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No Family Is an Island

No Family Is an Island: Cultural Expertise among Samoans in Diaspora

Ilana Gershon
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    No Family Is an Island
    Book Description:

    Government bureaucracies across the globe have become increasingly attuned in recent years to cultural diversity within their populations. Using culture as a category to process people and dispense services, however, can create its own problems and unintended consequences. In No Family Is an Island, a comparative ethnography of Samoan migrants living in the United States and New Zealand, Ilana Gershon investigates how and when the categories "cultural" and "acultural" become relevant for Samoans as they encounter cultural differences in churches, ritual exchanges, welfare offices, and community-based organizations.

    In both New Zealand and the United States, Samoan migrants are minor minorities in an ethnic constellation dominated by other minority groups. As a result, they often find themselves in contexts where the challenge is not to establish the terms of the debate but to rewrite them. To navigate complicated and often unyielding bureaucracies, they must become skilled in what Gershon calls "reflexive engagement" with the multiple social orders they inhabit. Those who are successful are able to parlay their own cultural expertise (their "Samoanness") into an ability to subtly alter the institutions with which they interact in their everyday lives. Just as the "cultural" is sometimes constrained by the forces exerted by acultural institutions, so too can migrant culture reshape the bureaucracies of their new countries. Theoretically sophisticated yet highly readable, No Family Is an Island contributes significantly to our understanding of the modern immigrant experience of making homes abroad.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6402-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    By the time I started writing drafts of grant proposals for the National Office of Samoan Affairs in California, I thought I had a fairly good sense of how to present Samoan culture to granting agencies. I had spent the previous year and a half in New Zealand (1996–1997), studying how Samoan migrants managed government bureaucracies there. But it turns out that I kept getting it all wrong. The more experienced grant writers in the head office in California changed all of my sentences; they didn’t think my points would be persuasive to granting agencies.

    One critical mistake I...

  5. Part I

    • 1 Exchanging While Not-Knowing
      (pp. 25-47)

      Samoan migrants are constantly finding themselves in situations where multiple social orders are at play. This may be most obvious when they enter government offices or in courts of law, where they face institutionalized systems that operate by principles that are often antithetical to Samoan strategies. However, Samoan migrants also have to navigate multiple social orders in some moments that might seem most Samoan, such as Samoan ritual exchanges. To hold a Samoan wedding, funeral, or to bestow a matai (chiefly) title, many people have to move resources (cash and commodities) from capitalist exchanges into Samoan ritual exchanges (fa’alavelave¹). Capitalist...

    • 2 The Moral Economies of Conversion
      (pp. 48-70)

      In navigating two different exchange systems, Samoan migrants are often sorting practices as cultural and acultural at a granular level. In these moments, when capitalism is understood as acultural, it often is also seen as amoral. Capitalism is implicitly counterpoised with being cultural in fa’alavelave (Samoan ritual exchanges) in these moments, where being cultural is equated with being moral, loving, and supporting one’s family. Yet within Samoan communities, being acultural does not always entail being amoral. Indeed, joining a new, less overtly Samoan church is a common moral, yet putatively acultural, solution to the catch-22s generated by fa’alavelave. Samoan migrants...

  6. Part II

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 71-88)

      I began my fieldwork with Samoan migrants in San Francisco in 1998 after spending a year and a half with Samoan migrant communities in New Zealand. Soon after I began volunteering at the National Office of Samoan Affairs (NOSA) in San Francisco, I saw how different it was to be a Samoan migrant talking about Samoan culture in the United States instead of in New Zealand. I was helping my fellow workers at NOSA to host a meeting between a representative from San Francisco’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and the other Samoan community-based organizations in the area. It was...

    • 3 When Culture Is Not a System
      (pp. 89-113)

      In 1998, the National Office of Samoan Affairs (NOSA), was evicted for not paying their rent in a timely fashion while I was volunteering with Samoan community organizations in San Francisco. This organization was established in 1976 to help migrants from independent and American Samoa. By the time I began fieldwork in 1998, the San Francisco branch office’s major focus was housing a community day school designed to help Samoan high school students on the verge of dropping out. This school was an innovative program run by the San Francisco school district. Students facing expulsion were placed in special classrooms...

    • 4 Legislating Families as Cultural
      (pp. 114-137)

      When I was doing fieldwork in New Zealand and in the United States from 1996 to 1998, families, community workers, and government officials all were responding to recent, transformative neoliberal legislation. In New Zealand, the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (CYPF) Act (1989) had restructured how the New Zealand government reacted to child abuse cases and juvenile delinquency. In the United States, the welfare-to-work legislation, or Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PWORA) (1996) had been passed in 1996, and everyone was concerned with the consequences of implementing the new regulations. Both pieces of legislation refashioned the intricate...

    • 5 Constructing Choice, Compelling Culture
      (pp. 138-164)

      Throughout this book, I argue that people’s reflexive understandings are crucial to understanding the ways people are cultural or acultural in certain circumstances. In this chapter, I want to turn to a familiar analytical concept in migration studies, assimilation, and ask how focusing on reflexivity changes how analyses of assimilation unfold. When one begins with reflexivity, assimilation becomes a differently charged question. For starters, assimilation is not the stereotypical given that all migrants should achieve as quickly as possible for their own self-interest. Even the term assimilation itself becomes misleading as a way to think through diasporic experiences. Instead, one...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 165-170)

    In New Zealand and the United States, being Samoan means being a culture-bearer. The moment a person who is Samoan starts dealing with government bureaucracies, they enter a system in which some people and practices are understood as acultural, and others are marked as cultural. And Samoans are almost always cultural. Because of the long histories of other dominant minorities’ relationships with government officials and government bureaucracies, being a culture-bearer has different implications in New Zealand than it does in the United States. In New Zealand, Maori politicians and activists have helped engineer government contexts in which having a culture...

  8. References
    (pp. 171-184)
  9. Index
    (pp. 185-192)