Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: March 29th, 2021

Lilomaiava-Doktor, S. I. (2009). Beyond” migration”: Samoan population movement (malaga) and the geography of social space (vā). The Contemporary Pacific, 1-32.

Lucas Watt

Lilomaiava-Doktor (2009) argues that overlaying rural/urban and core/periphery frameworks onto the Pacific contradicts how Pacific peoples see space. She argues in line with other Pacific scholars that space is not seen in such dichotomous terms. Rather space is fundamentally interconnected and relational (see Hau’ofa, 1998). It is from this central argument that this article reads as a critical review of previous work in geography in the region.

She critiques the early works of prominent geographers including Richard Bedford for their focus on economic drivers and structures as causes of migration in the post-colonial period. We discussed the revisionist work of Bedford (2016) in a recent reading group in which he integrated his earlier 1960s-1980s work within more Pacific-centric conceptions of space and mobility. As Llomaiava-Doktor (2009) indicates however, Bedford (referring to an earlier Bedford 1997 article) among other geographers often “represent an overview of new metaphors positioned in an old episteme”.

From the more recent Bedford (2016) article we covered, he is certainly critical of old frameworks that portray migration in binary rural/urban or core/periphery terms. For instance, the “doomsday scenario” of out of control rural-urban migration presented by Callick (1993) was criticized. However, Bedford’s (2016) work simultaneously acknowledges that foreign conceptions of mobility mapped onto the Pacific continue to shape policy and understanding. Such understandings informed by the episteme of old tangibly actively affect the fulfillment of Pacific socio-cultural conceptions of space and mobility. Bedford’s (2016) focus on the old episteme therefore does seem to come from a critical reflexive perspective, at least in this most recent iteration. It is for this reason that, in my opinion, Bedford (2016) along with the other geographer’s singled out, continue to have relevance in these discussions as long as they remain inclusive, critical, and reflexive.

In terms of reflecting socio-cultural Samoan conceptions of space, Lilomaiava-Doktor (2009) defines the concept of va or “space in between”. Social activity and exchange between kin across the geographically dispersed Samoan diaspora, sustains connection to Samoan ways of knowing and belonging. Being attentive to the socio-cultural conceptions of relational space inherent in the va, fundamentally challenges western assumption of social severing across geographic rural/urban divides. Rural/urban and core/periphery binaries dissolve to become interconnected relational pathways. This conception of space has various iterations across the Pacific under different names. Assessing mobility in Pacific terms fundamentally reshapes how we perceive the region spatially, and therefore also economically and politically. It is for this reason that this is one of the articles that have shaped my understanding of the region.

Roxane de Waegh

The author, Lilomaiava-Doktor, explores how the people of Samoa and Tonga, at home and abroad, understand and perceive the meaning of migration and space. She begins this exploration by analysing local metaphors, malaga ( movement back and forth) and va (social space) and placing these cultural metaphors within the existing literature of geography. At times, the article was quite challenging to read as it dove into the complexities of perceived space, conceptual space and other abstract terms that attempt to define the lived experience of reality. However, once the theory had been exposed, Lilomaiava-Doktor contextualised all these abstract and theoretical terms by using quotes from her interviews with Samoans and Tongans. It was only through these quotes, and the themes that emerged from her interviews, that I was truly able to understand the meaning of malaga, va, and reciprocity through the eyes of the respondents, rather than through my own analytical Western approach of understanding.

Unlike scholars and development experts, such as Connell (1990) or Shankman (1976), whom continue to see movement as a primarily behavioral response to socioeconomic circumstances (Young, 1998), the themes that emerged from the interviews about movement and development all focused on support and caring for relationships rather than the pursuit of wealth.

From an interview with Okustino Mahina in Tonga:

”Development was a western concept that was underpinned by the dictation of the time-space requirement of the West. But in Tonga we have our own time-space requirement, where we value our social duties to families an friends more than any other… we have tauhi va, which is the social sense of space, and it is of more importance than money and time.”

The author breaks apart the Western dichotomous understanding of migration and mobility, of inequality and economic opportunity, and offers a deeper comprehension of movement and space as she uncovers the Samoan conceptions of movement (malaga), social connections (va), spatial meaning and reciprocity. The link between malaga and va emphasize the importance of social connections rather than geographic boundaries and politicized territories. This link also creates an increased awareness on collective social wellbeing, rather than individualistic, materialised gains.

Circular mobility, as described by Lilomaiava-Doktor (2009), intertwines social political and economic goals, and is fueled by a tradition of gifting, reciprocity, and generosity – even if the immediate result to the individual giver is economic loss.

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.

  • roxanedewaegh

    My name is Roxane de Waegh and I am a PhD student at the Faculty of Culture and Society at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I am originally from Belgium, but grew up a bit all over the world, including Congo, Senegal, Singapore, Chile, Argentina, Japan, USA, and Canada. The ocean, the concept of remoteness, and the complexity of connectivity have always fascinated me. After working as a marine biologist for nearly 6 years with various environmental NGOs in remote coastal communities, including Myanmar, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, I have come back to the academic world, hoping to deepen my understanding of the intrinsic paradoxical nature of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) in marginalised coastal communities.

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