Economic Development and Conflicting Values: A Social Experiment in Tristan da Cunha1


  • 1

    I spent about four months on Tristan da Cunha, December 1937-March 1938, as a member of a Norwegian scientific expedition under the leadership of Dr. Erling Christophersen (1946–1968). In the summer of 1962, after a volcanic eruption caused the evacuation of the island and the removal of the entire population to England, two months were spent with the islanders at Calshot in Hampshire. After resettlement in 1963, I returned to Tristan da Cunha for a stay of six months, November 1964-April 1965. Financial support is gratefully acknowledged from the Social Science Research Council (1962), the National Science Foundation (1964/65), Southern Illinois University (1965), and the American Philosophical Society (1966).


In the small, utopian community of Tristan da Cunha, the core values of equality, anarchy, and individual integrity find expression and reinforcement in an intricate system of selective reciprocity that takes the form of mutual aid, services, and gifts in a network of overlapping and interlocking personal relationships. This pattern of selective reciprocity is closely tied in with activities connected with the traditional subsistence economy.

After the war, South African interests established a commercial fishing industry on the island, introducing a cash economy that supplemented the traditional subsistence economy, resulting in “progress” and an increased material affluence for the community. This new value, however, was only obtainable by submitting to a contract relationship that was soon felt to be an infringement on traditional core values. A conflict of values ensued.

In this case, because of a particular awareness of traditional core values among the people of Tristan, the ethos of industrialism was rejected within the community, or accepted only in second place to independence, individual integrity, and selective reciprocity.