27.3556, Review: Anthro Ling; Socioling: Hoëm (2015)

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Subject: 27.3556, Review: Anthro Ling; Socioling: Hoëm (2015)

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Date: Fri, 09 Sep 2016 14:34:22
From: Mahé Ben Hamed [mahe.benhamed at gmail.com]
Subject: Languages of Governance in Conflict

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/26/26-1868.html

AUTHOR: Ingjerd  Hoëm
TITLE: Languages of Governance in Conflict
SUBTITLE: Negotiating democracy in Tokelau
SERIES TITLE: Culture and Language Use 13
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Mahé Ben Hamed, CNRS

Reviews Editor: Robert A. Cote


“Languages of Governance in Conflict: Negotiating democracy in Tokelau” by Ingjerd Hoëm presents an anthropological linguistic study of the communicative practices surrounding social conflict management in the transitioning community of Tokelau. On an empirical level, Hoëm builds on his ethnographic relationship with this Pacific atoll spanning more than three decades to offer a detailed account of how stratified forms of sociality and governance create communication gaps from which conflict can arise. On a theoretical level, Hoëm explores the macroscopic social and political implications of microscopic aspects of these communicative practices. As such, it targets anyone interested in the performativity of language, the linguistic expressivity of culture, intercultural communication and given the case study, post-colonialism.

A preface introduces the subject matter of the book and the analytical stance of the author. The eight following chapters can roughly be divided into two parts: the first (chapters 1-4) sets the stage for the conflict at hand and its cultural, social and political contexts, while the second part (chapters 5-8) proceeds with the proper analysis of the communicative and deliberative practices surrounding it and how the competition between the communicative frames linked to different models of legitimacy and attribution of power generate both the means for its escalation and its management. The ninth chapter concludes on the matter of the political performativity of language, and is followed by a short postscript with further research perspectives.

Chapter 1, “Languages of governance”, sketches the complex historical background of Tokelau’s political leadership and concepts of governance. A history of slavery, colonization, foreign administration and struggle for self-determination has profoundly transformed the institutions of governance in the atoll and the scale and modalities of social conflict management. It is, in Hoëm’s words, a 'neo-traditional' society. Tentative 'modern' institutions are sustained by a precarious national sentiment embedded in a supportive transnational configuration, but also compete with more established kin, community and island-based 'traditional' identities. This creates a multi-layered but also patchy intertextuality, with communication gaps that can foster conflict. As for the analytical tools to analyze such gaps in cross-cultural communication, Hoëm convenes the notions of language games - as communicative frames (Goffman, 1974) -  and of semiotic (in)commensurability (Kusch, 2012).

Chapter 2 “Languages of governance in Conflict” introduces the case-study that will be used by the author as the pivot for his micro-ethnographic analysis of communicative practices in the atoll. The selected case of social conflict pertains to a community divide on the legitimacy of attribution of (religious) power to a man who had previously been a leader (pastor) of the community but was banished from the atoll for transgressing the moral and social prohibition on incest. He then returned to the atoll upon (external-transnational) reinstatement by the church as a contestant in the election (inter-island with transnational oversight) for religious leadership in Tokelau. The rationale for choosing such a case study is that it captures the complex interplay between political and cultural factors in a transitional society. The socially-structuring nature of the relationship between gender and morality links to the specific forms and communicative norms of sociality while the twelv
 e-year span covered by the conflict (1992-2004) opens up to the transformation of governance and concepts of legitimate leadership in the atoll. 

Chapter 3 “Leadership and forms of sociality” details the kin-based structure of Tokelauan sociality, formed on the principle of brother-sister avoidance _va_ that regiments morality, modes of interaction and the management of resources in the social group. The traditional conflict management instances ascribe the regulation of morality within the extended family _kaiga_ to women (through a women’s committee), and the regulation of social equality and distribution at the community level to an elders’ village council, who are in charge of maintaining compassion _alofa_ and harmony through cooperation _inati_. Concepts of leadership in the atoll are therefore tightly linked to the making of ritual ‘sides’ that are highly restricted and structuring and define roles and rules of interaction and dispute resolution. With the economic transformation of the atoll in the recent past, new modes of sociality were introduced that disrupted the traditional making of sides and conseque
 ntly the management of contesting, deliberation and negotiation of values between non-ritual moieties – torn between  tradition and modernity, and the different geopolitical scales of mediation.

Chapter 4 “Conflict management” describes the patterns of information flow in such a social group, and the modes of regulation of this flow according to the moral frame of the group by conflict management institutions (Heinz, 2009). In such a group-oriented moral universe, the regulation of transgression is a social matter and is centered, both in the semiotics of the judicial ritual and in the modes of punishment, on shame. Informal talk (_fai tala_ = lit. making stories) arises when a dispute fails to be resolved within the family circle. At this stage, it becomes a social but non-serious matter, but if it persists, then it becomes a serious social fact that requires the intervention of conflict management institutions, whose role is to contain the information flow by addressing it judicially through deliberative talk (_fai tonu_ = lit. making things straight).

Chapters five to seven form the linguistic core of the book. Chapter 5 “Communicative practice and contested values” focuses on the cultural expressivity of the Tokelauan language and connects the construction of relationships of command, authority, and responsibility to the linguistic constructions of agency but also to the semiotics of governance. It also explores the ideology linked to the use of a language is this multilingual context, and its effects on the construction of cultural inter-textuality and on the exchange of semiotic resources in the face-to-face socially-codified communicative interactions (Goffman, 1967). 

Chapter 6 “Intertextuality” contains four case studies based on the issue of cross-cultural intertextuality as a communicative practice (Bauman, 2008) with potential gaps and common grounds. The first case study examines an outsider’s (journalistic) view on the pastor’s case in connection to the (failed) referendum for the self-determination of Tokelau. This account describes the social and political situation in Tokelau through a 'western' conceptual lens of morality and governance and a distant communicative frame, and Hoëm contrasts it with an insider’s (feminine) response to show what was lost in translation or rather taken-for-granted as commensurable (Fitch, 2003). The second  study compares the actual English translation of Tokelau’s proposed constitution with the original Tokelauan version to show the linguistic incommensurability of the care-based cooperative moral economy of the community and the conceptual relativization of its translation into English. The th
 ird examines the code-switching patterns in a social–media (Facebook) ‘sides’-making exchange, the negotiation of sensibilities between local and non-local Tokelauan youth on a different matter (sports), and how cultural communicative frames interact with a modern communicative medium. The fourth examines the construction of intertextuality between 'people of the land' and foreigners as expressed in a major song of the mainly oral narrative culture of Tokelau.

Chapter 7 “Disentangling concepts” focuses on the ‘inalienable vectors’ (p. 82) that can tip the balance of cultural interaction between common grounds and miscommunication. Analyzing the translation of administrative buzz-words such as ‘growth’, ‘accountability’ or ‘transparency’, Hoëm shows how their Tokelauan counterparts evoke semantic fields with different bearings on the social and moral life of the community than the ones initially intended in (administrative) English. These analyses demonstrate how the linguistic expression of space and time in Tokelauan relates to the spatial-temporal organization of the naturalistic moral universe and social life, with conceptions of space and time that govern community and intra-atoll life but are incongruent with transnational political calendars. They also show how this incongruence affects the representations of space and reciprocity in interaction in relation to the kin-based control of land/resources and to an ega
 litarian community ethos. 

Chapter 8 “Political consequences” moves on to examine the large-scale consequences of such incommensurability for Tokelau’s politics in a transnational context. While the conflation of national and community levels of governance transferred power back to the traditional instances of governance, it also brought with it a hybrid representation of spiritual and secular power, dangerously condensing the monopoly of power in the hands of traditional instances of deliberation, while forcing new voting systems to replace the long-standing practices of consensus-building over community level contested matters.   The result is a radical transformation both in principle and practice of the modalities of conflict resolution and the creation of competitive frames of communication that end up canceling each other out - as exemplified by the case of the pastor. 

Chapter 9 “Common ground and gaps in communication” attempts to conclude the subject matter of the book by returning to the analytical notions of language games and (in)commensurability invoked in Chapter 1. Summarizing the evolution of governance models in Tokelau since the 1980’s, Hoëm discusses the transformation of concepts of power and legitimate authority, and their repercussions in terms of conflict management. The co-existence in Tokelau of distinct conflict management institutions with different scopes, goals, and communicative practices provides the conditions of possibility of competing language games that are actually generative of social conflict as they involuntarily percolate the larger political issue of the atoll's transition to self-determination in traditionally handled domestic matters.

The postscript “Future perspectives” offers more synthesis on the evolution of governance infrastructure in Tokelau within the transnational framework of self-determination, and it concludes with the irreducible and intricate relationship between the forms of governance and the socio-material conditions of life of a community.

Finally, the book features a list of administrative and institutional abbreviations, an appendix of Tokelauan kinship terms and words with their English glosses, a complete bibliography, and a short index.


Starting from a single case of conflict management, Hoëm combines an internal anthropological perspective on communicative practices (from within the speech community) with an external perspective in terms of the dynamic interaction between communities of (communicative) practice to contrast competing patterns of communication surrounding debate and deliberation over contested values. The book succeeds in demonstrating how the changing social structure in Tokelau provides contradicting constraints and degrees of freedom for public debate and deliberation and how the semiotic gaps that appear at the micro-level of social interaction reverberate into macroscopic-level political implications. As such, this book is as much about the language of conflict as it is about conflicting languages, and it provides a rich ethnographic analysis of language competition in the context of intercultural contact and social change. 

More actual linguistic material would have been a plus, especially material pertaining to the case of the pastor – since it is presented as the pivot of the analysis. But only the first Intertext of Chapter 6 provides some linguistic material and analytical depth, then the discussion on ‘inalienable vectors’ in Chapter 7 goes in a different direction. As interesting as this one is, it makes me wonder how prevalent the argument about spatial detachment and differential temporal regimes are, and consequently, how 'inalienable' a vector is, especially amidst younger generations and in social media. In other words, as much as the anthropological context is specified with historical depth and at multiple geopolitical scales, the linguistic context would have benefited, in my view, from more transversal breadth – in terms of socio-linguistic variation, and with more actual linguistic data and analytical depth instead of pointers towards the (external)  relevant work of the author. 
This being said, this book provides an accessible, didactical, pleasant, and interesting read, and those hungry for more are amply referred to the relevant work. As intended by the author, it will prove useful to anthropological linguists, students and scholars alike, to critical discourse analysis and critical applied linguistics, and to the study of conflict management in post-colonial settings. 


Bauman, Richard (2008). A world of others' words: Cross-cultural perspectives on intertextuality. John Wiley & Sons.

Fitch, Kristine L. (2003). "Taken-for-granteds in (an) intercultural communication context." In Mandelbaum, J. (Ed.) Studies in language and social interaction: in honor of Robert Hopper. Routledge.

Goffman, Erving (1967). Interaction ritual: essays in face-to-face behavior. Random House. (2nd ed. with Joel Best, 2005).

Goffman, Erving (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press.

Heintz, Monica (Ed.). (2009). The anthropology of moralities. Berghahn Books.

Kusch, Martin (2012). Wittgenstein on translation. E. Rahmharter, M. Kroß (Hg) Wittgenstein übersetzen. Berlin: Parerga, 19-56.


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