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9 January 2007

Studying on the Date Line

Heidelberg social anthropology student Julius Riese on how Samoans avoid clichés about the South Seas in studying their own culture

A term abroad spent in Samoa is an enviable prospect. In the European winter months it is an enticing proposition to indulge in well-loved clichés about the South Seas as a tropical island paradise. But Julius Riese, student at the University of Heidelberg's Institute of Social Anthropology, will be pursuing ambitious scholarly objectives during his sojourn in Polynesia. He intends not only to pay a visit to the National University of Samoa in the capital Apia but also to engage in on-the-spot field work.

To enable him to communicate with the indigenous population, Riese's first aim is to learn Samoan. Alongside the language courses required he plans to attend seminars on Samoan history and culture at the Institute of Samoan Studies of the National University of Samoa. For the German student the prospect of getting to know a very different academic environment is especially intriguing. "The university in Samoa is indigenous and probably not so westernised as those in New Zealand or Australia," he says. "It provides a unique opportunity of learning about Samoa from Samoan lecturers in the company of Samoan students." By engaging in anthropological studies on its own culture the University of Samoa has rather turned the tables on western anthropologists, who have made the archipelago the subject of intensive research since the 19th century.

Ethnographers like Margaret Mead and her classic study Coming of Age in Samoa (1923) have firmly established the image we have of the South Seas as a place of carefree, peaceful living in intact and paradisiacal natural surroundings. But among anthropologists Mead's widely read book is the object of fierce controversies. All the more significant, then, that the Samoans have made themselves the object of their own research by establishing the Institute of Samoan Studies (in 1999).

It is this native perspective that interests Riese most and it is on this that his research will concentrate. Why are Samoan anthropologists so interested in their own culture and why do young Samoans study the subject? What ambitions do the students associate with their studies? What professional use do they hope to make of their degrees? Against the background of German colonial rule in the western part of the archipelago from 1900 to the First World War Riese is also wondering what kind of reception the Samoans will give him as a student from Germany.

In Samoa itself Riese is out to learn more about indigenous perspectives. In the preparations for his term abroad he has also started finding out more about the German perception of Samoa and the South Seas. "The widespread clichés about the South Seas tell us at least as much about ourselves as about the Samoans," he says. One curious finding prompted him to undertake an excursion to Sylt, the North German island holiday resort, where a stretch of beach reserved for nudists goes by the name of "Samoa". Riese consulted the local administration, the local history society, hotels, restaurants and the archives of the island resort. But no one was in a position to tell him where the name came from. Some surmised that there was a connection with the sandy beaches, the intact surroundings and the unclothed inhabitants of Samoa. Shades of Margaret Mead! On the basis of his research in Sylt Riese considers it possible that the colonial past may also have been a reason for the name. "With beach names like this, Germany was maybe trying to maintain a few places in the sun after it lost its colonies in the First World War," he conjectures. Now in the South Seas, Julius Riese is definitely to be envied. But with his ambitious scholarly objectives he probably won't be spending that much time on the beach.

Eva Pfeiffer
© Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung

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Irene Thewalt
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