More Than a Living:
Fishing and the Social Order on a Polynesian Atoll

Michael D. Lieber

Westview Press 1994
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
Kapingamarangi atoll is among the most extreme environments on Earth. It sits at the top of a kilometre high sea mountain in the middle of the Pacific, is almost five hundred kilometres from the next island, and has a total surface area of just .42 square miles; you can't get much closer to the ocean than that! Not surprisingly, given the environment, fishing is central to life on Kapingamarangi, and the core of More Than a Living is an account of the traditional fishing methods of the Kapinga people of the atoll. Over 80 different kinds of fishing methods are classified and described: when and how they were carried out, who took part, what fish were looked for and which caught, and so on. Despite the detail of this part of the book (and it seems likely to be definitive), I actually found this very interesting, despite (or perhaps because of) my complete ignorance of fishing.

The theoretical framework of More Than a Living is drawn from cybernetics and information theory. The basic idea is to consider fishing activity as a system, with its external inputs and constraints as information flows. I have always been a bit wary about the use of this kind of theory in the social sciences, not because I doubt its relevance, but because the gap between abstract theory and the complex realities of human culture is so large. I was, however, very impressed by Lieber's application of them to Kapinga fishing; his resulting model is simple but powerful, and seems to highlight essential properties of the system. There are just two things that concern me with his analysis. The first is that it didn't always seem to make clear the differences between the intentionality of the system, that of individuals within it and that of the observer. The second is that taking fishing activity as the system of study and considering the environment as a "black box", while practical in the absence of a marine biologist, may not be the best choice; it seems possible that the marine ecology of the atoll is so complexly connected to human fishing that the two should be treated together.

The place where the theoretical perspective really comes into its own is in the second part of the book, which describes the history of cultural change on Kapingamarangi over the last century. Too often in ethnographic studies there is a complete change in approach between the synchronic description of the traditional culture and the account of its subsequent history (if the latter is covered at all). More Than a Living avoids this by using the same theoretical framework for both, and the result helps to make both more intelligible. Attempts to bridge the gap between history and anthropology so boldly are rare, and deserve serious consideration.

More Than a Living contains a fairly extensive comparison with Goodenough's study of the similar island of Onotoa, and Lieber also attempts some generalisations about remote, monocultural communities. I found the latter very thought-provoking and would have appreciated a fuller discussion, but the subject really warrants a book to itself.

Although More Than a Living uses maps of the atoll to good effect, it would have been nice if some photographs had been included. Other quibbles are that the print is a bit shoddy, with thin horizontal lines often failing to appear, and that, somewhat oddly, there is no index. (The index is one of those parts of a book whose importance one never realises until it goes missing.) Those minor complaints aside, More than a Living is a very impressive book; anyone interested in Pacific island cultures will definitely want to read it, and its theoretical insights warrant much wider attention.

February 1994

Related reviews:
- books about Oceania + Pacific history
- more ethnography
- books published by Westview Press
%T More Than a Living
%S Fishing and the Social Order on a Polynesian Atoll
%A Lieber, Michael D.
%I Westview Press
%D 1994
%O paperback, bibliography
%G ISBN 0813387809
%P xx,235pp