Change without progress in a wet rice culture*

(by) Clifford Geertz, 
School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton NJ 08540

Agricultural Involution is an unusual book for an anthropologist to have written. It takes not a particular people, tribe, or village as its object, but an entire country, and a literate, culturally developed one at that. It is strongly historical in nature, reaching back to the nineteenth century and before to explain cultural phenomena. It develops a very strong thesis out of a particular theoretical tradition - cultural ecology. And it represents an attack on both neoclassical and Marxist explanations of economic change in Third World countries. Thus, it is perhaps not so surprising that it launched a debate that has lasted now for nearly 30 years and involved literally dozens of scholars from a number of countries.1,2,3,4.


It is also unusual in that, though its thesis was applied in Indonesia as a whole, it arose out of ethnographic work in and around a small town in eastern Java. The capacity of the wet rice regime there to absorb an increasing labour force into a more less-static socio-technical structure, a process I compared to treading water, led me to propose that this sort of change without progress had been going on in Java for some centuries. I borrowed the concept of involution from the American anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser5. He had used it to describe cultural forms - Gothic architecture, Maori carvings - that, having reached a definitive form, continued to develop by becoming internally more complicated. Here, I attempted to explain how such increasing internal complexity had taken place in the sedentary wet rice agriculture as opposed to the dry rice shifting cultivation regimes in the rest of Indonesia.


The book was originally intended as a prolegomena to a general analysis of Indonesian society. But after I published it, such a project seemed premature, so I more or less set it aside and addressed myself to a series of issues in Indonesian sociology. As a result, its very close relation to my work overall has tended to go unnoticed, and the book has become something of an orphan with a special history of its own. When I go about the country speaking at universities, the audience often seems to divide into those who know about Agricultural Involution and nothing much else I have done, and those who know about my work overall, except for Agricultural Involution. As it has sold more copies by far than anything else I have written, I have grown rather fond - some might say too fond - of my orphan.



*) published as "This week's citation classic", in: Current Contents/ Agriculture, Biology & Environmental Sciences (Philadelphia/PA/USA: Thomson Scientific Co./ Institute for Scientific Information), no. 12 (March 25, 1991), print version, p. 8.

1) Geertz, C. Culture and social change: the Indonesian case, Man 19: 511-32, 1983 (cited 15 times).

2) Alexander, J. & Alexander, P. Shared poverty as ideology: agrarian relations in colonial Java, Man 17: 597-619, 1982 (cited 5 times).

3) Elson, R.E. The cultivation system and "agricultural involution", Working Paper No. 14, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Melbourne, Australia: Monash University, 1978.

4) Kaha, J. S. Towards a history of the critique of economism: the nineteenth century German origins of the ethnographer's dilemma, Man 25: 230-49, 1990.

5) Goldenweiser, A. Loose ends of a theory on the individual pattern and involution in primitive society. (Lowie, R. ed.) Essays in anthropology presented to A. L. Kroeber, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1936. p. 99-104.

Clifford Geertz: Change without progress in a wet rice culture (A citation classic commentary on: Agricultural Involution), in: Current Contents/ Agriculture, Biology & Environmental Sciences (Philadelphia/Pa./USA: Institute for Scientific Information), vol. 22 no. 12 (1991), p. 8.

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