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Cognation and Social Organization in Southeast Asia.

This important collection of essays grew out of a seminar on "Cognatic Forms of Social Organization in Southeast Asia" held in Amsterdam in 1983. According to the editors, Frans Husken and Jeremy Kemp, two central "themes" in anthropological studies of kinship in the region are "prescriptive marriage alliance and cognatic systems". Whereas the former has become a minor industry, the latter has been "neglected", a situation the present volume contributes admirably to rectifying. The essays focus more on Southeast Asia's peasant societies than on its so-called "simple societies", whose kinship systems have received more scholarly attention.

The editors' introduction situates the essays in terms of both the history of the anthropological study of kinship, especially bilateral or cognatic kinship, and the organization of the volume itself. The editors argue that unlike G.P. Murdock, editor of the Social Structure in Southeast Asia (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1960), the contributors to this collection do not equate kinship with social organization, ignore kin ties beyond the nuclear family, or privilege kin group over kin category. In the latter especially, the volume builds upon the lead provided by Freeman in his famous discussion of the concept of the kindred. Two particular strengths of this volume are that it explores the relationship between equality and hierarchy and illustrates that kinship systems are neither unambiguous or monolithic, whether in ideology or in action. In a footnote the editors acknowledge that the geographical coverage is not complete, a fact graphically illustrated in the "Map of Southeast Asia" in which the northern portions of Burma, Laos, and Vietnam are cut off. Of twelve ethnographic essays, nine are case studies of Malaysia or Indonesia, one compares Java and Central Luzon (Willem Wolters), one is about the Philippines (Rosanne Rutten), and one is on North-Central Thailand (Jeremy Kemp). The twelve ethnographic essays are grouped under three categories. In Part I papers by Victor T. King, Mark Hobart, C.W. Watson, and Maila Stivens focus on cognation and unilineal descent. King's comparative study, in which he argues "that there are significant differences in terms of kinship between the egalitarian and hierarchical societies of Borneo", will appeal to anyone interested in the Leachian problematic of the relationship of egalitarianism and stratification in Southeast Asia. Watson likens his depiction of the social organization of the Kerinci of Central Sumatra to an Escher painting, since from one analytical angle their social organization appears cognatic and from another, matrilineal.

The papers in Part II by Kemp, Janet Carsten, Bill Wilder, and Josiane Massard consider the link between kinship and territorial and other forms of community. In perhaps the most interesting case study in the volume, Carsten shows how in Langkawi, Malaysia, the culturally central relationship between parents-in-law (bisan), an affinal bond "transformed into one of consanguinity" through common grandchildren, is "at the very centre of the ideal notion of community" in which equality is stressed, though it is not necessarily present in real life. For the people of Langkawi themselves an Escher-like shift of perspective is effected whereby the community "of consanguineally related households ... within which relationships are based on hierarchy" becomes "a collection of affinally connected households" whose bonds are based on equality. Finally, the papers by Husken, Willem Wolters, Rosanne Rutten, and Diana Wong in Part III concentrates on "the part played by kinship in political and economic affairs". For example, Rutten argues that among impoverished workers on a Philippine hacienda ties to relatives are of "great instrumental importance ... to safeguard their subsistence security through mutual help". In an interesting discussion of intergenerational transfers of resources in Kedah, Malaysia, Wong inverts "the Chayanovian proposition that access to resources depends mainly on control over familial labour".

Many anthropologists would take exception to Wong's apparent equation of "balanced" and "asymmetrical reciprocity" in describing short-term exchanges between households and her characterization of the unequal transfer of parental wealth to children as "generalized reciprocity". Similarly, they might question Carsten's claims that "a model of generalized exchange ... accords well with the idiom of equality", since generalized exchange is usually associated in the anthropological literature with status asymmetry.

Given the prevalence of cognatic or bilateral kinship systems in Southeast Asia, the volume is a welcome addition to the scholarship on the region. It is regrettable, however, that it presupposes technical expertise in the anthropological study of consanguinity and affinity in general and in Southeast Asia in particular. As a whole the volume demonstrates that kinship is "intimately connected to the domains of production, politics, religion, or whatever" -- with "whatever" being, for instance, territorial and other community organization, social stratification, class relations, resource control and distribution, and social change. Given that these domains are of interest to Southeast Asianists in diverse disciplines, it is especially regrettable that this volume is not readily accessible to a broad readership.

Some anthropologists might echo the editors' judgment of the Murdock volume, finding that this one "appears ... in some respects unduly dated". This is perhaps an artifact of the eight years that elapsed between the Amsterdam seminar and publication. This delay may explain the absence of citations to important works of related interest published after the seminar but before this volume, such as the special issue of the journal Mankind on "Spirit Cults and the Position of Women in Northern Thailand" |Vol. 14, No. 4 (1984)~, the volume De la hutte au palais: societes "a maison" en Asie du Sud-Est insulaire |Charles Macdonald, ed. (Paris: CNRS, 1987)~ on "house societies" -- a concept introduced by Levi-Strauss prior to 1983 -- or Shelly Errington's Meaning and Power in a Southeast Asian Realm (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) with its model of the Centrist Archipelago versus Eastern Indonesia and its discussion of the applicability of the Levi-Straussian concept of "house" to societies in both these areas.

The index only includes authors mentioned in the text (but not in footnotes); inclusion of technical kinship vocabulary and analytical concepts used and of topics covered would have been helpful. It is to be hoped that the technical nature of this fine volume will not prevent it from reaching the broad readership it deserves and that it will succeed in stimulating future research on and analysis of cognation and social organization not only in Southeast Asia but also in other regions.

Brandeis University Cornelia Ann Kammerer
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Author:Kammerer, Cornelia Ann
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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