Identity Through History: Living Stories in a Solomon Islands Society


Geoffrey M. White

Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, No. 83


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Available From: Cambridge University Press
Publication Date: 1991; reprinted 1995; first paperback edition 2002
ISBN: 0-521-53332-5
Binding: paper
Pages: xvi, 270


For people who live in communities transformed by powerful outside forces, narrative accounts of culture contact and change create identity through the idiom of shared history. How may we understand the potent social, emotional and political meanings of such accounts for those who tell them? How and why do some narratives acquire a kind of mythic status as they are told and retold in a variety of contexts and genres?

Identity through History takes up these questions in an ethnography of identity formation on the island of Santa Isabel in the Solomon Islands. The people of Santa Isabel are heirs to one of the great stories of socio-religious transformation in the Pacific Islands region. Victimized by raiding headhunters in the nineteenth century, the entire population embraced Christianity around the turn of the century. This epic storyline is repeated often in narratives of conversion creating images of a shared past that enliven and personify understandings of self and community.

But just as history is never finished, neither is identity. It is continually refashioned as people make cultural meaning out of shifting social and political circumstances. Geoffrey White offers an approach to the cultural dynamics of self-construction that is at once synchronic and diachronic. He examines local histories as discourses of contemporary identity, while locating emergent identities within the longer perspective of one hundred years of colonial experience. The approach makes innovative use of recent work in psychological and historical anthropology to illuminate concepts of person and history that emerge in peoples’ ongoing attempts to define and direct their lives.


"Meticulously researched and eloquently written, Identity Through History does more than reconstruct a history of a nonliterate society from individual life histories, mission records, and contemporary ethnographies . . . an elegant theoretical synthesis, a rigorously crafted history, and a superb ethnography."

Tamar Gordon
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"In this quiet but masterful account, White retells Isabel history in relation to islanders' concerns . . . Clearly written; recommended for advanced undergraduate as well as graduate and faculty readers."

J. Kirkpatrick
Community Resources Inc.

"A richly detailed, brilliantly conceived, and beautifully executed book, Identity Through History is a quiet tour de force . . . this book provides a tightly woven narrative about continuities and transformations of individual and collective experiences of self that has much to offer historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and students of religion, regardless of area or region of specialization."

Virginia R. Dominguez
Universtiy of California-Santa Cruz
Social / Cultural Anthropology