2. The Production of Social Spaces— towards a de-centered Anthropology of the Mentawai Islands


The Production of Social Spaces— towards a de-centered Anthropology of the Mentawai Islands

If, perchance, you have not arrived at this article by way of the Introduction to this series of articles as a whole then I suggest that you consult the Introduction first. It places all the articles in context and makes the point that the current article is not one that anyone interested in the concrete details of life in South Siberut really needs to be sidetracked by. (I should make mention that there is a short discussion dealing with kinship which may be of interest to some). If, however, you are interested in reasonably contemporary issues in cultural/social anthropology, then by all means read on.

An Ontology of Social Life

The broad theoretical orientation providing the metaphysical foundations for the argument set out in this work is on a fundamental level “anti-essentialist” (Vayda 1990). Vayda has recently sketched the contours of this “emerging anti-essentialist view in anthropology” where the task is viewed not as conducting enquiries based on dubitable or simply downright ethnocentric concepts such as the “family”, “religion”, and “culture” to name a few, but requires a starting point situated solidly in “actual behaviour and its consequences” (Vayda 1990:29). In this view, it is variation, fluidity, flexibility, inconsistency and contradiction, “diversity, lability, and change” which mark the starting point for enquiry. This is opposed to analytical homogenization which would seek to explain away such messiness in a misguided “quest for ‘congruence’ and ‘unitary symbolic structuring’”, in short, the “essential pattern” or structure underlying disparate empirical manifestations (Vayda 1990:35).

More specifically, my argument draws inspiration from approaches committed to an anti essentialist vision variously described as “cultural materialist” (Milner 1993)(1) (Williams 1977), or “practice” oriented (Giddens 1979; Bourdieu 1977), where social life is viewed “not as the inevitable playing out of underlying principles”, but rather as the manifold interplay of socio-political processes (Rosaldo 1980:22)(2). At base these theoretical persuasions can be viewed as generally sharing an aim to overcome the divide between positivist and phenomenological theoretical approaches broadly defined, or to put it another way, in order to effect a marriage between the ‘lived in’ and the ‘thought of’. The central issue is how do categories, ideas, and thoughts articulate with the material (social, economic, political, ecological etc.) circumstances of people’s lives? Most theorizing in anthropology or in the social sciences generally has taken place on a basis that sees one aspect as dominant over the other. A practice approach, however, looks at ideas and material conditions as being implicated each in the other within a matrix of practical activity. In this chapter I go further and argue that “ideas” and “material conditions” are but alternative heuristic moments of meaningful activity-in-the-world.

Particularly this describes an ontology of social life in which the most fundamental reality is ‘praxis’. This is synonymous with the constitution of social life, ie. the manner in which all aspects, elements, and dimensions of social life, from instances of conduct in themselves to the most complicated and extensive types of collectivities, are generated in and through the performance of social conduct, the consequences which ensue, and the social relations which are thereby established and maintained (Cohen 1989:12).

This priority assigned to praxis is the fundamental assumption upon which and through which statements about social reality throughout this work are made, or in other words the ontological element of scientific theory [which] can be understood as a series of internally consistent insights into the trans-historical potentials of the phenomena that constitute a domain of inquiry: ie. fundamental processes and properties that may be activated or realized in various ways in diverse circumstances and on different occasions (Cohen,1989:17).

As an ontology of social life, of social being, it must be seen as separate from “substantive theory and empirical research”. Because these processes or properties are potentials then they are ipso facto “irrefutable on empirical grounds because they are formulated without regard to their manifestations in the empirical flux of events”. Yet, it is for this very reason that “the development of substantive theories is required to determine how these processes and properties operate and appear in any given context” and it is these which are subject to empirical validation or refutation and hence modification (Cohen 1989:17). This, accordingly, allows great leeway in addressing substantive issues which is evident in the varying approaches of Giddens and Raymond Williams, for example. It might be argued that the assumption of social life as a process is unproblematic to most anthropologists. However this is not taking the concept seriously and treating it as a fundamental assumption making possible a certain kind of analysis and theorizing (Holy & Stuchlik 1981:14). Hence I prefer the usage ‘praxis’ to that of ‘process’ since it refers unambiguously to the being-in-the-world of social life, unlike the latter(3).

Giddens’ structuration theory, which provides the major ontological schema for this thesis, takes the practices of knowledgeable, although not omniscient nor omnipotent, agents as his starting point. Likewise Williams’ life-work was devoted to a vision of “human sociality” and society as a “material social process” directed towards the specific end of understanding literature as a social-material productive activity (Williams 1977:59).

The specific element in Giddens’ ontology that I make most use of is the concept of “region” which, I will argue, along with the ontology of praxis as its Archimedean ground, makes possible an adequate description of Madobag sociality. It also articulates with contemporary dissatisfaction with ‘totalizing’ or ‘essentialist’ ontologies, in which we are arguably witnessing the final stage in the progressive dismantling of structural-functionalism, the emphasis being on the first term, since functionalism as a viable doctrine has largely been laid to rest. These variously subject the notion of ‘society’ or its microcosmic analogue, the ‘group’, to extensive critique, modifying it at the very least or in some cases abandoning the concept altogether in favour of more empirically sensitive and sophisticated conceptualizations.

Culture, Society, Action and Praxis

The core essentialist concepts, ‘culture’ and ‘society’, despite having come to serve as the metaphysical foundation for much of anthropology’s knowledge claims and modus operandi have rarely been totally above question. The appropriateness or otherwise of various versions of the ‘culture’ concept has a long contentious history in anthropology. Indeed forty years ago Bidney (1953), for example, situated his study partly in relation to what he perceived as the “sharp disagreement … as to the definition and scope” of the culture concept, although, as was the case with the overall debate, the concept’s ontological validity was not at issue. Echoing Vayda’s sentiments Austin-Broos points out that anti-essentialist “models of culture/social life that focus on process and incompleteness” have indeed been in existence in one form or another for quite some time dating at the least from Marx (Austin-Broos 1991:123). Similarly Erikson draws attention to the work carried out by the Manchester school from the 1940s into the 1960s particularly their rejection of the “dominant view of societies as bounded and stable entities” (Erikson 1992:10). In the present, one answer to the problem has been the move to anti-essentialism as Vayda notes, a move which has, furthermore, been injected with renewed vigour in light of the deconstructionist, reflexive or postmodern—whatever name one might wish to call it—critique of anthropology. Unlike the previous debates, however, the anti-essentialist orientation undermines the very basis of the foundation concepts ‘culture’ and ‘society’, through reworking and, on occasion, abandoning them completely. Since this thesis not only relies on the perhaps dubious concept of praxis but also constitutes an advocation of it as the guiding light in a truly anti-essentialist anthropology, it is necessary to justify such a position through clarifying what sort of relation it may or should have in relation to the foundation concepts ‘society’ and ‘culture’. This is in order to be able to avoid committing the same crime of unreflexive reification upon my data that I have condemned in chapter one.

As a concept integral to the discipline, ‘culture’ in the American tradition displays, in the hands of different exponents, both holistic and individuating aspects, which are however subordinate, in the last instance, to the totalizing gaze. It is always a ‘culture’ or a ‘society’ that grounds the analysis. In its individuating aspects the role of the individual in relation to some sort of cultural whole whether explicit or implied comes to the fore. Thus in Boas’ later writings, for example, the individual is the bearer of elemental cultural traits which, as an aggregate, make up, or metonymically invoke, on a theoretical level, a whole. At its core the problem is one of the relation of the individual as transcendental ego to the social or cultural collectivity. A common solution to the problem has been to foreground culture as ‘process’, ‘activity’, or ‘action’ and affirm the individual as a “self-determining, active agent, who is [nonetheless] affected by cultural products and patterns” Bidney (1953:33). This is Bidney’s favoured solution to the problem, an approach commonly known as ‘action’ theory. Interestingly enough, this has been a characteristic of the recent debates. On one side there are those whose solutions range between mild qualification and substantial modification of the ‘culture/society’ concepts. On the other there are those who reject both concepts and instead employ alternative organizing principles coming out of their own ethnographic experiences. I intend to look briefly at several such arguments in order to firstly situate my own approach, and secondly to ground the praxis ontology in relation to the eternally problematic issues of ‘culture’, ‘society’, and ‘the individual’, arguing that the problems stem from continued reliance on a subject-object dichotomy.

In the European tradition, argues Goody, articulating the long established dichotomy between the Anglo-Continental sociological bias and the American cultural bias, there is no arbitrary division of the social and the cultural. The latter is rather subsumed within the former (Goody 1993:11). In general agreement with the irreducibility of the social in European theorizing, Wolf (1988) has, nonetheless, attacked the ‘society’ concept, a critique specifically aimed at its essentialist, harmonizing tendencies. Wolf argues that “social patterns always occur in the multiform plural and are constructed in the course of historical interchanges … over time, not in some Platonic realm assumed apriori” (Wolf 1988:757), an approach that has come out of his work on the nexus between indigenous peoples and the machinations of the capitalist colonial powers, where traditional notions of bounded static societies or cultures are at best a hindrance. He goes on to extol the virtues of looking at social life in flexible and open-ended ways, relationally—in terms of relations engendered, constructed, expanded, abrogated; in terms of intersects and overlaps, rather than in terms of solid, bounded, homogenous entities that perdure without question and without change (Wolf 1988:759).
But Wolf falls short of extending his critique to a consideration of how these observations might lead to practical theoretical innovation apart from a world-systems approach.

Barth has, for most of his career, disparaged the notions of both ‘society’ and ‘culture’, a dissatisfaction which has led to recent new theoretical innovations. His contention is that these concepts are “fundamentally stamped with the questionable assertions of holism and integration” since, among other things, they “celebrate the connectedness of disparate institutions” and the “sharing of premises, values and experiences within a community” (Barth,1989:120), assertions of dubious veracity. As a remedy he proposes seeing “major patterns of culture” as being the “results of particular social processes” (Barth,1989:123). Here the “multiplicity, inconsistency and contentiousness” that constitutes a culture which manifests itself in a “multiplicity of partial and interfering patterns, asserting themselves to varying degrees in various fields and localities”, should be the focus of analysis (Barth,1989:128). However, demonstrating the difficulty in discarding deeply entrenched anthropological ontologies, in effect Barth’s ‘culture’, which is ‘Bali’ in his specific ethnographic case-study, is divided up into ” “streams” of cultural traditions … each exhibiting an empirical clustering of certain elements” which endure over time and can be expected to “mingle in the life of the local and regional populations” (Barth,1989:130). In effect Barth divides the pie that is Bali into 5 slices or units of praxis. “Actors” “positioned”, partially or otherwise within these “streams”, are still the carriers of Balinese culture as it is ‘distributed’ amongst them in the “streams” (Barth,1989:137). As the argument unfolds it is clear that these “streams” are in effect shadowy stand-ins for a more traditional notion of corporate groups constituted by Radcliffe-Brownian (1952:4) “process”, since each stream can be thought to engage in “boundary maintenance”, effecting coherence and closure. This indicates that he is still working within a holistic paradigm reifying the individual and his/her society in which an adequate conceptualization of social praxis has no place, since it stands logically opposed to doctrines espousing holism and individualism.

Goody has recently scrutinized the culture concept noting its “rocky history” and the various attempts over the years to clarify problems by many commentators and theorists. Consistent both with much recent analysis, and with the themes of a long standing debate—in so far as he has the Geertzian, and very American, distinction between cultural symbols and social action in his sights—Goody doubts that it is possible to distinguish between “social structure” conceived as interactive behaviour on the one hand, and culture as a consistent system of beliefs, values and symbols on the other (Goody 1993:10). He agrees with this distinction if it is employed heuristically as a strategy which must be accompanied by an awareness that such symbols, values and beliefs are “intrinsic” to “social action”. Thus culture should be seen as the “content of social relations not as some distinct entity” in itself (Goody 1993:11). Therefore, Goody argues, it is unwise to attribute a spurious homogeneity or holism to a “given socio-cultural system” (Goody 1993:23). However, he nevertheless views culture as useful if it is given the role as a “vague pointer in the direction of the more generalized aspects of the behaviour of a particular human group, indicating paths that might be trodden, might be explored, rather than established domains already staked out” (Goody 1993:19). Although, strictly speaking “it is not something about which one can have a theory”, it is possible to have a theory about “particular” and bounded “clusters of ways and products of thinking and acting” (Goody 1993:30). His final solution is to proceed with an awareness of the potential differentiation within a “given socio-cultural system”:”we need to be fully conscious of the varying boundaries, not so much of a culture but of cultural practices. A recognition of these features might make us wary of simplistic notions of cultural homogeneity” (Goody 1993:18). This specifically involves an awareness of the “internal domains” of the system, “religious, political, interpersonal” as well as the “local boundaries between adjacent social groups and individuals, boundaries that differ for different kinds of social action” (Goody 1993:23). We could, thus, expect “simpler societies” to be “relatively undifferentiated”, the Nuer and the Tallensi for example (Goody 1993:23;14). Similarly to Barth, Goody has responded to the inadequacies of the culture concept through stressing the primacy of social action. For both, societies or cultures consisting of the actions of individuals are, a priori, ontologically homogenous until empirical circumstances demonstrate otherwise (unlikely given the closure of the theory(4)).

Erikson, working in what he terms an “unbounded social system”(5) lauds both the fusing of Continental and British anthropological methodology into a synthesis between totalizing and individualizing perspectives—Bourdieu’s work for example—as well as the ‘struggle’ to “conceptualize society and culture as unbounded systems and never ending process” (Erikson,1992:6-7).

On the one hand he contends that “Society … should not be conceptualized as a noun, but as a predicate, as an aspect of, and as a condition for, meaningful interaction” (Erikson,1992:7). Furthermore, “Both society and culture are dual phenomena in that they are accumulated results of on-going action and necessary conditions for action to be meaningful; they are not things, and they change” (Erikson,1992:7). On an even par with ‘society’ is ‘culture’, which can be understood in two ways. In the first, analytical sense, it refers to “a shared idiom for discourse, an inventory of ways of communicating and solving tasks” (Erikson,1992:7). In the second, “reified”, more general sense it can be conceptualized as “humanly created, transmitted and distributed capabilities for communication and agency” (Erikson,1992:8). Since, quite rightly, ” “cultures” demonstrably cannot be spatially and socially delimited in an unambiguous way, the reification suggested by its pluralization becomes problematic”—there are no cultures in the plural. (Erikson,1992:8). But there is Culture in the singular as per the second definition—if one does not pluralize(6) it the boundaries disappear. However, it is not long before the meta-theory becomes explicit and we are informed that “societal wholes may be seen as integrated systems of interaction and symbolization”. Whilst “they are also segregated and internally diversified” the central issue is, nevertheless, the familiar problem of the “relationship between social interaction and cultural integration” (Erikson,1992:22-23). Indeed the central problem concerns “cultural integration”. The achievement of this is the “underlying unity” making such a society viable in so far as it solves the classically Durkheimian problem of ‘order’ in its capacity as “the totality of rules and symbols adequate for a particular kind of … encounter to be meaningful to both parties involved” (Erikson,1992:11). Culture in this view seems to satisfy, on some deep level, a functional prerequisite for integration and order so as to prevent “a possible schism between social reality and cultural models” of the kind that Geertz (1959) purportedly encountered in his Javanese case study. Although Erikson takes an overtly anti-essentialist line in which the notion of social process figures highly, as with Barth and Goody, this is ultimately subordinated to a atavistic holism grounding his approach.

Mintz (1982), on a similar although slightly different tact has argued, with help from a heterogenous assortment of influences including Geertz, Wolf, and E.P. Thompson, that societies or organized groups exhibiting continuity through time do not each possess their distinctive cultures, ‘culture’ being defined as their “distinctive way of life” (Mintz 1982:505) or, more specifically, “behaviour mediating symbols” (Mintz 1982:512). Analysts should, therefore, realize

that ‘‘culture’’ and ‘‘society’’, though separable conceptually and usefully so, are neither perfectly coherent in themselves nor necessarily congruent with each other; and that actors in a single system may employ variant but equally acceptable cultural forms in the course of social maneuver (Mintz 1982:509).
On the one hand is the actor who acts through and with recourse to, on the other, the historically given socio-cultural “code” which is, however, never “ironclad” since there exist “choices and alternatives … including the choice of not acting” and which comes to be “played out in various permutations although ultimately subject to external conditions” (Mintz 1982:511).

Beyond ‘Culture’: Action, Postmodernism, and Praxis

Process is an important concern for all of these theorists in their varying responses to perceived inadequacies with the concepts of ‘society’ and ‘culture’. However this process is constituted by ‘individuals’ whose relation to their ‘society’ or their ‘culture’ is that between element and aggregate, and even the individual in opposition to the aggregate where it assumes some superorganic form. The individuals who take part in action are actors, not decentred (Giddens 1979:38) selves (re)making themselves and being (re)made in social praxis, as distinct from social action or process understood in the Radcliffe-Brownian sense. The actor is a transcendental self(7), a ghost housed within the machine that is the corporeal body, who engages in action, whereas the agent is an embedded, contextualized self, a “person” in Ingold’s (1986) formulation. These selves make themselves and are remade in praxis, a perspective dissolving the individual/society-culture dichotomy and therefore presenting new possibilities for fresh substantive insights.

The ‘postmodern’ critique of anthropology, stemming largely from the now widely quoted seminal works by Clifford and Marcus (1986) and Marcus and Fischer (1986), adds another dimension to the contemporary critique of the ‘culture’ concept. A foundation theme is that “Cultures are not scientific ‘‘objects’’ … Culture and our views of ‘‘it’’, are produced historically…”(Clifford 1986:18), inscribed, ossified, and reified in writers’ accounts. ‘Culture’, furthermore, cannot be viewed as a “unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitely interpreted” (Clifford 1986:19), a view realizing the full implications of the long standing phenomenological critique of positivism (cf. Merleau-Ponty 1989[1962]:333). But as Austin-Broos points out, commenting on the critique of anthropology at the hands of James Clifford (1988) in his ThePredicament of Culture, the predicament has been engendered not so much through problems with the concept of ‘culture’ and an anthropological practice which produces “serious fictions”, but with an “anthropology which has come to lean far too heavily on a certain style of totalizing model … ” (Austin-Broos,1991:121). However, the critique is cogent and one that must be addressed.

Abu-Lughod (1992:147) accepts the postmodern critique of the culture concept, “shadowed” as it is by “coherence, timelessness, and discreteness”, outlining three interelated theoretical-cum-literary strategies which, she argues, have been formulated as a means to overcome these shortcomings: (1) a focus on practice and discourse (2) a focus on the historical, political, and economic relationship of the anthropologist to the people amongst whom he or she worked (3) the writing of detailed ” “ethnographies of the particular” ” (148-149). This third option is the one she herself advocates. The postmodern turn in ethnography, in response to its own critique, has adopted strategies that fall within the second category, strategies however which, contrary to the central philosophical aim, tend to bracket the historical, political and economic context, and zero in on the Self, the solipsism so much a part of this strategy, making objective knowledge irrelevant (eg. Dwyer 1982). Subjective knowledge is the goal, objective knowledge constituting an unattainable ideal.

Whilst sympathetic to each of the three strategies identified by Abu-Lughod, my own approach has most in common with the first and, to a lesser degree, the third, modifying it however to emphasize the role of praxis and the decentred self as ontologically prior which provide the foundations for an alternative. This is in accord with Austin-Broos’s sentiments and Carrier’s (1992:14-15) comment that the task is to overcome the essentialization that is at the heart of the ‘culture’ and ‘society’ concepts. But the question remains. What role should these concepts play in the present work? Retaining either immediately involves dragging along much baggage that, as metaphors, they tend to evoke—notions of holism, coherence integration, stasis, determinism, and idealism (very pronounced for the ‘culture’ concept).

Ingold considers process as practice to be a key concept in his attempt to craft a more adequate social ontology, an important part of which is the thesis of the decentred self or “person” as distinct from the transcendental individual (Ingold 1986:107). Rejecting the idea of cultures in the plural, each culture with its selection of individuals, each the bearer of cultural traits enabling them to operate in the social world, Ingold invokes a reworked culture concept, culture in the singular, in the spirit of Tylor’s original holistic intent. However, this must be seen as a “continuous process”, the process of “social life” (Ingold 1986:66;118), culture being the “vehicle” for its conduct (257). Echoing Giddens (although citing Salzman 1981), Ingold argues that the “rules and regulations of which culture consists” can be considered not as constraining but as “enabling” (257). This grounds Ingold’s commitment to creativity as the essence of the process wherein persons create themselves as they create others within ongoing activity (174). But having come so far, along with Gardner (1988:59) we might ask what role is there left for a ‘culture’ concept? There would simply appear to be no need for it. Why not just acknowledge that “practices have temporal depth and spatial dimensions in the topology of social life” (Gardner 1988:60) and abandon ‘culture’ as a concept altogether, since recourse to it even as a “handy term to designate common practices of a group of persons” does not obviate the ever present possibility of reification(8). I more or less agree with the strategy that regards ‘culture’ in this light. However, in view of the problematic nature of the concept which is intensified in the ‘Mentawai’ context, where any sort of juxtapositioning of ‘culture’ with ‘Mentawai’ guarantees reification, I have opted to drop it altogether. The alternatives ‘Rereiket culture or society’, ‘Madobag culture or society’ also guarantee reification, even if served up with a caveat that ‘culture’ or ‘society’ here should be understood as referring to a circumscribed field of practices and not as a homogenous ‘thing’.

Regions and Locales

Giddens’ structuration theory has no problems with the culture concept as it has no place for it whatsoever. Indeed, in a recently published undergraduate textbook looking at ‘culture’ from a sociological viewpoint, Giddens rates not a mention, even in the section dealing with defining culture and within that the subsection on “the Question of Structure versus Agency” (Hall & Neitz 1993:15). Despite this, there is an intricate and vitally important, albeit implicit, part for culture’s cognate concept ‘meaning’. To apply structuration theory in an anthropological context, or more specifically this anthropological context, requires reinstating meaning as a tenet a little more explicitly than Giddens does. This is achieved by recognising that praxis is meaningful in all its forms and manifestations: the meaningful production and reproduction of human projects within the on-going flow of sociality that is the existential given, from the decentred subject’s viewpoint, and the ontological given from the analyst’s viewpoint.

Structuration theory, tendered as a counter to, on the one hand, the “imperialism of the subject”, characteristic of interpretive and micro-sociological approaches, and, on the other, the “imperialism of the social object” characteristic of structuralist and macro-sociological approaches, is based on the axiom that social life is an ongoing, ceaselessly changing matrix of meaningful activity within and through time-space. Consistent with the ontological priority of praxis that is at the basis of this theory, the aim is to privilege “neither the experience of the individual actor, nor the existence of any form of societal totality, but social practices ordered across time and space” which, following Giddens, I prefer to simply refer to as ‘time-space’ (Giddens 1984:2). The regularized meaningful activities (praxis) produced by (decentred) agents can be understood through a revised conception of structure. Forms of praxis can be conceived, heuristically, to consist in ‘bound’ time-space effected through “structuring properties” which “make it possible for discernibly similar social practices to exist across varying spans of time and space and which lend them systemic form”. This “structure exists, as time-space presence, only in its instantiations in such practices and memory traces orienting the conduct of knowledgeable human agents”, and forms both the means through which activities (and institutions) are produced and reproduced as well as the outcome of such activities which in turn make it possible, as the means, for such activities to initially take place (Giddens 1984:17). Structure is specifically manifest through agents’ recourse to “rules and resources”(9). Agents are knowledgeable in that they routinely monitor both their own activities as well as the social and physical characteristics of the environments in which they move. Such knowledge in the form of a “practical consciousness” is manifest in day-to-day life which can be conceived of as a “flow of intentional action”. Nevertheless agents can also discursively articulate the “grounds of their activity” (Giddens 1984:5). But agents, of course, are not the monadic individuals we encounter in “action” theory since agents are mutually implicated in each other’s designs, plans and strategies. These activities, however, have “unintended consequences [which] may feed back to be the unacknowledged conditions of further acts” (Giddens 1984:8), which in turn have consequences for already existing, or serve to facilitate, differential capabilities to ‘make a difference’, that is, to exercise power, in the world. These conditions may not be discursively recognised by agents even though they may be implicated in their practices on the level of practical consciousness.

Through placing praxis at the ontological centre of structuration theory, Giddens has cleared the way to abandon the core concepts of ‘society’, ‘culture’, and the ‘individual’ along with all their attendant difficulties we encountered in the last chapter. The study of social life can be carried out in the most specific contexts (eg. ethnomethodological studies) or the most broad, in which the systemic and “deeply embedded” nature of practices becomes the focus for enquiry. What are designated as ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ systems in most of the reifying discources comprising social science are better conceptualized, not as ‘things’, but as decentred entities comprised of social activities reproduced by decentred subjects (persons) across varying spans of time-space. This provides a fresh starting-point for the study of “Mentawai” and, arguably “Indonesia” as a ‘field of ethnological study’(10).

The specific aspects of structuration directly relevant to this thesis are the concepts of region and locale which obviate the need to return to any notion of a ‘society’. This is an interpretation, as well as an extension, of these concepts which refer to similar yet divergent phenomena. However, together, they tend to present an image of a social world already in existence rather than one (re)produced in practice, so going against the dynamic spirit of sociality as it is theorized in structuration theory. Indeed Giddens’ characterizations of locale, region, and society exhibit tendencies toward latent essentialization.

A locale refers to the actual material features, human artefacts for example, constituting a “setting” which agents incorporate into their praxis (118). Giddens describes the locale as a “physical region” possessing “definite boundaries” within which certain practices are concentrated (375). A locale may be a “room in a house, a street-corner, the shop-floor of a factory”, a town or a city, or even the “territorially demarcated areas occupied by nation-states” (118). Giddens uses the term ‘locale’ rather than ‘place’ since the “properties” characteristic of “settings” are put to use by agents as they carry on their activities in time-space (119), giving the impression that these are not simply inert givens, although they do take on the characteristics of givens.

A region, similarly, is not just a point or place in space but constitutes the creation or production of a specific time-space ‘zone’ through “routinized social practices” (p.119) which bind time-space systemically on a specific scale(11). Agents produce these time-space zones through engaging in ‘bundles’ of practices, “definite time-space locations within bounded regions” (p.112). A house, as a locale, can be conceived to be divided into various regions, rooms of the house for example since these constitute different time-space zones. They are used at different times of the day and the night for different activities (p.119). A school is a locale since it has “definite physical characteristics”. We find within it contexts or constellations of praxis distributed across time-space marking out the “contextuality of the regions” that constitute it (135).

Each concept emphasizes aspects of the ‘binding’ of time-space brought about in praxis. A region could be characterized as a bracketing of the praxical aspects of a specific locale, which, when bracketed from the practices that occur in and around it (which constitute the region), takes on the air of an inert thing. This results from describing the locale as a singular ‘thing’ since this puts it into the same category as a region. Apart from this the locale is depicted as consisting of physical attributes in space. Thus a locale is essentially a “frozen backdrop” for the practices which constitute a region even though these are part of the region through being drawn upon in praxis (Pred 1990:126)(12). The production and reproduction of spaces is unanalysed (Urry 1991:168). But, if central to the notion of a region is the “structuration of social conduct across time-space” which can “extend widely in space and deeply in time” (122) and, conversely, be limited in its spatial distribution and be temporally transitory, then the concept of a locale introduces unnecessary complexity and confusion into the analysis especially since a region and a locale can be technically identical, a room of a house for example (room as locale p.118; room as region p.119). The object is to focus on describing the creation and reproduction of time-space contexts which can be automatically assumed to involve the physical material milieu that are implicated in a region. It is, henceforth, in this sense that I apply the concept of ‘region’.

This idea is central to Lefebvre’s definition of what he terms “social/spatial practice” where analysis shifts from “things in space to the actual production of space” (Lefebvre 1991:37). This space is “constituted neither by a collection of things or an aggregate of (sensory) data, nor by a void packed like a parcel with various contents … [I]t is irreducible to a ‘form’ imposed upon phenomena, upon things, upon physical materiality” (Lefebvre 1991:27), the impression that Giddens gives in his characterization of space as region and space as locale which preserves a subject object dichotomy by implicitly re-centring the subject(13)—individuals interacting with other individuals and objects in their environments. This can be avoided by recognizing that space is “neither subject nor object” (Lefebvre 1991:92). It is “simultaneously, both a field of action (offering its extension to the deployment of projects and practical intentions) and a basis of action (a set of places whence energies derive and whither energies are directed)”—it is “at once actual (given) and potential (locus of possibility)” (Lefebvre 1991:191). This works through the concept, not of the ‘individual’ who interacts with others or with things, nor even the agent, but the “intelligent body” (Lefebvre 1991:174), to be understood not as a passive participant or object within a space but a ‘becoming’ which actively produces that space, deploys its projects and intentions which are part of the production of that space and which are in turn made possible through the horizon of possibilities objectified as objective social reality in that space. Such space or spaces are objective, as long as we understand this objectively as social in its being and existing “only for activity” (Lefebvre 1991:191).

Suku, Centres and Regions

Henceforth where I refer to ‘region’ or ‘regions’ these should be understood in Giddens’ structuration sense, as zones of bound time-space. A region is not a thing, an existential entity with a centre, (its penultimate defining characteristic) but a constructed space. But then how, and by what criteria, do we identify a region? Because of its nature as a system of signs, language essentializes through labelling practices. It creates the illusion of a centre where in practical (praxical) reality no centres exist. What reality then do things like uma (House), suku, or Madobag itself as a village have since these are things that it would seem people refer to everyday, and if taken at face value would be easy to reify into substantial realities in their own right? Is an uma or a suku a (descent) ‘group’; what status does Madobag have as a village? A step in the right direction is to conceive of these as regions, as significant contexts of ‘bound’ time-space in their own right, without conferring on them the status of things.

Wagner’s (1974) deliberations over whether or not there are social ‘groups’ in the New Guinea Highlands are of assistance here. Among the Daribi, Wagner came across usages such as Weriai, Kurube, and Noru. But instead of automatically attempting to discover whether these ‘groups’ are ‘clans’ or ‘tribes’, Wagner argues that such usages must be seen in terms of categorical distinctions deployed in sociality:

Drawing boundaries by creating contrasts has the effect of eliciting groups as a sort of general context of one’s expression, alluding to them indirectly rather than consciously organizing or participating in them. The most important distinction in this ethnographic context is that between pagebidi, wife/child-givers (or those who are ‘compensated’), and be’bidi, wife/child-takers (or those who ‘compensate’) which is substantiated through a “differentiating exchange” that takes place between them (Wagner 1974:108). This finds concrete affirmation at a deeper level where “the explicit distinction drawn in any exchange is one between those who share meat or other wealth and those who exchange meat or wealth” (Wagner 1974:110). Names allude to and thereby ” “elicit” social collectivities” whereas “exchanges elicit specific instances” of the same (Wagner 1974:111). The point is that they do not ‘refer’ to an existing social fact. The old structural-functional problem of order, solved through the integration of (corporate) ‘groups’ into the social, corporate whole is not relevant since persons order themselves and their collectivities as they go along(14). Nor is this merely an example of a group being mistaken for a category. On the contrary, central to this perspective is the idea that words and concepts such as pagebidi, be’bidi, and suku or uma for that matter, do not simply reflect (social) reality but play an active role in its creation and reproduction.

Given this, before we move on to substantive issues, we need to give a little more consideration to an important foundation stone of an adequate theory of practice: the distinction between discursive consciousness and practical consciousness. This is in order to better relate Wagner’s thesis to a practice perspective since, in the interests of not misrepresenting his project, he is by no means a practice theorist. What Wagner’s thesis problematizes for a theory of practice is the relationship between concepts and the social world.

A theory of practice presents a problem for the participant observer whose aim is to understand practices, and who, in doing so, objectifies them in a discursive text. Because informants’ reflections upon their practices are purely conceptual, the analyst, in relation to a specific event or circumstance he or she is enquiring about, must distinguish between an informant’s reflexive monitoring of conduct as reproduced for the analyst, and the ideal, and therefore ideological, elements in an informant’s exegesis. These present an ideal scenario, what ought to have happened in a particular situation and thus in the general category of practices alluded to by a concept, rather than what did actually occur and why. The question is how representative of the reflexive monitoring of conduct is the informants representation of it? I suggest that the reality of human sociality is to be found in the interplay between discursive representational consciousness, what the basic concepts are and what they mean, and practical consciousness, the concept in action, the mode within which humans spend most of their waking hours. The analyst cannot take as reality the former since sociality is much more than its representation by observers or participants in it, not least because of the unintended consequences of practices that escape intentional representation. But nor is reality to be found in the latter since practices do not speak for themselves outside the discursive context itself as a praxical event. Thus we are left with the task matching discursive representations with the activities within which they are implicated.

I propose, then, that the indigenous concepts presented in this thesis, and indeed such concepts generally can be considered vehicles for, as well as models of, rather than strictly models, for and of, social reality, in their capacity as discursive representations of practical consciousness. This work, then, is an attempt at showing how these are employed to create a world in practice and is therefore oriented away from presenting these concepts as pure idealities, as a ‘world-view’, although this is necessarily still an important part vis-a-vis the need to produce, here, a discursive account. Methodologically the problem is to strike a balance between the two aspects of human praxis: to account for practical consciousness by means of agents’ representations of it, whilst remaining alert to the ideological aspects of such representations. The task is to avoid reifying the discursive what ‘is’ into a coherent systemic world-view, whilst keeping a careful look-out for the ideological ‘based on what “is”, this is what usually (“ought” to) happens’(15). Throughout the rest of this thesis I use ‘formal’ to indicate that an idea or conception is a product of discursive consciousness, in contrast to the lived immediacy of the ‘informal’ concept-in-action, characterizing practical consciousness.

Kinship?: Uma, Clans, and Descent Groups

In the previous section I have outlined an alternative ontology furnishing a starting point from which it is possible to gain a better understanding of social forms, or specific constellations of practical activity constituting various regions, as they operate in Madobag. It also provides a new basis upon which to build a more appropriate ethnographic relationship to the Mentawai islands. This approach entails looking at the Mentawai islands as a series of—heterogenous or otherwise, whatever the case may be—regions, but which when considered as a whole have more in common with each other than with other adjacent and cross-cutting regions: the Minangkabau highlands, the Pesisir, or the Pariaman district or further afield to Nias and the Batak areas(16).

This study, then, takes as its object a circumscribed field of practices carried out in particular time-space contexts by agents in the community known as Madobag, one dusun in the district named after the river which flows through it, the Rereiket. The Rereiket can be conceived as one district among several across Siberut each similarly containing its several dusun. Siberut is one island among four which collectively form the Mentawai islands. Hence the study focuses first and foremost on these practices. But in order to situate it within a wider context I have indicated this as being the Rereiket which in turn has a definite relation to the other islands. Madobag can be considered to be a region constituted by regions itself: the uma (House) as a region; the church/balai as a region on Sunday, and as a meeting region at other times; the various sapou as regions; each of the local shops as a region and so forth. This thesis takes as its primary focus, the nature of uma as regions but this is not to say that this is purely a ‘kinship’ society. The point of the exercise is to promote a view of Madobag as a multi-centred community embedded within the Rereiket region and indeed connected with regions beyond, in a complex of sociality. Uma, along with the other regional contexts, are not to be understood as ‘things’, as beings-in-themselves, even though people do refer to them as if they are, but as ‘nodes’ (Soja 1989) or ‘bundles’ of praxis, differentially implicated in the production of this sociality.

The substantive focus of this thesis could be said to constitute then, a study of ‘kinship’ in the form of the suku and the uma and the relation between them. However, the concept requires substantial qualification in light of a practice centred approach, wary of recourse to avoidable essentialization.

Rethinking Kinship

In line with Vayda’s perceived anti-essentialist trends, Schneider (1984) has recently made a concerted effort at deconstructing the kinship concept, arguing that this is better understood and used as an heuristic, analytic construct and should not, a priori, be assumed to constitute the fundamentally important, even defining characteristic, of the societies studied by anthropologists. He characterizes kinship as it has been traditionally defined (more of an implicit, practical definition than a discursively espoused doctrine) and pursued as a “network of ties of a distinctive, additive sort, a system of ties built on the relative products of the primary relations” (Schneider 1984:43) ie. the genealogy. Of course, the genealogy is a statement not of biological, but of social relations. A genealogy records the social mother and father along with the social brothers and sisters etc. However, Schneider argues, a genealogy is inconceivable without the “model of the pedigree”. A social mother or a social father is based on the “social value and meaning which is attached to, and takes its reference from, the presumption of relations arising directly or indirectly out of human reproduction, of conception, creation, gestation and parturition” (Schneider 1984:55). Orthodox kinship is based upon the notion that this network of ties is drawn upon by all societies differentially depending on what particular type of kinship system they have.

In publications in the 1950s and 1960s, Schneider explained Yap society as based on the orthodox kinship notion of the patriline identified as the tabinau. Schneider originally interpreted this as based on the citamangen-fak relationship, in which those who are father, father’s brothers, or father’s male patriparallel cousins are citamangen—the children of citamangen are their fak, the relation between them being based on the social recognition of the biological link (Schneider 1984:12). The most important function that Schneider considered the tabinau to perform was the delegation and regulation of land ownership, and in this it could be described as a land holding corporation (Schneider 1984:13). In terms of orthodox lineage theory, the men are agnates; they hold together as a corporation and act in concert as a bloc because they are kinsmen (Schneider 1984:19).

Repudiating this analysis in his critique, Schneider reinterprets his Yap data noting that if the tabinau concept is approached from a viewpoint focusing upon those aspects of it that do not fit in with orthodox patrilineal ideology, it becomes clear that tabinau as a concept is polyvalent, possessing a number of meanings used in different ways in different contexts. The tabinau is characterized not only by an underlying unity based in plots of land, but also a “more or less distinctive set of personal names for both men and women” (Schneider 1984:21). Children of women who marry men of the tabinau are given these names. Now a child is not usually named until approximately five days following birth. But birth into the tabinau per se does not mean that one becomes a member. It is said, rather, that a child is ‘formed of the tabinau’ which emphasizes that residence and activity are the important factors in the relationship between a child and his/her citamangen over and above “any simple rule of recruitment by birth” (Schneider 1984:22). A citamangen provides for his fak. A fak helps in fishing, gardening etc. and obeys the citamangen. Should at any point fak fail to do the work which earns him/her rights in the land of the tabinau, and through which they come to be regarded as tabinau members, then they can be ‘thrown away’ and lose all rights in the tabinau. The important point here is that these terms are not referring to relationships in which people are defined by inherent attributes—these are not states of being but states of doing. Citamangen and fak define and redefine themselves through processes of work and exchange. If a person standing as fak to a citamangen fails to carry out the proper duties and someone who pleases the citamangen or land holder by carrying out the prescribed duties (ie. assumes the fak role) turns up, then the former fak loses all rights. The newcomer now becomes fak “even where no ‘kinship’ relationship existed or exists” (Schneider 1984:31-33). This new fak becomes the land holder when the current land holder, citamangen, becomes incompetent or dies.

The important issue that emerges from this work having implications for my own is that we, firstly, need to establish empirically whether or not the “fact of engendering another human being” is awarded specific valency in the society (region) under study and, if so, to what degree. This must be treated as a hypothesis, a question to be tested empirically (Schneider 1984:198). Thus Schneider discovered that the tabinau as reproduced through the citamangen-fak relationship had nothing to do with ‘kinship’ as this is commonly defined and applied. The genung relationship in Yap society, however, is explicitly based on the idea of identity through a common ‘belly’. People apply this alternative method of constructing relationship through tracing their origins to a female ancestor. The point is that relationships in Yap are not to be viewed as simply reflexes or epiphenomenon of underlying, “inherent and therefore inalienable attributes” that is of “biogenetic relationship which is represented by one or another variant of the symbol of “blood” (consanguinity), or of “birth”” (Schneider 1984:72).

‘Kinship’ on the Mentawai islands

The existing literature dealing with the uma on the Mentawai islands is unanimously based on the unquestioned assumed primacy of the pedigree. The uma as patriline is viewed as the central institution in social organization, an essentialism which has, I would argue, eliminated the possibility of perhaps making important insights into how uma function in the area.

Loeb, who carried out his research on the Pagai islands, describes the uma as the “communal house” functioning according to the occasion as “council house, trophy house (for skulls collected in the hunt), reception house for visitors, dancing floor, and sleeping place for the men during punen, or religious celebration”. Each uma had its several lalep (nuclear family dwelling) along with its attendant rusuk (unmarried couple’s dwelling) nearby. On Pagai, uma are collected into villages, each uma corresponding to a distinct sector or ward in the village and it was these and their surrounding lalep that comprised the “Mentawai social, political and religious unit” (Loeb 1928:409). The village never acted as a unit itself.

Despite the prominence and indeed dominance of the patriline Loeb nevertheless qualifies his position by pointing out that “a strong patrilineal power is lacking” in respect of “bride purchase” (Loeb 1928:421). Along with his observation that women own, outright, plots of land upon which they raise taro crops, this initiated a debate as to what degree the “Mentawaians” were patrilineal or matrilineal (Muensterberger 1948)(Murdock 1949). Murdock interpreted the evidence as indicating bilaterality, but exhibiting the beginnings of a shift from matrilocal extended families to clan barrios (Murdock 1949:76). Wallace (1951) took this further, arguing that the shift was definitely one toward matriliny as the overriding principle, and that patrilineality only applies in respect of uma affiliation (Wallace 1951:372). He eventually describes the village as the “largest effective social unit”, the uma being “essentially a patrilineal, patrilocal clan barrio” (Wallace 1951:374). The argument is made possible since unilineal descent is assumed to apply. The rest follows on. It is either patriliny, matriliny, double descent or cognatic, depending on your theoretical predilection.

In her extended sketch of the Pagai islands and Sipora, Nooy-Palm reports the existence of settlements (laggai) which are divided into two or more wards or barrios (Nooy-Palm 1968:170-171). Each ward has a “Big House”, or uma, as its focus with which is associated lalep and rusuk dwellings (Nooy-Palm 1968:73). As well as belonging to an uma, people also belong to one of twenty-five “”tribes”” or “patrilineal clans” called muntogat. Mun means ‘to have’, ‘to possess’, toga means ‘child’ or ‘children’. Thus a muntogat can be glossed as “”they who as a group of descendants belong together” or rather “they [the ancestors] who between them have many children”” (Nooy-Palm 1968:199). The “kinship system” is unequivocally patrilineal, descent being traced to an ancestor whose name may possibly be known but who otherwise does not get any special veneration. The ‘tribe’ is not subject to the authority of a chief, has no “religious centre”, no “common property or circumscribed territory, but only a common name”. A village may consist of the descendants of different clans or ‘tribes’; likewise for an uma, its lalep and rusuk (Nooy-Palm 1968:199). Hence one village consists of several muntogat and several uma. But whereas uma are localized as to village, a muntogat is spread over various villages. In Nooy-Palm’s opinion the kinship terminology is Iroquois indicating in her view the presence of a matri-group, albeit non-manifest and un-named. Nevertheless, she concludes that the society “had better be classified as Dakota, a type with a clear patrilineal structure, but with an Iroquois cousin terminology” (Nooy-Palm 1968:205). At the very end of the article we learn that men form a “corporate group with the uma as their centre”, which is also the only time the uma comes into the picture in its own right (Nooy-Palm 1968:236).

In Schefold’s work the uma is given a high profile although not consistently nor rigorously. It tends to be constructed as the background through which he pursues his main interest, namely ‘Mentawaian’ traditional religion, in particular how the major ritual event, the puliaijat, functions to increase social cohesion between groups (uma). Uma are important on Siberut, in contrast to the Pagai islands and Sipora since, according to the traditional model, there are no villages, only separate uma located just out of earshot of each other along the rivers. Although Schefold’s approach to social organization is relatively consistent, there is a significant shift between his work published in the early 1970s and that published in the 1980s.

In an early article exploring the nature of religious change among the Sakuddei, Schefold describes Siberut society as being organized into exogamous “patri-clans” (uma) consisting of some five to ten “families” in common residence within the large pile dwellings also called uma, an approach relying explicitly upon precepts set out in Murdock’s (1949) Social Structure. Based on “half-historical, half mythical traditions” relating to the settling of different areas of Siberut “particular descent groups”, uma that is, “regard themselves as related to certain uma in other valleys and in combination with them constitute a sib” or sirubeiteteu (Schefold 1972-73:47). Here we have then a clan (uma), or a House, as a local descent unit which is in some way connected to another uma or other uma in a separate locale, forming a non-localized sib, the sirubeiteteu. However, a little further on, Schefold (1972-73:57) refers to the muntogat as a “patrilinear descent group”, placing it on the same logical plane as the original definition of the uma.

In Schefold’s early writings the conceptualization of the uma as a “clan” of some five to ten families is consistent. But with “The Efficacious Symbol” (1982) there is a shift in definitions. The uma now belongs to one of the “clans that are spread over the islands” (Schefold 1982:126). This probably refers to the muntogat, since the “sib” (sirubeiteteu) does not rate another mention in any of Schefold’s other works. Henceforth the uma is no longer referred to as a “clan” but merely as a group of five to ten families “each differing in descent from its neighbours, yet related through common ancestors to particular uma, further along the river and in other valleys” (Schefold 1982:73). Now, echoing Nooy-Palm, Schefold notes that the population of Siberut as a whole “is divided into patrilineal clans all of which are derived from Simatalu, an area of common origin in the north-west of the island. There is no native appellation for these clans—some 25 in number—nor do they have individual names; the main factor linking the members within each clan is their sharing a common descent myth” (Schefold 1986:73). Yet in Speelgoed voor de Zielen (1979) Schefold mentions that clan members often recognize each other by means of personal names, every group being “arranged around a number of names” which may not be used by members of other clans (Schefold 1979:97). Clans never manifest themselves as a whole. There is, ideally, clan exogamy, but which is only strictly adhered to within the uma (Schefold 1986:74).

What might have been the outcome of these analyses had an initial fundamental question been asked: “What is the basis, or bases, upon which social relationships are constructed? How do these people construct and live out their relationships?” This is somewhat unfair since the question simply was not possible given the dominant discourse at the time, grounded solidly in the genealogy as pedigree manifest in the hunt for matrilines, patrilines, descent groups or clans, and the classical structuralist quest for these as bounded groups. This is exemplified in Nooy-Palm’s insistence on the existence of a matri-group even though it was non-manifest and had no name—a convoluted sort of fetishism where we go from the name as fetish to a fetish without a name—which is also characteristic of Schefold’s approach. What is the relationship between the uma, the “sib” (sirubeiteteu), and the muntogat?

Herman Sihombing, an Indonesian academic who undertook a study tour of the islands in the late 1950s, reports in his 1960 monograph on rights and principles relevant to many aspects of social organization. His account considers several factors which could be considered to give alternate bases on and around which relationships are constructed. According to Sihombing, every family (keluarga) belongs to a “natural genealogical unity” called a muntogat or samuntogat (the prefix “sa” here indicating a unit), a unity, however, strongly focused on inheritance (Sihombing 1960:34). Actual items of inheritance include houses, land and gardens, large cooking pots, canoes, dishes, hand-held fishing nets, clothing, and mosquito nets (Sihombing 1960:36). At first sight this looks like a classical African descent group which gains its existence and rationale through its functioning to apportion rights in goods and people in an orderly manner, thus promoting social cohesion. However, the identity of the samuntogat is to be found in the relationship of people to such inherited items and thus to each other, as laid down in “adat”, and is indeed shortly afterward defined as a “unity of inherited items” (satuan harta). The notion of order that follows from this is unimportant. Order is not at issue. “Adat” is all about correctness of procedure: adhere to the principles and all else follows. Nevertheless, aside from this, the analysis is one dominated by “law” (hukum) and its attendant formalism, ultimately based on the doctrine of the pedigree. Still, the focus on identity being caught up in inherited items is interesting, in light of recent theorising on the nature of social groups in insular Southeast Asia.

An hypothesis

Errington (1987) has found the orthodox notion of kinship wanting in her examination of beliefs pertaining to the birth of twins in Insular Southeast Asia. A major objective of this paper is a general reconceptualization of kinship groupings in the area which she divides into two: Eastern Indonesia and the Centrist Archipelago.

Eastern Indonesia, argues Errington, can be conceived to embrace East and West Nusatenggara, Tanimbar, Buru and Seram and is characterized by its asymmetric alliance systems. Societies consist of exogamous Houses which stand as wife-givers or wife-takers to each other as the case may be. These societies cast a wide variety of activities in dualistic forms demonstrating what Levi-Strauss has referred to as ‘concentric dualism’ which contrasts with what he refers to as the ‘simple’ or ‘reciprocal’ dualism of moiety systems (Errington 1987:404-5). Most importantly they have “multiple Houses, with clear boundaries and mutually distinct functions …” (Errington 1987:405).

However, much of Insular Southeast Asia can be classified as belonging to the Centrist Archipelago, an expanse embracing the Malay Peninsula, Java, Borneo, the Philippines, Sulawesi and Halmahera. Errington terms these societies as Centrist since Houses tend to coincide with the whole society or are “centred on an Ego or set of full siblings and to stretch indefinitely from that centre, with no clear boundaries”. Examples of the most hierarchical of these societies can be found in the ‘Indic States’, these being characterized by the aspiration to have a “single politically and symbolically hegemonic centre defined by Ruler, Regalia, and Court” (Errington 1987:405). The least hierarchical Errington terms “level” or “flat”, and include hunter and gatherer bands as well as shifting dry rice agriculturalists, the Semai of the Malay Peninsula, the Ilongot, and the Iban, for example (Errington 1987:407). Much of the article is taken up demonstrating how the marriage systems based on Houses in Eastern Indonesia and the Centrist Archipelago are in fact structural transformations of each other and how the contradictions they face and solve as Houses are reflected in beliefs about twins. However, what is relevant to the present argument is Errington’s characterization of the House in the Centrist Archipelago(17).

Errington’s thesis has its immediate origins in Levi-Strauss’ (1983) analysis of the House as it is found across the world. Levi-Strauss defines the House as a corporate body holding an estate made up of both material and immaterial wealth, which perpetuates itself through the transmission of its name, its goods, and its titles down a real or imaginary line, considered legitimate as long as this continuity can express itself in the language of kinship or of affinity and, most often, both (Levi-Strauss 1983:174).

Through this formulation Levi-Strauss is attempting to construct a model which would explain the anomalies to be found in societies ranging from the Kwakiutl and the Yurok to those of Medieval Europe. Contradictory principles including patriliny and matriliny, filiation and residence, achievement and ascription are confounded in these societies. The argument is that the problem is largely solved if they are viewed in terms of the principles contained in this definition of the House.

Nevertheless, whilst Levi-Strauss is definitely on the right track in seeing how these conflicting principles are reconciled by designating the House as the key to these societies, his formulation is grounded in notions which it was, in a sense, his project to avoid, and which furthermore do not make the transition to the Insular Southeast Asian context easily. The major problem is with the concept of a “corporate body” which “perpetuates itself” through the transmission of its name, goods and titles down a line, real or imaginary. It is a problematic image of static, reified, bounded groups brought undiluted from orthodox kinship theory. Errington modifies the definition beginning with the observation that many social formations in the Insular Southeast Asian area trace themselves to a point of origin often labelled with a word including the root pu or fu, indicating cause, source, origin, root or ancestor, and embodied in living persons or pusaka (to use the Indonesian gloss): ‘sacred objects’ (Errington 1987:409). These are attended to by caretakers forming a “worship community”. The main idea here is that, rather than struggling to fit the data into inappropriate categories like matriliny, filiation and so forth, it is better to regard Houses not as kinship groupings but simply as “worship communities unified around the pusaka they hold”—it is this that forms the focus of their production and reproduction.

A similar thesis has been put forward by Waterson (1990) who argues that kinship systems in Southeast Asia which fail to fit comfortably within conventional anthropological categories can be better understood if the House is viewed as the real focus of social organization (Waterson 1990:xviii). Problems with the analysis of these systems can be largely cleared up if they are looked upon as House-based systems. The question thus becomes “How does the house function to give shape and identity to kinship groupings?”

Taking a broader yet, simultaneously, more detailed perspective, Fox (1993) postulates generic characteristics for the Austronesian House as a type which includes noting that the House is a “repository of ancestral objects”. It also contains within it as a part of its structure what he terms a “ritual attractor”. This is a “specific post, beam, platform, niche, altar or enclosure” forming the focus of house rituals and which may stand as concentrated symbol of the house as a whole.

From the point of view of an ontology of praxis constituting regions in Madobag, one particular region could be argued to be the uma with its repository of ancestral heirlooms, and indeed this was the central problem to be investigated in the field, or in other words, the “substantive” or empirical part of a theory based on the ontological priority of praxis. What is the result if social organization is viewed in terms of Houses, uma, as entities defined through their relation to object(s) and/or person(s), that is, as caretaker communities focused around the heirlooms contained within the uma, as well as in terms of Fox’s generic Austronesian House? The evidence for this was scant in the literature dealing with the Mentawai islands, although it seemed at the time that this may have been a function of the orthodox perspectives brought to bear on the data reported in the early ethnography dealing with the Mentawai islands. This was purely a hypothesis to be tested in the field, the question being to what extent, if at all, the uma in Madobag could be viewed as regions focused on such objects or persons. The remainder of this work is aimed at arguing in the affirmative and, in doing so, exploring the evidence for taking this position. It furthermore develops a sketch of the distinctive nature of Madobag as a House (uma) community, delineating the vital role of the uma plays in the maintenance of an order at once and social order, a function in which the heirlooms play a vital part. We begin this exploration in the next chapter with a general outline of the cosmos as a sociospatial entity.


(1) To be unequivocally distinguished from Harris’ approach where the “cultural” is a reflex of ecological material forces. In his monograph Milner, following Raymond Williams’ lead, outlines a perspective upon literary production that seeks to go beyond the culture-verses-material-forces divide.

(2) Thus my objections to the discourse of the ‘Mentawaians’ ultimately operates on the same discursive ground—it is a case of competing ontologies, although a difference exits between the unreflexivity of the established discourse and the reflexivity of this approach attempting to make clear the grounds of contestation.

(3) For example Radcliffe-Brown considered his whole theoretical endeavour to be aimed at the analysis of social process: “the concrete reality with which the social anthropologist is concerned in observation, description, comparison and classification, is not any sort of entity but a process, the process of social life. The unit of investigation is the social life of some particular region of the earth during a certain period of time. The process itself consists of an immense multitude of actions and interactions of human beings, acting as individuals or in combination or groups” (Radcliffe-Brown 1952:4). Process here, however, consists of discrete monads ie. individuals interacting in aggregates of increasing inclusiveness, a far cry from the mutually implicated social persons engaging in constitutive praxis, an argument that will be developed in full below.

(4) cf. the discussion of de Josselin de Jong’s approach in chapter one.

(5) Most of the approaches eschewing essentialist methodologies are in fact dealing with “complex” social contexts, usually an urban centre where the application of traditional models to non-traditional research situations could be viewed as essential before any comprehension could be reached. However, it could be argued that it is an a priori essentializing methodology that demands a “non-complex” traditional research situation to be an homogenous and integrated whole.

(6) This can be traced back through Boas (cf. Stocking 1968:203) to Tylor (1871 I:5) (Ingold 1986:33).

(7) This perspective is explicit in Barth’s (1987) Cosmologies in the making: A Generative Approach to Cultural Variation in Inner New Guinea, where the reproduction of ritual depends entirely on specific elderly (male) individuals who produce the template in their capacities as individuals carrying the knowledge without which the ritual could not go ahead. These acting individuals are not the decentred selves we encounter embedded, created and reproduced within praxis.

(8) Not that this danger can ever be fully avoided. As Carrier (1992:14-15) suggests, ethnography as description and analysis will always entail some unavoidable degree of essentialization as a function of language.

(9) Rules are “techniques or generalized procedures applied in the enactment/reproduction of social practices” (Giddens 1984:21). Resources are of two types, allocative and authoritative. Allocative resources are “capabilities” or specifically “forms of transformative capacity” (ie. power, to be understood as the ability to ‘make a difference’ in the world) giving agents who, in certain contexts, possess such capabilities “command over objects, goods or material phenomena”. Authoritative resources involve “transformative capacity” or the capability to ‘make a difference’ in respect of other agents (Giddens 1984:33).

(10) Giddens, however, demonstrates tendencies towards latent essentialization where he goes on to develop these ideas, putting forward a decentred view of societies based on his very abstract “structural principles” which refer to “[p]rinciples of organization of societal totalities; factors involved in the overall institutional alignment of a society of type of society” (Giddens 1984:376). Identification of these principles leads to identification of discrete “societies” or “social systems which stand out in bas-relief from a background of a range of other systemic relationships in which they are embedded. They stand out because definite structural principles serve to produce a specifiable overall ‘clustering of institutions’ across time and space. Such a clustering is the first and most basic identifying feature of a society” although it is not the only one. Others, include an “association between the social system and specific locale or territory” which need not be “necessarily fixed areas”; “the existence of normative elements that involve laying claim to the legitimate occupation of the locale”; the existence among society members “of feelings that they have some sort of common identity, however that might be expressed or revealed … manifest in both practical and discursive consciousness” whether or not they agree as to the specific nature of that identity (Giddens 1984:164-165). An application of these principles would result in a distortion and reduction of the value of a practice approach, especially in the Madobag context where, according to these principles each suku (descent group) constitutes a ‘society’, an absurd notion. We would be back to analyst bias: emphasis on difference would produce discreet groupings; emphasis on sameness would obliterate complexity. Social reality does not avail itself of such totalization.

(11) On this point I must note that in order to emphasize the contingent being-in-the-world nature of the region, Giddens in referring to a region uses the concept regionalization, rather than ‘region’ per se.

(12) This is possibly a reflection of Giddens’ general emphasis on time and history to the detriment of space (Soja 1989:143).

(13) Wagner (1993:149) argues that Giddens’s subject reproduces Heidegger’s ultimately solipsist Dasein and requires being replaced with Alssein, “Being-as”, thus fulfilling Giddens’ fundamental project which is the question not of “”how social systems bind time and space.” Instead, one has to start from the level of the de-centred subjects and show “how form occurs in social relations” (Giddens 1981:30).”

(14) Yet not under conditions completely of their own choosing.

(15) And we must always be aware that each discursive context itself consists of the interplay of practical and discursive moments. This means that these are themselves subject to ideological representation just as this representation has its practical and purely discursive elements.

(16) It must also be acknowledged that in many respects these will have much in common when viewed in terms as regional variants of transnational and trans-provincial state economic practices.

(17) Let me stress at this point that I am not persuaded by Errington’s overall project. This classically structuralist Levi-Straussian division of Insular Southeast Asia into the binary opposition Centrist Archipelago: Eastern Indonesia is somewhat unconvincing, the examples being confined largely to the Iban and Luwu. Sumatra is also left out of the analysis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top