Beauty for Development? Betel Aesthetics and Socioeconomic Stability in Urban Solomon Islands

Hobbis, Stephanie Ketterer; Hobbis, Geoffrey


Betel users are easy to identify. When chewed, betel colours its consumers’ saliva, teeth and lips in a distinct bright red. Since proper use of betel requires spitting of excess saliva, the practice also tends to stain the spaces surrounding its consumers. Because of these distinct aesthetic markers, betel has become a site of contestation in urban Solomon Islands. The practice is publicly discussed as a failure to realise the country’s tourist potential as an ‘island paradise’ and, consequently, as a threat to the country’s socioeconomic stability and development. Based on fourteen months of ethnographic field research in Solomon Islands, we critically engage with these debates about betel aesthetics as a pathway to socioeconomic stability and development. We demonstrate how betel aesthetics are centrally embedded in everyday processes of ‘cultural humiliation’ that are central to Solomon Islanders’ encounters with the global political economy. Simultaneously, many Solomon Islanders reject foreign betel narratives. Instead, they emphasise the everyday significance of betel for socioeconomic stability according to Solomon Islanders’ interests, needs and values. By comparing aesthetic and socioeconomic visions about betel, we uncover deep-seated inequalities and possibilities for everyday resistance in development encounters.