Sociology students present research in Tokyo on CHamoru and Balinese values in the face of modernization
Before Heather Garrido and Alyssa Gordon began their presentation at the International Conference on Education, Psychology, and Social Sciences in Tokyo in August, they treated the crowd to something special: a CHamoru chant for their ancestors.
“We were calling them letting them know we are thankful for their existence,” Garrido said. “Because without them, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
It was an unconventional start to an academic conference session but also a fitting one.
The two undergraduate sociology majors were there to present their research on the importance of preserving cultural traditions in the face of modernization on Guam and Bali, two island communities with similar beliefs and challenges.
The project, led by Professor of Sociology Kirk D. Johnson, studied how cultures that believe fulfillment and happiness stem from family, tradition, and other values combat a westernized one driven by individualism and the pursuit of material “things.”
“I think it’s actually very unique that we ended up as research assistants for this because we are the generation that is literally changing with it,” Garrido said. “We can see how the ‘object of desire’ is affecting not only ours, but the younger generations, and how it is getting more difficult as we face more modernization.”
The impact of modernization on indigenous communities has always been a central question of the Bali Field School in Nusa Penida, which started 20 years ago through the University of Guam and is now a component of a semester-long Community Development course in the Sociology Program. But recently, Johnson, the school’s director, decided to delve more deeply into the issue with several of his students.
So starting in the spring, they conducted in-depth interviews with 10 people of all ages who were active in the communities in Bali and then on Guam to get a better understanding of how it is affecting their world.
After the interviews, Gordon, Garrido, and two other students — Artemia Perez and Amber Uncangco — analyzed the conversations and spotted several themes across both communities.
Most interviewees viewed it as a negative impact that continues to grow but said they believed their solid attachment to cultural practices enables them to find happiness and maintain their identities.
“It’s about having a strong sense of foundation,” Gordon said. “Instead of attaching to objects, they attach themselves to people and the relationships they build throughout their lives. Having that strong sense of family helps combat it.”
Family was a central theme, but others emerged, like a connection to the environment and spiritual forces — on Bali, it’s known as Tri Hita Karana — and the importance of educating youth to keep the traditions in place.
One goal of the research, in fact, is to empower younger indigenous people to live lives more in line with traditional beliefs. Modernization isn’t going to stop, Garrido said, so it’s about finding sustainable ways to preserve the traditions.
“I feel like a lot of younger CHamorus want to leave Guam because they see more value in the states, more opportunities,” she said. “But it’s really about appreciating who you are and knowing where you come from. And from there, you can go anywhere.”
Thanks to the Research Corporation of the University of Guam, Gordon and Garrido were able to fly to Japan to present the findings at the conference, which attracted about 150 people in academia from all over the world. The research was also funded by the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences and the Rotary Club of Tumon.
Gordon and Garrido, who both plan to pursue master’s degrees in sociology, also had the opportunity to experience what Japan has to offer: food, temples, and even an ancient harvest ceremony on the outskirts of Tokyo for their last night.
When it came time for the conference, their chant no doubt captured the crowd’s attention, as people grabbed their phones to record it, but it was their talk that kept it.
“Everybody was really interested in this question of modernization because they were all from traditional communities facing a similar situation,” Johnson said. “We started to have this really engaging conversation, with folks from Myanmar and Sri Lanka, around the ideas these two had presented.”
“I think one of the highlights for me was seeing two undergraduate students at an international conference of mostly PhDs and faculty.”