Rory Ewins's Pacific Islands Politics

Some Effects of Tradition on Politics

Rory Ewins

This paper was presented at a staff seminar in the Department of Political Science at the Australian National University, 10 May 1996. It is shown here as I gave it—that is, written to be read aloud. More developed thoughts on the issues it addresses can be found in Changing Their Minds: Tradition and Politics in Contemporary Fiji and Tonga (Christchurch, New Zealand: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, 1998).

I’m sometimes plagued by a fear that I suspect is shared by many researchers who’ve just finished a Ph.D. on some incredibly esoteric subject, which is the fear that nobody will be the slightest bit interested in what I’ve done. So to avoid that terrible fate I’ll try to talk in this paper not about the specific features of the countries I studied for my Ph.D. (which were Fiji and Tonga) but instead about two broad concepts: tradition, which may or may not seem particularly relevant to the research interests of everyone present, although I hope I’ll change your mind about that; and politics, which certainly should. The paper draws on the theory chapter and conclusion of my thesis, “Tradition, Politics, and Change in Contemporary Fiji and Tonga” (ANU, 1995).

In the abstract for this seminar I said that “tradition is a neglected factor in much political analysis, usually of interest only to area studies specialists studying the politics of non-Western states”. That could be confirmed by a simple word-count: pick up any article on Western politics and compare it with any article on non-Western politics, and the chances are that you’ll see the word “tradition” a lot more often in the latter than in the former. When studying many non-Western countries it’s virtually impossible to ignore the subject. Tradition seems to be everywhere—traditional foods, traditional crafts, traditional pastimes, traditional political leaders—locked in battle with the globalising forces of modernity. That struggle between “tradition” on the one hand and “modernity” on the other appears to be absent in the West, where “modernity” won out years ago and is now squaring off against postmodernity in the opposite corner.

I say “appears to be absent” because this is not a view that I share, although it still seems to be widely held, even by some who study so-called “traditional” societies. A belief persists that tradition and modernity are opposites, for which we have the sociologist Max Weber to thank. Given this widespread view, it’s not hard to see how many Westerners brand many a non-Western society as “traditional”: they (or we) simply subtract everything that’s obviously “modern” from their picture of that society, and the great deal that is left over is deemed to be “traditional”. The trouble is that the “obviously modern” elements are usually taken to be those that are “obviously imported”, like cars and Coca-Cola, and if we applied the same logic to Western societies (that is, subtracting the imported aspects, or even the “obviously modern” aspects) we’d be left with a great deal of “tradition” in them as well.

While my own criteria for judging the relative degree of “traditionality” of a society would be somewhat different, I would agree with that conclusion: Western societies have many traditions. In fact, I believe that all societies can be called “traditional”. That belief hinges on how I define tradition, and to explain that definition I’m afraid I must discuss my incredibly esoteric Ph.D. research.

My field of study has been the “politics of tradition” in the Pacific islands. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s used to encompass all sorts of issues relating to the political uses made of tradition, and the political roles played by traditional figures of authority, such as the chiefs in Fiji, the King of Tonga, and so forth. I first came to the field after studying the 1987 Fiji coup, which had a strong element of the reassertion of Fijian traditional authority to it, and I was drawn to it by my interest in a considerably more mainstream political science subject, which was human rights theory. What I wondered was, “To what extent could a non-Western society’s attachment to tradition legitimately overrule such Western notions as human rights?” This in turn prompted two questions: “What’s so special about human rights?” (a question I considered in the earlier stages of my research, and won’t go into here) and “What’s so special about tradition?”

To answer the latter question, I had to try to understand how tradition works. And in doing this, the first obstacle I had to overcome was my own Western stereotypical belief that “traditional societies” are static, old-fashioned, reactionary, and so on—all those images that spring to mind when we mention the term. Fortunately, I didn’t believe that for long. Because when one looks at these “traditional societies”, one is confronted with a history of change: change that is often every bit as dramatic as one sees throughout, say, European history. And this creates paradoxes. For example, the traditional chief who rules in a certain village in Fiji today might enjoy quite a different set of powers and responsibilities from those of a chief a century or more ago; he might have become chief in a different way than chiefs once would have; and many of the traditional ceremonies he takes part in might have been unknown in the past.

Faced with this, a Western observer might be tempted to say, “This chief says he’s the traditional ruler of these people, but he’s not really traditional at all. The whole basis of his authority is false”—as some Western observers have indeed said, when confronted with these kinds of examples of traditions whose origins can be dated to comparatively recent times (which in turn is the subject of a whole debate about the “invention of tradition”).

Well, I wondered, what would Fijians or Tongans make of these contradictions? So when I did my fieldwork there, I went around asking some of them about tradition and what they understood by the term. And almost everyone argued that there is no contradiction of the kind I just described, because traditions change. Traditions are a “link with the past”, true, but they have changed a great deal already, as the history books amply show, and they remain open to change today. This wasn’t a total acceptance of open-slather change in tradition on their part; there was usually some insistence that certain fundamentals should remain for Fijian or Tongan tradition to stay traditional. But there was also disagreement about what those fundamentals were.

When you think about it, Westerners can also see that traditions change. Take something as traditional as the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth the Second. Traditional, certainly, but not unchanged from the past. Queen Victoria wasn’t crowned in the presence of the world’s television cameras. That one difference would account for many changes, large and small, in the nature and significance of the ceremony, and yet Elizabeth’s coronation was no less traditional than Victoria’s.

So: traditions can change, and therefore the concept of tradition is not antithetical to change. But what is tradition? Well, tradition is a form of knowledge: knowledge about certain beliefs and practices which together make up one’s tradition. And importantly, this particular knowledge is always shared by a group; it’s not just one person’s alone. So you share in the traditions of other people from your country, or your city or town, or even your family, but those things that you alone do aren’t really traditions as such.

So what’s so special about this knowledge we call “tradition”? Why do individuals bother to learn about traditions? What’s the attraction in learning something that is supposedly handed down from the past? What’s the attraction of the “tried and true”?

To answer those questions one needs a theory of learning. Now, at this point my paper could become incredibly esoteric indeed, and could wander a long way from the field of political science; and as I outlined the theory of learning that I used in some detail in a paper given in the Humanities Research Centre late last year, I’ll try to be brief here.

The heart of that theory of learning is that knowledge is not written into the brain like code in a computer, so that it’s fed into your skull from an outside source and then it’s either there or it isn’t, but that, instead, knowledge is acquired gradually as the brain tests out different behaviours and thoughts. In this process of testing things out, the brain chemically reinforces the neural pathways that lead to successful behaviours and thoughts, which in turn makes it more likely that you will behave or think the same way next time. So when a child learns to walk, she’ll at first be wobbly on her feet as her brain tests out different ways of balancing and moving, and then as the successful ways are found her walking will gradually improve. And when any of us is exposed to a new fact or idea, we test it out against what we already know, think it over, see if it fits or works or succeeds in explaining something we previously couldn’t explain, and if it does it gradually gets incorporated into our brain (and I mean, literally, incorporated: made corporeal).

This is basically a theory of learning as a selective, adaptive, and evolutionary process—so it may not surprise you to hear that it comes from a neuroscientist, a Nobel Prize winner called Gerald Edelman. His theory explains not only how we, as individuals, become the idiosyncratic, individual human beings that we are, but also why we often find it difficult to adjust to sudden changes in our environment or our personal circumstances. Our brains are chemically prepared for our previous surroundings, and it will necessarily take time to adjust to the new.

For my purposes it isn’t crucial whether Edelman’s theory is correct in every respect in describing the physical processes at work in the brain when we learn. The central concept I used in my own work was that an individual’s knowledge evolves through a selective process. We learn by trial and error—that is, by testing for what works in our physical, social, and intellectual environment.

And what better way to find out what works than to look for the “tried and true”? We can find what works in our environment by looking at what works for others living in our environment, and that can mean looking not only to our contemporaries but also—assuming the environment has not changed—to our predecessors. In other words, we can avoid the need for a great deal of personal learning by trial and error by simply taking a lot of knowledge on trust. And that’s where tradition is useful, because it’s knowledge vested in the group, and it’s knowledge about beliefs and practices that have worked and supposedly still work for the members of that group—our group.

But if a belief or practice stops working for enough members of the group, it will fall out of use, and will cease to be a tradition (or what one might call a “living” tradition)—instead, it becomes history. A practice might no longer work for all sorts of reasons. The environment might change, making the practice less useful than it once was; or a newly-arisen alternative might be considered to be superior, and take over.

However, a tradition usually won’t disappear overnight, and with the unanimous consent of all the members of the group whose tradition it is. Because even though tradition is knowledge shared by the group, the active agents in a process of change in tradition are individuals. A few individuals, at first, might decide that a certain traditional practice no longer works for them, and that they will flout tradition and do what they think is better. If their new way catches on with enough people, that particular tradition will begin to fade—perhaps accompanied by the protests of those who still prefer the old practice over the new—and eventually, it may die. The reason is that the transmission of tradition is ultimately based upon practice: a traditional practice and the knowledge associated with it must remain in use for it to remain a living tradition. Consider a practice used by one generation. The next generation learns this practice, but then from another source learns an alternative that fulfils the same purpose but is for whatever reason considered preferable. They know of both practices but begin to use only the new one. The succeeding generation sees only the new practice in use, and so learns only that. The new has replaced the old. In time, the new practice can take over the mantle of “tradition”, because these later generations assume that the way they’ve always done it is the way it’s always been done. What was once the alternative has become the tradition.

So traditions, like personal knowledge, evolve via a process of selection—in this case, selection by individuals. And this process explains the apparent contradictions of the concept. We like to think that traditions are handed down from the past, are “tried and true”, or else there would be no particular reason for us to favour them over any alternative practice or belief. At the same time, traditions must be flexible and open to change in order to be capable of adapting to environmental changes. But change will be a contested process among members of the group, with differences of opinion over what should change and why. When many individuals have embraced a tradition—an element of group knowledge—and made it part of their own knowledge, some are bound to feel personally threatened if that tradition is challenged or abandoned by others; the challengers are contradicting what the tradition’s defenders “know”. There will be people who wish to defend the old practice against the new for the entirely rational reason that it continues to work for them (something which only they are in a position to know) and they are not convinced that the alternative will be better.

Now, all this talk of challenges and contests should indicate to most of you that this is where politics comes into it; and, sure enough, many of the features of the “politics of tradition”, at least where the Pacific is concerned, relate to political struggles over which particular traditions should change and how much they should change—especially those traditions relating to the power enjoyed by traditional authority figures. The fact that these traditions, the traditions surrounding political systems, are such a prominent source of political conflict in these countries is intriguing in itself, particularly when one considers that many other traditions are changing in Fiji and Tonga under the influence of globalisation without provoking the same political passions.

It’s tempting to explain this by saying, “Well, politics is all about ‘the shaping and sharing of power’,” (to use Harold Lasswell’s and Abraham Kaplan’s phrase (1950: xiv)), “and so the traditional authority figures who hold power in these places will naturally be the focus of politics”—but there’s more to it than that. While not wanting to downplay the importance of issues of power in politics, I prefer a broader definition: I see politics as the art (or process) of negotiating change (negotiation in the sense of persuasion, not navigation), along the lines of J. D. B. Miller (1962: 14), who wrote that “political activity is that which is intended to bring about or resist change, in the face of possible resistance”. From that viewpoint it can be seen that changes in any kind of tradition are a potential spur to political activity; but again, why do we see such a focus upon the traditions surrounding political systems themselves?

One answer is that these traditions are more “public” than many other traditions. By “public” I mean more than just “of the community” or “of the group”. All traditions are “group knowledge”, determined and controlled by the group; but while many traditions are controlled by the group through their actions and decisions as individuals, these traditions are controlled by the group as a group. They are a matter of public debate. For that reason alone they will be more liable to encounter demands that they be made relevant to people’s needs.

But consider, also, what political systems and institutions are. If politics is about negotiating change (as well as locating power), then a political system is the system through which change is negotiated (and power is assigned). That system operates by means of a number of formal and informal institutions: heads of state, governments, parliaments, media, and so on. Those institutions are subject to their own traditions: the traditional head of state of Tonga, for example, is its monarch.

Any change that becomes a matter of public concern—which may include changes in any number of traditions outside (as well as inside) these political institutions—is negotiated through the political system. Thus a political system must be able to respond to the pressures for change acting upon many traditions, not merely those acting directly upon the traditions of its own institutions. In effect, those extra pressures become pressures upon the system and its institutions: if the system cannot deal with these pressures, it must change, because it is (by definition) the system intended to deal with these pressures. Thus, the traditions of a political system will be subject to many more demands than those encountered by traditions in other areas. They will be “tested” to a greater degree. Hence, the “politics of tradition” debate is primarily concerned with the traditions surrounding political systems and institutions.

Now, I promised in the abstract for this seminar that I would outline some features of the concept of tradition and how those features have direct political implications, which I hope I’ve now done. I also said I’d give some examples of areas of political study that would benefit by a consideration of these matters, and by that I meant more than those areas that traditionally are concerned with tradition. So in the interests of forging some new neural pathways in everyone’s brains, here are some examples that have little or nothing to do with Fiji or Tonga.

The first is the proposal that Australia should become a republic. Change the names in much of what I’ve said and you have an explanation for the behaviour of both its supporters and its detractors. The Queen of England is, after all, Australia’s traditional head of state, whether or not she is styled the Queen of Australia, and when tradition is understood along the lines I’ve outlined, as a body of group knowledge about what works best for the group, that gives her considerable authority in the eyes of many people. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument is thus not easily dismissed, which should give republicans (amongst whom I count myself) some pause; the onus is on them to demonstrate (and to keep demonstrating) the need for change. To talk of the inevitability of a republic may be overly optimistic.

Related to this example is the wider issue of the prospects for making any kind of change to Australia’s constitution. The notorious reluctance of the Australian people to pass such changes at referendum relates less, I would argue, to the rule that this requires majority support in a majority of states and majority support overall than it does to the logic behind people’s tendency to stick with the “tried and true”. The 1988 referendum proposals, after all, fell short of majority support in every state. Unless individuals are positively and actively convinced of the merits of a proposed change, they have rational grounds for maintaining the status quo; given most people’s limited interest in constitutional matters, the challenge facing proponents for change is therefore great. Attempts to change the constitution should, I would suggest, focus on only one issue at a time—certainly not on several, as in 1988.

Another example: an understanding of tradition offers potential insights into studies of “evolutionary” versus “revolutionary” change. While the latter often captures political scientists’ attention (as it did in the case of the 1987 Fiji coup), explaining the former is equally important, particularly in countries such as Australia that have experienced little “revolutionary” change. Tradition offers a foundation for such explanations.

It is also essential to an understanding of nationalism, particularly the brand of ethnic nationalism seen most obviously in Eastern Europe since 1989. The rationality of looking to one’s nearest neighbours in order to determine how to behave, which can lead one to identify with them, helps explain what might sometimes appear (from the outsider’s viewpoint) to be the irrational, counter-productive, or even destructive behaviour conducted in a nation’s name. This process of “looking to the group” is at the core of tradition.

Considering the concept of tradition and how it works could also lead to a deeper understanding of the significance and continuing value of concepts such as international justice and human rights, at a time when postmodernism’s demolition of universal certainties leaves their value in doubt for some. These concepts are evolving traditions, I would argue, coming to be shared by the society of all humankind. The important issue then becomes less whether they are universal truths than whether they are universally accepted, or at least moving towards greater acceptance.

Considering tradition offers insights into the social and political problems arising from global environmental change. At every turn, environmentalists seeking to change people’s behaviour (including their own) towards something more “environmentally friendly” are confronted by tradition: Western traditions, often, that have spread worldwide, such as overconsumption of resources, the promotion of disposability rather than recyclability, and the use of fossil fuels. Traditions are most likely to change when they are no longer working as well as required, the unfortunate implication being that we will change our environmentally-unfriendly ways only when they become unworkable: only when the personal costs to individuals force them to explore alternatives, either themselves or via government. At the same time, we suffer from of a loss of particular traditions. The globalising forces of the modern world, such as television, trade, and modern agricultural methods, have essentially cut many of the world’s people loose from their landscape. And this, in turn, creates significant hurdles for those attempting to address environmental problems, attempts that require us to pay close attention to where we live, as well as how we live.

But finally: perhaps the most useful insight my own study of tradition has given me is into the logic of conservatism, which is surely best understood as a defence of tradition. That defence, of course, goes all the way back to Edmund Burke, and his Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790. Burke argued against the Enlightenment creed that political and social life should be directed by reason alone; he opposed revolutions driven by theories. No theory, he believed, could hope to solve every problem of the complex human world, and to obey reason blindly would cause the destruction of much that was essential to social life (Parkin 1969: 120-22). People need not only reason but also tradition, our feelings for which Burke called “prejudices”:

In this enlightened age . . . we are generally men of untaught feelings; . . . instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, . . . and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. (Burke [1790] 1987: 76.)

Burke recognised that it can be rational to follow tradition. But he was writing primarily as a defender of a tradition—English tradition—and he was writing at the end of a long period of stability in certain fundamental aspects of that tradition—England was still predominently agrarian, for example. In opposing radical revolutionary change he stressed that there was rationality and wisdom inherent in not changing. That was certainly a valuable point to be made, especially in light of later events in eighteenth century France. But in making it he downplayed both the rationality which can also be inherent in change and how this can promote substantial change in tradition itself.

In a late-twentieth-century Western world of universal suffrage and human rights it is easy to forget the influence of Burke’s arguments. There was no revolution in England; there was no substantial reform of its parliament until the franchise was partially extended in 1832 and 1867 (although men had to wait for universal adult suffrage until 1918, and women until 1928). Burke’s argument for gradual and cautious political change struck a chord with the English, many of whom still speak with pride of the long and continuous tradition of the Westminster system of government. Meanwhile, his contemporary Thomas Paine, who made his mark as the radical proponent of democracy, reason, and the Rights of Man, was hounded out of England for his provocative writings and died, out of favour, in America (Foot and Kramnick 1987: 18-19).

On the one hand, then, Burke won. On the other, he did not. While there was no political revolution in England, there was the Industrial Revolution, which launched the most rapid period of change in human history, let alone English society, and made the nineteenth century the British century—the Victorian age. In the process, it caused profound political changes—Marxism was born, representative democracy took hold, party politics became dominant—all of which affected the British system of government. That system may have changed gradually, but it still changed. And into what? A democratic system of universal suffrage which acknowledges the importance of human rights. Burke’s conservative and traditional political system evolved, as a result of social and political pressures, into a near embodiment of Paine’s once-radical vision.

So, even when tradition appears to be an obstacle there is cause for hope, because tradition changes, even while particular traditions might remain in place for a long time. No tradition is immune from change. Reason can be the saviour of tradition, whether applied at the individual level or at that of society. The spirit of Paine invigorates the spirit of Burke.

The long-term view gives cause for optimism: just as today we see Paine as a voice of “Common Sense” where many of his contemporaries saw him as a dangerous radical, so today’s radicals will create many of tomorrow’s traditions. But we live today, not tomorrow, and in the short term the process of change in tradition creates conflict. It often entails considerable personal difficulties for those who seek change, as well as those who oppose it. In this process there will always be a need for politics, the art of negotiating change. The problems posed by tradition are political problems—and, conversely, much of politics is concerned with problems raised by tradition. This is the valuable lesson of Fiji and Tonga, and many places like them, for those who have forgotten that tradition is everywhere.



Burke, Edmund, [1790] 1987. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Edelman, Gerald M., 1994. Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Foot, Michael and Isaac Kramnick, 1987. “Editors’ introduction: the life, ideology and legacy of Thomas Paine”, in Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick (eds), The Thomas Paine Reader, 7-36. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Lasswell, Harold D. and Abraham Kaplan, 1950. Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry. Yale Law School Studies Vol. 2. New Haven & London: Yale University Press & Oxford University Press.

Miller, J. D. B., 1962. The Nature of Politics. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Parkin, C. W., 1969. “Burke and the conservative tradition”, in David Thomson (ed), Political Ideas, 118-129. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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