in discussing his perspective of Hau’ofa’s (1994) highly influential vision of how historical Oceanic mobility can be harnessed to solve contemporary issues in Oceania.

Bedford (2016) outlines Hau’ofa’s (1994) thesis that Oceanic people before European arrival were boundless, not hemmed in by the shores of their islands, but geographically mobile, unencumbered by arbitrary national boundaries placed in the middle of the water by European colonial powers. Based on the historical precedent of Oceanic mobility, Hau’ofa advocates for a return to expansive mobility of pre-European contact to address some of the current challenges that Oceania faces. Hau’ofa believes that free movement between Oceanic countries including New Zealand and Australia will allow Oceanic peoples to gain access to education, skills, and opportunities, the benefits of which they can bring home to their communities. Freedom of mobility may also provide cultural appropriate avenues for climate migration and relocation. Perhaps most importantly, the commitment to harnessing the historical mobility of Oceanic peoples to solve contemporary issues, will ensure they are solved in distinctly Oceanic ways that are empowering. Hau’ofa argues that through regional co-operation, Oceanic nations have the very real opportunity to foster this vision of greater mobility to address contemporary issues.

Bedford (2016) identifies Callick (1993) as the heel to Hau’ofa’s (1994) vision. Callick argued that overwhelming rural-urban migration within Pacific countries, in part due to limited opportunities for migration internationally, will cause great social issues in the Pacific. Based on consistent revocations of policies that allowed a degree of international mobility in the post-colonial period, Callick argues that the prospect of free regional mobility is unlikely. In this sense, Callick argues that restrictions on mobility is, and will continue to be, the cause of contemporary issues in Oceania, and that the pursuit of historical mobility is not a realistic pragmatic solution. The group aligned with Hau’ofa’s and Callick’s visions quite evenly based on our own personal outlooks.

There were two academic points of contention on the views presented by Hau’ofa and Callik that provided lively debate. Firstly, the group thought that Hau’ofa’s vision homogenized historical mobility in the region. Not all Oceanic peoples had the same degree of mobility from the highlands of PNG to small atolls of Polynesia. From this, the premise of Hau’ofa’s vision is undermined. A further reading of Hau’ofa’s (1998) work may provide further material to discuss variance and similarity in mobility experiences. Secondly, I personally thought, in agreement with Bedford (pg 119), that Callick’s “doomsday scenario” of urbanization discounts what exactly rural-urban migrants have been able to achieve and contribute to the urban environment. Yes, rapid rural-urban migration presents very real challenges that need to be addressed, yet we also cannot immediately jump to characterize poor rural-urban migrants as disruptive miscreants.

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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