ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Places and identities

Being-in-place: history, place and personhood in East Java

Konstantinos Retsikas, University of Sussex

The paper charts the ontological nature of locality through the formulation of a dialectical approach. Implicit in this formulation is the concept of locality as an always contingent and incomplete totality animated and constituted by the interconnections permeating among history, place and personhood. From this standpoint, it is argued that locality makes itself present (and felt) through the internal relations in each of its parts and the ways these cohere, in particular circumstances, to become essential attributes of being-in-the-world.

The discursive coalescence of history, place and personhood is explored in relation to a semi-urban settlement in East Java, Indonesia. Alas Niser is identified by locals and non-locals alike as a 'mixed place' and its inhabitants as a kind of people produced by the conjunction and the blending of 'Javanese' and 'Madurese' 'kindedness'. Oral narratives of the locality’s establishment revolve around memories of a series of diverse demographic movements, as well as, key kinship relationships as these have developed over a period of a century and a half, that postulate a certain correspondence between topography and ontology. This correspondence collapses analytical distinctions between persons and place through the idiom of their perpetual and mutual transformation.

While the idea of transformation is usually associated in the literature with a process through which space is “culturalised” and impersonal geography is turned into “home” and “dwelling”, highlighting the agency human subjects exert over their environment, I suggest that place too is an active force in constituting persons, appropriating and inscribing them with specific characteristics and capacities. The force that belongs to place itself rests on the dynamics of gathering and arranging that which it contains in an particular manner, establishing divisions and fostering interconnections that, in turn, provide the means through which humans become subjects. The inherently spatial character of both social relationships and acts of remembering underline the realisation of particular forms of personhood as achieved only through such a process of emplacement.

A traveling culture? Place and the Manggarai ‘people who swing’

Dr Catherine Allerton, London School of Economics

Much contemporary anthropological work on the (ir)relevance of ‘locality’ is concerned with understanding its significance in the context of globalisation, diasporas and cyberspace. By contrast, this paper is concerned with an archetypal anthropological ‘fieldsite’: a community of shifting cultivators in the west of the Indonesian island of Flores. For over thirty years, this community has divided its houses and inhabitants between two village sites. The oldest, ancestral site occupies a solitary position in the highlands and contains a number of stone ‘monuments’. By contrast, the newer site is a four-hour hike away in the more populated lowlands, and was built on the orders of government officials in 1967, a time when, throughout Indonesia, dispersed or highland communities were forced to resettle in ‘model’ lowland villages. Today, the inhabitants of this Manggarai community see themselves not as two villages but as a ‘two-placed’ village. Indeed, they sometimes call themselves ata jéjong or ‘the people who swing’, since most of them journey, more or less frequently, back and forth between the two sites.

The paper will describe the practical problems and symbolic negotiations occasioned by life in a two-placed village. More generally, the paper will analyse how Manggarai places (rooms, houses, sacred sites) cannot be conceived or understood in the absence of pathways and travel. The latter include paths of marriage that are pounded into the landscape by brides and other affines, ancestral routes involved in the imagination of agnatic links, and the modern travels of young men seeking money and experience through migrant work in Malaysia. Does traveling mean the same thing for men and women, the young and the old, those at school and those working in the fields? What is the connection between locality and identity? Can conceptions of mobility, or notions of ‘traveling cultures’, help us to understand the experience of the ‘people who swing’?

From Longhouses to Short Houses: reproducing locality and modernity in Sarawak, Malaysia

Fiona M Harris, University of Edinburgh

This paper explores the role of architecture in representations of wider processes of changing lifeworlds. By exploring re-productions of localities through changing house form, I illustrate architectural change as a response to 'modernity' as it is 'locally' imagined. Unlike other parts of the world where 'modernity' and secularisation go hand in hand, however, religious change is also embedded in these processes. Hybrid houses are tangible signs of the variety and contradiction inherent in religious change.

While conversion to Christianity in Malaysia may be construed as an act of cultural resistance to state power and Malay hegemony, conversion to Islam involves converts in interesting engagements with re-productions of locality and identity. In Malaysia and Indonesia Islam is a primordialised aspect of 'Malayness' to the extent that to become Muslim is talked about as masuk Melayu or 'becoming Malay', although this is a discourse of the centre that is resisted on the periphery of state power. By examining localities divided by religion, I reveal both the salience of architectural form within the politics of identity and the multilocal nature of locality. Christians adopt new house forms in order to demonstrate new ways of living; and yet those who have become Muslim (in this particular locality) have been re-located by the state into reinvented longhouses that are more representative of global hegemony than the 'short houses' of the Catholic converts.

The ambiguity and contradictions revealed in the various house forms act as a metaphor for religious change. Collective performances of ritual both reinforce and demonstrate difference and yet within the church, mosque or beri gawai there is an almost Durkheimian sociality shot through with contradiction and dissent. I argue that 'religion' and ritual are a source of both unity and fracture at one and the same time and attempts to 'localise' the experiences of converts simply ignores the necessity of understanding changing lifeworlds as flow and movement between localities as much as it is about reproducing one.

An anthropology of place-making: masons, apprenticeship and meaning in Djenne, Mali

Trevor H.J. Marchand, School of Oriental & African Studies

Masons and apprenticeship were pivotal to my studies of Djenne’s architecture, urban space and building tradition. For two seasons (2001 and 2002) I worked as a building labourer in order to better understand how technical skills, social identity and occult knowledge were practiced, performed and reproduced in the trade. The masons’ association, the barey ton, provided a forum for negotiating and regulating professional standards. Secret benedictions made by individual masons guaranteed their team’s safety and the prosperity of future inhabitants. The styles and decoration they sculpted denoted the socio-economic status and aesthetic tastes of patrons. Beyond the local context, the region’s so-called style-Soudanaise architecture has been a key factor in the historical imaginings of Mali’s national identity. In summary, the masons were not merely makers of functional objects arranged in some pre-given space, but they were significantly engaged in ‘place-making’ practices that produced their own identities as craftsmen, shaped the identities of town residents, and rendered Djenne a secure and meaningful environment.

Following Casey (1997) and Malpas (1999), I maintain that life is constituted in and through its relation to the places in which it is lived, and that “identity is directly tied to the way in which the lived relation to place comes to be articulated and expressed” (Malpas, 2001:232). In this paper I will champion the discipline’s legacy of situated fieldwork and participation in the everyday phenomenological experiences of communities as necessary to an ‘anthropology of place-making’. Over the past decades anthropologists have used spatial metaphors to conceptualise and discuss a plethora of human (dis)connections in the so-called ‘globalising’ world. The located, embodied nature of place, however, exists a priori any abstract notions of space and time, and therefore must remain central to our work.

My ethnographic focus will be the master-apprentice relation on the construction site where knowledge, identities and meaning were produced. The mason’s knowledge was embodied in his skilled activities, social performance and the things that he made. All three manifestations were accessible to the apprentice and structured his learning within a participatory context. The long gestation of practical and social knowledge during the apprenticeship fostered an ‘emplaced’ understanding of structural and aesthetic possibilities that, in turn, enabled a degree of creativity acceptable to colleagues and patrons. I will argue that these innovations - typically ascribed to master masons - expanded the discursive boundaries of ‘tradition’ and re-inscribed Djenne with contemporary meaning, value and a sense of place for its inhabitants.


  • Casey, E. 1997. The Fate of Place: a philosophical history. Berkeley: U. of California Press.
  • Malpas, J.E. 2001. ‘Comparing Topographies: across paths/around place: a reply to Casey’, in Philosophy & Geography, vol. 4, no. 2:231-238.
  • --------- 1999. Place & Experience: a philosophical topography. Cambridge: CUP.

The judge and the historians: the negotiation of the meaning of locality in South Malakula, Vanuatu

Jean de Lannoy, University of Oxford

In South Malakula, Vanuatu, social transformations resulting from migrations, conversion to Christianity, and interaction with the judicial system have created a new hierarchy of spaces (areas, islands, provinces, nation) and led people to adopt new concepts making sense of their changing relationship to space. Prior concepts of place (e.g. naur) reflected a unity of kinship group and place of residence. Earlier anthropologists working in the area when this unity was already ruptured were at a loss to make sense of such concepts. In the context of increasing land disputes after Independence in 1980, a series of pidgin words, some of which of vernacular origin (e.g. nasara), have been adopted that incorporate a notion of distance between people and their original land. These concepts also reflect the constitution of village communities based not on common origin but on a shared faith. The paper will also focus on the discussion of these concepts in official and unofficial courts, representing a series of expanding circles to which the villages belong. The membership and location of these courts favours the emergence of new ideas about the relationship of people to place. The paper discusses changing ideas about ancient places, seen at a distance from mission villages, regional centres and towns, as well as in the emergence of new types of places.

Constructing the field: Yugoslav anthropologists’ concepts of ‘self’ and ‘other’

Aleksandar Bošković, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa & Institute of Social Sciences, Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro

The wonderful and strange world of ‘the Balkans’ has become especially fascinating for anthropologists and social scientists as the wars and destruction raged in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Some of the crucial issues are the ones of location: for example, what and where is ‘the Balkans’, who decides, and based on what? Just like in some other cases of geographic and social constructions, the answers to these questions are far from clear. The paper examines receptions and evaluations of the events between 1991 and 1999, highlighting the role of anthropologists (as well as social scientists in general) in the construction and consumption of certain crucial events. The main focus is on the responses from the ‘native’ anthropologists and ethnologists, especially from Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. Their perceptions of their respective ethnic groups and the ways in which these ethnic groups have been perceived and discussed by ‘outsiders’ (or ‘Western anthropologists’) are also discussed and put into the context of the more general attempts to re-organise the discipline in the region. This is also evaluated in the light of creation of other relatively recent constructions (such as ‘post-socialism’), as well as their actual applicability to the understanding of the situation in the region.

‘Here I am, as I promised’: self, experience and relationships in a woman’s pilgrimage journey in Mexico

Dr. Susana Carro-Ripalda, Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Applied Social Sciences, University of Glasgow

This proposed paper will deal with issues of the self and subjectivity in the context of travel and displacement. Based on ethnographic material collected during my doctoral fieldwork in Lake Pátzcuaro (Mexico), the paper will describe a Purhépecha woman’s journey from her own village to a regional pilgrimage shrine, to which she went to visit the resident saint. My main argument is that the whole journey, rather than representing a rupture with daily life in context, and a temporary discontinuation of quotidian perceptions of self, was related to and indeed gained its meaning from a continuation of personal self-experience. The preservation of subjectivity in movement was articulated around the dynamics of certain relationships (mainly with the saint but also with others) and around the active recreation of “home” and daily contexts in other spaces. At the same time, the perceived continuity of the dynamics of quotidian experience allowed the woman a sense of self-development, again pivoted around relationships, actions and interactions which took place both at the pilgrimage site and back at her village.

Turner´s vision of pilgrimage as an individual spiritual journey, a liminoid phenomenon which distanced the pilgrim from daily life experience, activity and social dynamics (Turner and Turner 1978) has been since widely challenged. Instead, some anthropologists have interpreted pilgrimage as ritual means for the constitution and symbolisation of localised collective identities (Sallnow 1981, 1987). In a previous article, I examined critically some of these theories vis-a-vis ethnographic material from my doctoral research, and concluded that, for the Purhépecha women of Lake Pátzcuaro, “pilgrimage” was more about quotidian experience and relatedness than ritualised collective identity. Thus the journey in itself represented a dynamic instance of a lifelong interactive relationship with a particular saint as agent, embedded in a constellation of other significant social relationships. In this proposed paper I will continue exploring issues of these relationships between women and saints, looking at them in the context of movement and displacement. I will address the questions of how such relationships help to articulate a sense of continuity of self through the journey, how such sense is also pivoted around active and interactive recreations of the familiar in another space, and how experiences of enjoyment and realtive freedom are integrated within experience. I will also argue that it is indeed precisely this sense of fluidity of experience and realtedness which motivates the whole journey and gives it its cultural significance.