Bali, Studies in Life, Thought and Ritual; Selected Studies on Indonesia, Vol. 5. W. van Hoeve, The Hague & Bandung 1960. 368 pp. text.

(reviewed by Clifford Geertz)

Now that this, the fifth in the series of English translations of (for the most part) pre-war studies on Indonesia by Dutch scholars, has appeared, both the general importance and specific value of this most imaginative editorial enterprise are coming more definitely into view. Its most immediately obvious virtue is, of course, the one the editors themselves off er as its rationale: works heretofore available only in Dutch, "to most scholars a 'secret' language," are being made accessible to a larger public. Yet one may doubt that this concession to academic indolence is the series' most important contribution; particularly when, in fact, it sometimes tends to encourage the illusion prevalent among some English-speaking Indonesian "experts" that "everything worthwhile in Dutch has been translated," and that therefore a lack of command of the major language of scholarship in one's field is no particular handicap. The bringing together of scattered, often obscurely published works and presenting them in a form more readily usable to non-Dutch scholars is a most helpful endeavor; but the real worth of these volumes rests on more fundamental grounds.

For what their publication is in essence accomplishing is the definition of a representative corpus of Dutch writings on Indonesian culture and society with respect to the sorts of interests which have become central in the social sciences since the bulk of these writings were composed. The Tropical Institute's editorial committee is engaged not in a mere Job of translation, but in a comprehensive project of analysis and appraisal, for they are attempting to sift out of the tremendous mass of material on Indonesian life produced during the final decades of the colonial period that relatively small portion which is of direct relevance to present-day theoretical concerns. And this in turn is making it possible for Dutch and non-Dutch scholars alike both to apprehend the exact nature of the work the civil servant and missionary savants did in the general area of sociology, economics, political science and so on, and to evaluate it in terms of contemporary Standards.

So far as anthropology is concerned, this is especially true of the volume at hand, a collection of articles on various aspects of Balinese religion, in which both the strengths and weaknesses of the ethnographic tradition fostered at the University of Leiden (where all the contributors were trained) from about 1920 on Stands out in clear relief. Goris, who left Leiden in 1926 to live most of his adult life in Bali is represented by four characteristically erudite works: on the religious basis of village Community life; on the temple System; on calendrical celebrations; and on the traditions of the blacksmith "caste." Part of Korn's famous monograph on Tenganan is included, as is his valuable description of the ritual consecration of Brahmin priests. Grader is represented by two rather shapeless pieces on temples in Mengwi and Buleleng, and by an excellent description of the Organization of irrigation societies in Djembrana. H. H. Franken, a young missionary, gives a tantalizing report on a post-war revitalistic movement focused around the mythical hero Djajaprana. And another missionary, Swellengrebel, has written a somewhat speculative general introduction to Balinese culture explicitly for this volume, which includes some acute observations on recent Hinduizing trends in Balinese religion. All in all, the book's Contents are rather too diverse and rather too special for it to constitute the ''concise introduction to the pattern of Balinese life and society" the editors hope for; but it does provide a concise introduction to the pattern of Dutch ethnography in Indonesia under the dominion of the Leiden school.

The virtues of this school are the classical ones: thoroughness, accuracy, concreteness, pertinacity, modesty, caution, breadth of interest, and a simply amazing control of the historical, literary and linguistic tools of Indonesian scholarship. There is about all of these papers an air of total dedication to the principle that ethnography is to be done well or not at all. Phenomena are to be described exactly, not generally. A patient, piece by piece review of evidence is the only reliable road to knowledge. And substance is not to be sacrificed to ease of comprehension (and certainly not to style). The result is that there is a solidity and reliability about this work which secures its permanence: whatever direction anthropology may take, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever be adjudged a competent Student of Balinese culture who has not read Korn and Goris.

Yet at the same time there is something seriously unsatisfactory about this work, and in fact of pre-war Dutch ethnology in general. More than any of the other fields of colonial social studies for which the Tropical Institute Committee is rendering accounts, the contribution of the anthropologists measure up poorly when viewed in terms of present Standards. Van Leur was ahead of almost all the historians of his time, and remains ahead of most. Schrieke, it is now clear, was one of the most important sociologists of the interwar period. Boeke's theorizing about "dualistic" economic Systems has some severe conceptual defects, but its relevance to present Problems in development remains virtually undiminished. But the work of the ethnologists, not only of these represented here, but of Rassers, Held, the eider de Josselin de Jong, van Wouden, etc., seems peculiarly antiquated somehow. For all its scholarly integrity and factual richness it has worn badly and it smells of the lamp.

Why, exactly, is this? One can answer the question, I think, in terms of four linked theoretical and methodological axioms which run through all the papers in this book save that of Franken, to which most of my strictures do not apply and seem to underlie the overall mode of analysis employed in them. The first, and in many ways the most important, is what might be called the "closed Community" or "dorpsrepubliek" axiom. Most explicitly expressed here in Goris' essay, "The Religious Character of the Village Community," this axiom holds that the Balinese village is a set-apart, self-contained, tightly knit, precisely delimited social microcosm, its absolute integrity underwritten by essentially religious concepts. Yet, both in Indonesia and elsewhere, recent work on peasant villages has more and more emphasized their unisolated character, the multiple ties running between villages or between groups within different villages. Trade, marriage, caste, inter-local politics, religious pilgrimage, and even mere friendship all forge relationships across village lines, many of which are as strong as those contained within such lines. And this is as true of Bali as elsewhere. The royal houses did not just ride uneasily above the village Community as mere external irritants, as the dorpsrepubliek view would have it, but they were directly and intimately involved in it. Trade, even if relatively undeveloped in Bali, has nevertheless always been of importance in forging inter-village ties, leading actually to a rather high degree of village economic specialization for Southeast Asia. And I have myself attempted to demonstrate elsewhere that the definition of bounded, comprehensive village units in Bali is not so simple and straightforward a matter as might at first appear, because the various social Units that Goris sees locked together in an indissoluble whole by Balinese cosmological notions irrigation societies, "families," neighborhoods etc. are not nearly so co-ordinate on the ground as they appear to be in theory, but rather overlap and criss-cross in maddeningly complex configurations.

This simplistic view of "the Balinese village" is, in turn, at least in part an outcome of a second, more methodological axiom which directs attention entirely to the descriptions of standardized practices and beliefs independently of their actual embodiments in action. This "cake of custom" approach focuses research on the general body of established tradition in and of itself, not on the specific processes of behavior in terms of which that body of tradition finds its expression. The typical form of the priestly consecration ceremony is extensively described, but no description of an actual ceremony or any part of one is given. The rules for the Operation of irrigation societies are carefully outlined, but no examples of the adjudication of particular conflict cases in terms of these rules is presented. Nearly all of the important statuses and institutions found in Bali. are at least alluded to at one point or another, but one will look long and hard to find a description of any concrete individual or social group interacting with any other concrete individual or social group within the context of these statuses and institutions. The result is a monochromatic view of Balinese culture in which its tremendous variety and vividness dissolves into a rather lifeless, Stereotypie picture.

Closely connected with both of these axioms is a third, no less dubious, which, so long as we are coining epithets, might be called "the ur-society concept." This is the idea that certain villages lying in the arc running from Kareng Asem on the east through the central mountain region toward Djembrana on the west have been less influenced by outside forces and so display ancestral or quasi-ancestral forms of social and cultural Organization. Such a view involves a host of implicit assumptions about the nature of socio-cultural change that isolated peoples change more slowly; that deviant Systems are survivals from the past rather than adaptations to special circumstances; that cultures grow by superimposing new layers Over older ones, etc. which Korn and the others who promoted this view never critically examined, perhaps because they were unaware that they held them, and which had well before the war, repeatedly been shown to be weak reeds at best. The main result of this search for the archetypal, pre-Hindu village aside from the fact that we perhaps know more about customs in the peripheral mountain areas of Bali than in the core region of the southern plain is that these writings are continually marred by a kind of speculative historical reconstruction which tends to turn attention away from other, more verifiable, explanations for cultural Variation in Bali and to obscure rather than clarify the forces shaping the pattern of social change on the island.

And finally, all this is crowned by the fourth, and in my opinion the most per-nicious, axiom: namely that there exists in "primitive society" an exact formal congruence between the structure of social life and the pattern of cosmological ideas, such that one can predict from the first what the second will be and deduce from the second what the first is, or more commonly was. This view, which stems from Durkheim's ill-starred attempt to create a sociological epistemology, was introduced into Dutch anthropology by Rassers, and seems to have dominated most of it ever since, leading to a kind of free-wheeling analysis of symbol Systems whose only recommendation is its ingenuity. As the form of the ur-society is assumed, for, so far as I can see, wholly arbitrary reasons, to have been one of dual Organization, the associated cosmology must also be dualistic. And as, for reasons which are also far from clear, the ur-society is gone but the cosmology lingers on, a great deal of time is consumed in trying to read into, in this case, Balinese religious conceptions, a rigorous dualism of a sort which is rather more Christian than it is either Hindu or Malayo-Polynesian. Of course oppositions can always be found, even in a religion such as the Balinese whose central conceptual focus is on the idea of Spiritual hierarchy rather than that of logical antithesis, because thinking in contrasting pairs is a universal human trait. And once one has several sets of these it is easy enough to correlate them to one's own satisfaction at least. Thus, the Balinese Opposition between mountain-wards and sea-wards is lined up with their Opposition between gods and demons, and then these in turn with life and death, sunset and sunrise, man and woman, etc., all without any real attempt to see how far such correlations will in fact stand up. And then, by the frank circularity this sort of reasoning involves, these assumed correlations are used as evidence for the reality of the former existence of a moiety System.

All four of these axioms the closed village notion, the cake of custom approach, the search for an ur-society, and the assumption of an exact formal congruence between symbolic System and social structures in primitive societies thus inter-act to give the work of these writers, despite its high scholarly level, a distinctly antiquated look in terms of present theoretical interests. Nor does this judgment rest on a defective sense of history, because it was not always thus. Snouck Hurgronje's ethnological work, with its extraordinary insight into the functioning of traditional political Systems and the role of religion in society, reads today almost as though it had just been written. And, in fact, most of the earlier Dutch work on Bali by Liefrinck, van Eck, Friedrich etc. actually seems more modern in spirit, if less reliable in detail, than the work in this volume. Rassers, with his academic, speculative, unrealistic arm-chair approach to the interpretation of Indonesian culture and social Organization seems to have led the members of the Leiden school of anthropologists into a morass of unprofitable theorizing which, though it could not prevent men with the scholarly capacities and dedication of men such as Korn, Goris and Grader from making an enduring contribution to Our factual knowledge of Balinese culture, did prevent them from advancing very far our understanding of how it functions.


The University of Chicago.


Book Review, in: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (s'Gravenhage/NED: Martinus Nijhoff), vol. 117 no. 4 (1961), pp. 498-502


online source:

Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia), ... is a fully Open Access journal, which means that all articles are freely available online, ensuring maximum, worldwide dissemination of content, in exchange for an Article Publication Charge. As the journal receives a subvention for publication from the learned society Vereniging KITLV (NL) the Article Publication Charge is waived.


Using this text is also subject to the general HyperGeertz-Copyright-regulations based on Austrian copyright-law (2001), which - in short - allow a personal, nonprofit & educational (all must apply) use of material stored in data bases, including a restricted redistribution of such material, if this is also for nonprofit purposes and restricted to a specific scientific community (both must apply), and if full and accurate attribution to the author, original source and date of publication, web location(s) or originating list(s) is given ("fair-use-restriction"). Any other use transgressing this restriction is subject to a direct agreement between a subsequent user and the holder of the original copyright(s) as indicated by the source(s). HyperGeertz@WorldCatalogue cannot be held responsible for any neglection of these regulations and will impose such a responsibility on any unlawful user.

Each copy of any part of a  transmission of a HyperGeertz-Text must therefore contain this same copyright notice as it appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission, including any specific copyright notice as indicated above by the original copyright holder and/ or the previous online source(s).