How Do I Say No? Childhood, Deception, and Avoiding Giving in the Marshall Islands

Elise Berman, University of Chicago

Many have suggested that immaturity has a valuable developmental role: a long childhood during which the body is relatively plastic allows children to learn complicated physical, cognitive, and social skills. What, however, is the social role of immaturity?

To answer this question my dissertation examines the social importance of life stages in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). I focus on an important social norm, giving. Adult Marshallese are obligated to give their possessions to another who asks for them. Hence, they devote enormous effort to concealing possessions and avoiding situations in which they might be asked for something. Children, however, are exempt from the obligation to give. Adults can take advantage of children’s exemption by entrusting possessions and information to children who can refuse to give them up. My analysis of life stages in the RMI will entail theorizing age, a category that has taken a back seat relative to race and gender in the discussion of how biological and social qualities interact to affect a person’s role in society. Specifically, my work will reveal that culturally specific beliefs about age-related developmental abilities affect people’s social status.

My dissertation will also, however, provoke re-analyses of personhood, communication, and exchange. First, children and adults in the RMI are seen as different types of persons due to their differing levels of maturity. Second, because Marshallese adults think that children cannot lie, children and adults are differentially capable of concealing the existence of goods through their speech. Third, giving and exchange in the RMI are mediated by speech, specifically people’s ability to create through language the illusion that goods do not exist and hence need not be given. Thus, my dissertation, through an analysis of how the Marshallese linguistically create maturity and personhood in the context of deception and giving, theoretically expands our understanding of age, personhood, communication, and exchange.