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When Food Becomes Money: Care and Belonging in a Fijian Village


Fiji captures the imagination as an idyllic paradise, but political instability and low economic indicators belie the physical beauty of the tropical environment. This dissertation examines the tension between differing conceptions of what the “good life” is and the regimes of care that are necessary to create it in the context of a Fijian village. Importantly, food becomes a lens for understanding the shifting economic climate and the nuanced effects of care in well-being and the security of belonging in a rural village. In Fiji, there is increasing tension between local regimes of care and belonging and the penetration of late liberal ideology, nucleating families and encouraging individually motivated behavior to remedy behaviors that are classified as pathological, such as participating in exchange relationships. My research is based on twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork in a rural village on the island of Ovalau. In the Pacific Islands, the non-market exchange of food has been called “building lives with food”. The practices that constitute the sharing or gifting of food in the Pacific Islands have and continue to be important in providing social security and creating relations between people. In the literature produced by the development industry, they argue that the cultural practices of sharing and gift giving damage Fiji’s prospects for economic development. My research demonstrates that these practices are integral to providing social security for people in all life stages as well as vulnerable populations, such as children, the disabled, and the elderly. Locally, development is a concept that is frequently used in all levels of discourse from national level newspapers to domestic and international non-governmental organizations to personal conversations between people in the rural villages. There is not, however, a uniform definition of what development means or a sustained public discourse on which economic indicators mean an actual improvement in the well being of the average person. This dissertation analyzes the methods by which Fijians in rural areas provide for their own needs and create and maintain networks of care and belonging, facilitating the good life for themselves and their relations.

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