Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law

(2000) JLP 45: 19-47


Articulating Custom:

The Politics and Poetics of Social Transformations in Samoa


M.D. Olson




‘Indirect rule’ created the conditions necessitating centralized regulation of local custom, including the control over who would hold the socially legitimated positions of customary-based, or ‘chiefly’, authority. This paper explores these aspects of the politics of custom in the context of Samoa. It is concerned principally with understanding the different creations of chiefly authority and the associated rights to speak authoritatively about land, law, and custom in Samoa east and west of a line of partition first established in 1900. Colonialism in Samoa helped create with far greater effect in the east than in the west the kind of dependence on the authority of the state which colonial regimes attempted to effect with respect to customary authorities in general. And as a result, state law in the east today has more of the effects commonly associated with ‘law’ as conceptualized within legal philosophy. But state law in the west has more of the effects commonly associated with ‘custom’, and the only law that consistently matters locally today is still the kind of law expressed through customary means. Law and custom are products of similar and often the same political processes. And their efficacy is similarly dependent upon their respective capacities to mobilize meaning within a social group. The efficacy of local institutions depends upon maintaining the fluidity of custom’s potential meanings, and codifying or articulating custom through the institutions of the state tends to serve state-centered interests at local expense, if not universally, then at least within Samoa.