Nathaniel Rigler: Breaking the Lines: Identity Construction and Maintenance Through Coconut Oil Consumption
The legacy of post-1960s Pacific Islander migration to Pacific Rim nations has extended the conceptual boundaries of Oceania. Experiences of this legacy have been economically, politically and culturally contested, as reflected in academic and geopolitical discourse. While some argue for the disenfranchisement of Islanders through diaspora, Pacific Studies scholars have endeavoured to recognise the strategic agency of Pacific Islander movement and explore how connection with their home islands is navigated across physical and metaphorical space. As people move, culturally significant commodities follow and take on new articulated meaning. In this context, coconut oil has become a product of particular interest because it simultaneously retains indigenous meaning and reflects new luxury status among Western consumers. This research paper examines preliminary findings from online survey responses completed by anonymous coconut oil consumers. Originally intended to reach sixty survey responses over a one-year period, over two hundred responses were received within the first active twenty-four hours. Participants are from a variety of age groups, nationalities, ethnicities, income and education levels. This unexpected increase in data permits a larger comparative approach to exploring the trends and differences between pan-cultural groups living in New Zealand and the United States. Motivating this research is an interest in how diasporic Pacific Islanders may use coconut oil to maintain cultural identity. Additionally, it seeks to explore Western consumers’ motivations for coconut oil use and whether their use relates to contemporary understandings of ‘native’ and/or ‘indigenous’ peoples and places.
Nathaniel Rigler is a PhD candidate in Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His dissertation, “Nature of the Alter(native): Consuming Indigeneity” examines the relationship coconut oil has in the present day Pacific diaspora and explores how coconut oil may convey meanings and connections to the indigenous ‘self’ and the indigenous ‘other’. His research compares metropolitan Western and Pacific Islander consumers’ coconut oil uses, market preferences and associations through semi-structured interviews and online surveys. Nathaniel was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in California and is a second generation diasporic Chamorro Pacific Islander. Nathaniel holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Berkeley with a major in Anthropology and minor in Forestry and Natural Resources. He now lives and conducts research in Wellington, New Zealand and the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He aims to submit his dissertation in December, 2020.