Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Changing Places: Relatives and Relativism in Java

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Changing Places: Relatives and Relativism in Java

Article excerpt

Java is well known for its cultural diversity and for the coexistence (not always peaceful) of its contrasting religious orientations. This coexistence is not a matter of different subcultures subsisting alongside each other in separate spheres; it is an immediate and intimate fact of daily life. In some areas, such as Banyuwangi on the eastern tip of the island, villagers with sharply different beliefs and practices co-operate directly in neighbourhood and kinship rituals. Orthodox-leaning Muslims, pantheistic mystics, and practitioners of a syncretism I shall loosely call 'nominal Islam' participate in each other's rites, often saying and doing the same as each other, but meaning different things. They are fully aware of this difference in perspectives, and of the need to cope with it on symbolic and interpersonal levels: agreeing to differ is the price of neighbourly harmony. We can see how this works in practice by looking at the organization of ritual and its situational interpretation (Beatty 1999; 2000 ), but how should we account for the peculiar flexibility and relativism, both moral and conceptual, which make such delicate but durable arrangements possible? How do villagers learn to position themselves among different perspectives -- or even to shift perspectives -- when the occasion demands? How do they learn to manage difference while maintaining the personal equilibrium and social consensus which they value so highly? These questions, far from being abstract conundrums, are matters of practical, daily concern; and it is in considering the characteristic experiences of growing up in a Javanese village that we will see both how they arise and how they are tackled.

An account of the routines underlying relativism throws up some surprising links -- between conversion, adoption, and gender, for example. Without claiming causal or developmental priority for one set of practices over another, these links nevertheless suggest the utility of a cautiously Durkheimian approach in which questions of kinship and cosmology are considered together. The integrating factor, I will suggest, is a cultural model of 'changing places' which is learned in the routines of ordinary life and expressed in numerous ritual usages. (1)

Introduction

The problem of conceptualizing society in its relation to religion and cosmology is one which goes right back to the origins of our discipline. If it has gone out of fashion, or at least is now framed in other terms, this is because - unlike many of the people we write about - we are no longer prepared to talk about societies as wholes, as ideal or empirical entities to which cosmos might correspond, and also because we are now suspicious of overarching dichotomies of the individual-and-society or culture-and-personality variety, preferring intermediary concepts grounded in practical human relations - concepts like sociality, personhood, habitus, and embodiment (Bourdieu 1977; Brightman 1995; Ortner 1984). Our problem, thus refrained, is how to acknowledge the agency of actors, their capacity for self-knowledge and creative action, yet at the same time give due weight to the contingencies, historical and cultural, which define their situations and possibilities and which, in turn, their actions help to consti tute (Giddens 1984). As an ethnographic programme, this means (among other things) showing how cultural forms emerge in, and are continually reworked through, interpersonal relations. Culture no longer 'constrains', much less determines, as if from outside the encounter; it is the medium in which people conceive their choices. Difficult enough in itself, the ethnographer's task in this new perspective is further complicated by the problem of intra-cultural diversity. And by this I mean not the ordinary idiosyncratic variation which gets evened out in the run of things, nor the positional and subcultural differences which are nowadays routinely acknowledged among populations once mistakenly regarded as 'homogeneous' (Brightman 1995: 516-17). …

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