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Giovanni Bennardo
Giovanni Bennardo

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

October 12, 2007

NIU anthropologist finds cultural emphasis
on group over individual might hinder democracy

DeKalb, Ill.—When it comes to establishing democracy, a me-first attitude isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, it might be a necessity, according to Northern Illinois University anthropologist Giovanni Bennardo.

Bennardo spent the tail end of the summer in Tonga, the only remaining Polynesian monarchy. Budding democratic movements there have failed to take firm root, and Bennardo says the problem can be traced to a culturally ingrained way of thinking that always puts groups before individuals.

“Democracy puts the rights of the individual first, but Tongans are trained from birth to do the opposite,” Bennardo says. “In their society, the extreme importance is attributed to the group over the individual. The ego is highly constrained. That doesn’t mean they can’t understand freedom and democracy, but putting individuals ahead of the group is a tough task for them.”

Bennardo won a $35,000 grant from the National Science Foundation earlier this year to continue his research on democratic movements in the Kingdom of Tonga. He spent a month there interviewing some of the country’s nobles, government representatives and church officials about their notions of democracy.

The interviews complement data Bennardo collected previously from the nation’s commoners as he examines how culturally informed ways of thinking might slow down democratic movements in Tonga. He is a specialist in linguistic and cognitive anthropology.

“Ultimately, the research will inform policymakers and development specialists about difficulties they may encounter when encouraging democracy in countries with historically different ways of thinking about social and political hierarchy, including nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Cambodia,” Bennardo says.

The Kingdom of Tonga consists of about 170 tropical islands. The nation boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the Pacific, with its 98,000 inhabitants receiving free education. The current monarch, King George Tupou V, is heir to a dynasty that goes back at least a millennium.

In November 2006, political riots broke out in Tonga’s capital city, leaving widespread damage from fire and looting and eight dead. While the debate between loyalists to the monarchy and the recently established democratic movement has been exacerbated, the legitimacy of the monarch system has largely gone unchallenged.

“My research has shown that among both commoners and the nation’s elite, Tongans feel that their cultural history is congruent with their monarchy,” Bennardo says.

Bennardo’s latest research is an extension of work that began by examining the way Tongans conceptualize spatial relationships. He found they use a frame of reference that differs from Westerners. Unlike Westerners, Tongans typically don’t use themselves as a reference point but instead seek out an object of importance in their environment.

For example, a Westerner might describe a building location as “in front of me,” whereas a Tongan would describe it as being “toward the church.” In experiments, Bennardo asked test subjects to draw pictures of their island. They typically placed the major town in the center of the island, even when in reality it was at or near the coast.

Working with researchers in Germany and at UCLA, Bennardo demonstrated that this way of thinking also applies to concepts of time, kinship and social relationships, the latter of which is closely tied to the political realm.

“One person, one vote is difficult to implement,” he says. “Tongans aren’t accustomed to viewing themselves in terms of equality of individuals.”

Bennardo found no major differences between the views of the country’s commoners and the elite. “Members of the elite also talk about the group as paramount in the social fabric,” he says. “They say political change is inevitable but must occur slowly because the real Tongan way cannot be uprooted, which is a contradiction. Tradition is at odds with the concept of democracy.”

Charles Cappell, a professor of sociology at NIU, is working with Bennardo on an analysis of social networks in Tonga. Lisita Taufa, a graduate student in anthropology who is from Tonga, and six NIU undergraduates also have participated in the project.

Bennardo has contracted with Cambridge University Press to write a book on the research. In addition to the NSF grant, his work was supported by an NIU Research and Artistry grant of $8,500 and by a Graduate School equipment grant of $2,400.