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Chiefs, custom and the state in Samoa and Vanuatu: hybridity as a tool for assessing governance in complex polities

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posted on 19.02.2019, 22:26 authored by Kernot, Sarah
Pacific Island countries are complex polities in which multiple sources of authority operate in shared spaces. Under the dominant paradigm of governance, however, the state becomes the primary focus, rendering other sources of authority largely invisible to policy makers. Through a detailed examination of chiefly systems and state governance in Samoa and Vanuatu, this thesis seeks to broaden the governance discourse to demonstrate that complex polities can draw legitimacy and resilience from sources other than the state. By employing a hybridist approach, the thesis discards the assumed state/custom hierarchy to reveal that custom and the state can, and already do, function in mutually beneficial ways. The thesis demonstrates that in both countries, the state is utilising custom to further its own purposes and, simultaneously, chiefs are shoring up their own authority by creating structures that can negotiate with the state. The thesis highlights that the nature of the custom/state relationship is dynamic, complex and context-specific. In addition, it shows that policy makers should not be reticent to engage with custom on the assumption that it is inherently incompatible with or separate from the state system. Rather, they should draw on the strengths of each system, and foster interaction between the two.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Guy Powles

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Law