European Society for Oceanists (ESfO)

European Society for Oceanists (ESfO)

Sebastian Braun * Posted May 1999

Focus and Goals: To enhance intellectual exchange and cooperation between individual researchers and between scholarly institutions, both within and outside Europe, and to represent the interests of Pacific peoples to the general European public and institutions.

Organization Website:

Total Membership in 1999: 420

Type of Organization: International, interdisciplinary, Academic and practitioner.

Date founded: 1992-94

Newsletter or Journal: None; Members publish in the usual anthropological journals and in journals like Oceania, Pacific Studies, Canberra Anthropology, The Contemporary Pacific, etc.

Annual Membership fees: None (as of Feb. 1999)

Affiliation with other groups: Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO)

Listserve or other internet resources: ESfO discussion-list:

Prizes, Projects, or other Special Programs
There are no special programs by the Society other than the biannual conferences. The personal and institutional contacts improved through the Society, however, have led to an improved cooperation on many levels, for example the cooperation between the universities of Heidelberg, Aarhus, and Nijmegen.

A Brief History of European Society for Oceanists (ESfO)

The idea of bringing European Oceanists together cumulated in the 1992 First European Colloquium on Pacific Studies, held in Nijmegen, NL ("Transformation and Tradition in the South Pacific"). On that occasion, it was decided to found the ESfO as a pendant to ASAO. The constitution was adopted at the 1994 first ESfO conference in Basel, CH ("Knowing Oceania: Constituting Knowledge and Indentity"). There has been a second ESfO conference in Copenhagen, DK, in 1996 ("Pacific Peoples in the Pacific Century"), and a third one is planned for summer of 1999 in Leiden, NL ("Asia in the Pacific").

About the European Society for Oceanists (ESfO)
The European Society for Oceanists (ESfO) functions as a network for people from a variety of disciplines, but mostly ethnologists, who are interested in Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, Australia, and New Zealand). ESfO addresses itself specifically, but not at all exclusively, to European researchers. Many members are also in the "American" ASAO (Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania) and vice versa, and there is a spirit of cooperation, not competition between the two societies.

The biannual conferences are both, a social meeting place and a forum for ongoing European research on Oceania. One of the reasons to establish ESfO was that many, especially younger Oceanists in Europe did not have the funds to attend American or Australian conferences and thus were lacking a public forum and an institutionalized meeting place. By virtue of the presence of renowned Australian and American scholars, ESfO conferences are also an opportunity to present European research to the wider (and in regard to Oceania sometimes more favorably placed) world. On the other hand, they also give a chance to get first-hand accounts of American and Australian research directions.
ESfO not only connects people and university departments, but also, to the same degree, museums with specific interests on Oceania. They carry a huge load in representing the interests of Pacific peoples to the general European public.


The ESfO website is up-to-date and has a huge list of useful links to other sites of both academic and non-academic Pacific, and general anthropological interest, as well as information on past and future conferences, including abstracts of most of the presentations.

There is an online ESfO discussion-list, but the idea of a journal was dropped because it was felt that there were already enough well established journals concentrating on Pacific studies. Members thus publish in the usual anthropological (AE, AA, etc.) and Pacific journals (Oceania, Canberra Anthropology, The Contemporary Pacific, Pacific Studies, etc.), as well as their respective national anthropological journals (Anthropos, L'Homme, etc.). The Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Nijmegen publishes the Oceania Newsletter, and members of the ASAO get their newsletter.

Contributions to the conferences are published, if possible, in omnibus volumes. There have been volumes published for the Nijmegen and the Basel conferences.


ESfO was intentionally set up as a markedly informal society. I still remember the members' pride when the constitution was discussed and adopted in less than one hour. The only officers of the Society are the members of the board. The board should meet at least once a year and its chairperson and deputy should organize the next conference.

As there are no membership fees (as of today), there is no treasurer. The board may introduce and set a fee, however, and will then elect a treasurer from amongst its ranks.


Members in ESfO predominantly come from Europe, Austronesia, and America. ESfO is an interdisciplinary organization, but most of the members are in some ways associated with cultural anthropology. There are people from anthropology departments, museums, and independent researchers present. Compared to other societies, ESfO has a large amount of student members. However, if one is looking for a renowned Oceanist, there is a good chance of finding the person in the EsfO membership list.

This is one of the best things ESfO has to offer: if one would like to talk to the important people, one can attend the conferences, and chances are one will meet them. Beside the academic lectures and workshops, the important informal (or "Pacific"?) aspect of ESfO makes almost everybody "wantok".

In keeping with the informal and diverse character of ESfO, there is no formal concept of ethnology. The diverse academic traditions of the different countries, disciplines and sub-disciplines represented in ESfO make sure that many perspectives are present. However, most members probably put an emphasis on fieldwork. Most papers are presented in English; a few are given in French. While the different backgrounds of members make English the lingua franca, with possibly ensuing difficulties for non-native English speakers, the resulting diversity can make close identification with ESfO difficult.

Research directions

As the Society is only a forum for research and a network for cooperation, and does not directly shape or steer its directions, research emphasis of the members of the Society follows the diverse streams of academia represented. There are some preoccupying research-interests for Oceanists, however.

For museums, the problem of how to present other cultures and represent their interests to the museum visitors is obviously one. For the academy, land (and sea) rights and titles in Australia are important, and have been so especially after the Mabo case, and connected to these issues mythological tracks in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The tensions between regional and local identities and the nation states, the ending of treatises, for example between the Marshall islands and the United States, migration, diaspora and increasingly tourism, are research issues in the Pacific Islands, to mention but a few. For both museums and departments, art and history are generally important themes, as well as globalization, colonial times, and images of the self and others. Concepts of space and time are closely connected to land rights and mythological tracks, and local knowledge to issues of globalization.

I would like to thank Verena Keck, Nigel Stephenson, and Juerg Wassmann for their valuable information.


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