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Building a house society: The reorganization of Maori communities around meeting houses.

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Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16(2), 372-386

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This article presents a fresh perspective on New Zealand Māori society, suggesting its conceptualisation as a "house society.

” The focus is on the significant role of Māori meeting houses (wharenui) in the transformation of Māori society from 1880 to 1950. The author, through fieldwork in a Māori community and broader historical analysis, examines how Māori society increasingly centred around these meeting houses, becoming integral to Māori social organisation and identity. The article challenges traditional anthropological views on Māori descent groups, applying Lévi-Strauss’s ‘house’ concept to understand Māori social structures. This approach interprets Māori hapū not merely as descent groups but as entities akin to houses, where membership and social order are reinforced through shared practices, co-residence, and allegiance, often centred around the marae and wharenui. It describes how Māori meeting houses, traditionally seen as symbols of ancestry and spiritual power, played a pivotal role in Māori communities’ social and cultural life. These structures symbolised ancestral lineage, hosted significant communal events, and reinforced social norms and values. The transformation towards a house-based system involved shifting from broader settlement-based communities to more localised, hapū-centred groups, each with its own meeting house and distinct identity. Providing a detailed historical account, the article illustrates this transformation with examples of meeting house construction and the redefinition of hapū identities. It highlights the complex interplay of economic, political, and cultural factors in this process, including the impact of land subdivision, colonial interventions, and the changing economic landscape. The author contends that this evolution of Māori society, with an increasing emphasis on meeting houses, is indicative of a broader phenomenon where houses serve as pivotal instruments in legitimising social and political structures. In conclusion, the article suggests that the house society concept offers a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of Māori social organisation. It challenges prior anthropological interpretations that focused heavily on cognatic descent. The study underscores the importance of houses – both as physical structures and symbolic entities – in shaping social relations, cultural identity, and the exercise of power within Māori communities.

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