Walking backwards into the future: Pursuing Pacific theory in person-centred research

Associate Professor Kabini Sanga and Dr Martyn Reynolds, Victoria University of Wellington

Frustrating, confusing and mystifying—or useful, fascinating and revealing? Theory: it’s a part of every researcher’s nightmare … or perfect day. I (Martyn) can still remember kicking into my PhD and thinking both ‘What is all the fuss about?’ and ‘I don’t know where to start’—almost at the same time. What I have come to understand, however, is that theory is essential for navigating in research, and it has its own beauty.

Getting your head around theory is not just a matter of personal skill. It also depends on those who have gone before—the nuggets of wisdom (or clutter) they have left for others to draw on.  This blog addresses issues of tidiness and direction in theory; Pacific theory to be precise. It refers to the kind of article which I found rare when starting out: an article with the mission of drawing a few lines in the theoretical sand and pointing a way into the future.  I’m honoured to have written such an article with Associate Professor Kabini Sanga and our work in that article underpins this blog post.

Understanding Pacific Theory

It’s inspiring to be working in the area of Pacific Theory as it sits in person-centred research (we both work in education). It’s a fairly new space, and the energy and inventiveness that researchers and thinkers are bringing to it are, at times, breath-taking.  Wisdom from the Pacific offers a way to understand the ways that Pacific values are enacted across contexts from village life to the diaspora, from traditional activity to issues in formal education, health and so on. Under a Pacific umbrella, the models and understandings proposed by researchers from Tonga, Samoa, Hawai’i and beyond relate to each other through similarity and difference, closeness and distance. From Kakala to Talanoa Research Methodology to Vanua, my thinking has been challenged and my understanding deepened by engaging with these forms of Pacific theory. Any researcher, Pacific or otherwise, might learn from this wisdom—the way it places people and relationships at the core of ontology, methodology and practice, and the way it unrelentingly seeks a better future for Pacific peoples. If your research is designed to care for people linked in some way to the Pacific, get to grips with Pacific theory.

Just as with people, the genealogy of theory helps us to understand what we are dealing with. If we trace where a theory came from, we can better understand what it offers in the present, and perhaps see the logic of a future yet to be visited. How did Pacific theory enter the academy, and where did the lines of the whakapapa or genealogy which inspired it run? Pacific theory has been linked developmentally to both feminism and Indigenous theory. These theoretical perspectives in turn have been linked to critical and critical race theory, respectively. Researchers are now exploring the relationships between Pacific theory and Kaupapa Māori theory. The boundaries between these sets of ideas are not watertight, but each perspective represents dissatisfaction with any description of the world that claims a totality and thus seeks to speak inappropriately for others. Seeing where these perspectives intersect offers the strength of weaving without the imposition of homogenisation. Theory is never static, because the world moves on.

Speaking personally (Martyn), Kabini Sanga’s short piece from 2004 entitled “Making philosophical sense of Indigenous Pacific research” was a confounding disruption to my previous ways of thinking. Reading that piece helped me to start making philosophical sense of indigenous Pacific research, opening the door to a productive way forward for my PhD on Pasifika success as Pasifika in education in Aotearoa. But then came the confusion. Some researchers seemed to be using the same concepts and methodologies to mean different things and different practices, providing no trail for me to follow, and not enough self-conscious explanation of exactly how Pacific thinking was understood in their work. Just as there are links between differing bodies of theory, there are genealogical lines within Pacific theory.  Responsible researchers have paid attention to these in their writing, showing how, for instance, Tongan thinking can inspire Fijian modelling, and how concepts from the islands might look in the diaspora. This is the tidiness which makes nuggets of wisdom clear by avoiding mess or clutter.

Future directions

Where to from here?

  • Firstly, in any body of theory, there is a need for discipline. As researchers, we need to explain what we mean carefully, and be confident enough to respectfully place new models in the spaces between those developed before. How something is similar can be as important as how it is unique.
  • Secondly, wider representation is to be welcomed. Academics from more and more ethnic groups will contribute the wisdom of their peoples and places to the umbrella of Pacific theory. Gaps will be filled – the scholarship of Melanesian tok stori, for instance, will be developed.
  • Thirdly, the past default tendency of locating developments in Pacific theory as sitting within the web of European theory should continue to be resisted. Western theory, the euphemistic mainstream, is not a threat to confident research. But it may be less relevant than other, closer cousins.
  • Finally, however, we must remember that newness is not itself a justification for fresh modelling: unbridled creation which fails to honour that which has come before should not be encouraged. Theory has a job to do beyond simply existing – it’s a tool which is blunted by uninformed reinvention of the wheel.

Names are important and exciting things are afoot. A fresh look at the whole field of Pacific theory, Moana theory, points to ways in which traditions of the academy can be further challenged by ideas from the Pacific region. The name Moana is a further challenge to colonialism in the academy and beyond.  Pacific theory is on the move, but, to follow the proverb, those involved need to walk backwards into the future. Doing so is our obligation to those who went before and to those yet to come. Kabini and I hope that this blog and our recent article will be supports for many along the way. We hope our contribution will spark debate and be a helpful step in navigating a way forward.

kabini-sanga.jpgKabini Sanga was born in the Solomon Islands, undertook graduate studies in Canadian universities and since 2000, has been a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. By vocation, Kabini is a mentor and fisherman. 


untitled (2)Martyn Reynolds has been teaching for a long time! He has taught in Papua New Guinea, Tonga, England, and now works in Aotearoa New Zealand. He has recently completed his PhD in Pasifika education through Victoria University of Wellington.

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