The Contribution of Weberian Sociology to Studies of Southeast Asia

By Wertheim, Wim F. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1995 | Go to article overview

The Contribution of Weberian Sociology to Studies of Southeast Asia


Wertheim, Wim F., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Earlier than in the Anglo-Saxon world, Weber's sociological studies attracted attention among social scientists in the Netherlands. It was particularly in connection with the Southeast Asian world that parallels were suggested with the rise of capitalism in the West.

As early as 1919, D.M.G. Koch, a Dutch social-democrat employed in the Governor-General's "General Secretariat" in Bogor (then Buitenzorg), wrote at the request of the liberal Governor-General Van Limburg Stirum a sociological analysis of the Indonesian nationalist movement. He attempted to analyse the movement in terms of the sociology of religion, as elaborated by Max Weber in his 1905 article "Die protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist' des Kapitalismus". Koch concluded that a parallel could be drawn between the Sarekat Islam movement and Protestantism as it had developed in Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Just like in the years of the rise of Protestantism in the Dutch Republic, now in Java Moslem cloth manufacturers (batik entrepreneurs) led the way in developing an innovation of religious values, evincing a new attitude toward labour.(1)

In 1924 a Dutch scholar specialized in both Indonesian history and ethnology, Bertram J.O. Schrieke, was appointed professor of ethnology and sociology at the newly founded Rechtshoogeschool (Law School) in Batavia (Jakarta) - at a time when in the Netherlands sociology was not yet acknowledged as an academic discipline in its own right. A few years later, after the abortive 1927 communist insurrection in Minangkabau (Sumatra's West Coast), Schrieke was entrusted with the task of investigating the causes of the insurrection as chairman of a government commission. In his final report he repeatedly referred to the works of such German sociologists as Max Weber, Werner Sombart, and Ernst Troeltsch.(2) In connection with the novel lucrative cultivation of commercial crops in that area, he wrote: "Here we have to do with a revolution in spirit, similar to that of the early capitalist period in Europe, as indicated by Max Weber and Sombart".(3) However, further on in his report he claimed that "the inner-worldly asceticism of early Protestantism" was absent in the West-Sumatran case.(4)

Whereas in the cases mentioned above the specific reference made to Weberian sociology had remained restricted to the issue of a possible parallelism between a new spirit within Indonesian protest movements and Weber's analysis of the "Protestant Ethic", in the 1930s a much more elaborated version of Weber's sociological theories as applied to the Southeast Asian world was provided by a young Dutch scholar, Jacob Van Leur. In his doctoral dissertation of 1934, defended at Leiden University and dealing with early Asian trade, Van Leur made a bold attempt at analysing early Southeast Asian society with the aid of the methodology of sociology and economic history developed by Max Weber.(5) The value of the work does not primarily lie in the fulfillment of the traditional ideal of a student of history, namely making new source material available. Van Leur threw the limelight of a new methodology on source material long since published, thereby enriching the historical discipline with a number of new hypotheses on the early history of Southeast Asia.

One of Van Leur's most spectacular discoveries bears upon the true character of what, until the early 1930s, used to be called "Hindu colonization" in Java. Among Dutch historians there was a rather generally accepted view that Hindu influences in Indonesia could be accounted for by the presence of large colonies of Indian traders, some of whom had risen to power as Hindu Kings. Van Leur demonstrated that it was, from a sociological point of view, highly improbable that travelling plain traders from India had been the transmitters of hierocratic Brahmin civilization, which was the essence of Hindu influence on Java. Moreover, the Hindu influence did not make itself felt primarily along the coasts of Java, where the traders were to be found, but in the courtly centres of the interior. …

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