Power Sharing

Language, Rank, Gender, and Social Space in Pohnpei, Micronesia

In Power Sharing: Language, Rank, Gender, and Social Space in Pohnpei, Micronesia, Keating describes her year-long study of language on a small Micronesian Island, Pohnpei. Pohnpeians value their intricate social hierarchy, where each member of society has a unique rank compared to everyone else. Language is a key way people continually recreate and maintain this system in dynamic, everyday practices. Studying how Pohnpeians use language provides keys to understand hierarchy and power more broadly.

Power Sharing shows how hierarchical relationships and rights to differential privileges are communicated not only through language, but other modalities, such as spatial organization and the position of the body. In the Pohnpeian case, honor is collaboratively created through oratory and feasts of honor, where honor is related to social stratification and to positive sentiment. As in other societies’ politeness practices, subordination or self-depletion is rendered as its opposite, a means to personal honor and a way to achieve symbolic elevation through subordination. Power Sharing also shows how Pohnpeian noun classifiers link differences in status to larger culture ideologies about power, and metaphorically to the natural world and a person’s everyday experiential domain.

“Prior to the publication of Elizabeth Keating’s excellent new book, there was no ethnographically sophisticated description of Pohnpeian language as a mediator of interaction and hierarchy in traditional Pohnpeian society. Power Sharing redresses this gap in the literature in exemplary fashion. It is a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich account of linguistic form, interactional process, and cultural meaning. Written in an accessible style, it deserves a large readership among anthropological linguistis, who will profit from its multiple framings of grammatical and lexical usage in the textures of Pohnpeian social life. Taken as a whole, the book counts as an eloquent argument by example for linguistically based, practice-oriented notions of “embodied culture.”

—J. Joseph Errington, Yale University (Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2000)

“…this innovative consideration of how language is a tool for power-sharing, not dominance, in Pohnpeian society is a welcome clarification of consideration of rank and social stratification in Oceanic societies…As a linguistic anthropologist she shows how honorifics provide the foundation for interdependent intimacy and solidarity as well as, at time, creating social distance…’High status and low status are not just constituted as polarities but as states with differing degrees of agency and causality’ (p. 69). This very readable text is recommended as a further addition to our tools for examining hierarchy and social stratification in Oceanic as well as other societies.”  

N.J. Pollock, Victoria University (in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2000)

“This highly original work analyzes the use of honorifics in a major Oceanic language. Based on extensive fieldwork, much of it conducted during traditional Pohnpeian feasts and public ceremonies with the aid of video recordings, Elizabeth Keating augments in important ways existing structural descriptions of the Pohnpeian system of honorific speech….Many of K’s observations are new and unexpected….This study obviously has important theoretical implications for the functional and typological analysis of other languages with elaborate systems of social deixis.”

—Edward J. Vajda, Western Washington University, (Language, 2001)