Family, Households, and Livelihoods

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The flexibility, stability, and shape of Southeast Asian social structures have been dominant themes in the anthropological study of the region at various points. While anthropologists today do not devote as much time to the study of social structure and kinship as they once did, understanding these aspects of social life is still essential to understanding how people of Southeast Asia relate to each other—because those people use these structures and roles to figure out their rights, duties, and obligations to one another. Southeast Asian social structures have often been described as loosely structured (Embree 1950). Up until the mid-twentieth century, scholarly research on social structure had been dominated by the study of lineage societies. The ethnographic example of Southeast Asia opened up a new perspective, a different possibility, for examining social structure. Loosely structured societies are marked by dyadic relationships, relationships between two people. We have already seen in chapter 1 (Aragon) that personal pronouns are not stable for a person (in contrast to English, in which “you” are always you), but in fact shift depending on who “you” are interacting with. Likewise, in many Southeast Asian languages, personal pronouns shift, depending on whether one is speaking to someone older or younger, more prestigious or less prestigious. This is an expression of dyadic relationships. The term loosely structured implies a lack of structure, and many anthropologists who have worked in Southeast Asia have found this unsatisfying. There is structure—people interact in patterned ways and act to keep these types of relationships in place. But it is clear that some existing structures are so unlike the classical analytical units of kinship based on African models that they are not evident to observers. This issue has been addressed frequently in anthropological literature about Southeast Asian societies.

In “Merit and Power in the Thai Social Order” (chapter 7), Lucien M. Hanks, Jr. demonstrates the importance to Thai social structure of the entourage, a kind of patron–client relationship. These are based on dyadic �hierarchy—�a series of relationships that are not equal, in which each person in the relationship is subordinate or superior to the other. Entourages are structured around a person of power, whose charisma is based on concepts of “soul stuff” or “prowess” (Wolters 1999), a kind of personal efficacy. This, too, is a key concept throughout much of South�east Asia. We will see in Part III on “Crafting the Nation-State” how this concept is implicated in political systems. A common kinship form in Southeast Asia is cognatic (Murdock 1960), meaning that kinship is reckoned through all descent relationships—that is, through both the mother and the father. Cognatic kinship systems are marked by small domestic households, often owning property together (corporate); and all of the kinspeople on both the mother’s and the father’s side are called the kindred. This form will be quite familiar to many readers of this book—it is the kinship type practiced in the United States. We can visualize these as kinship circles that surround each person (Eggan 1960). The Hanunóo discussed in chapter 5 (Conklin) have this type of kinship. There are advantages to this system—in particular, it supports mobility and flexibility because each person can call on a wide range of kin for support and access to resources; and wherever one goes, there are likely to be kin. It is also a kinship system that made sense within the cultural logic of South�east Asian history, in which populations moved around in response to war or disaster or new access to resources. This is also the foundation of other features of South�east Asia noted by observers over time: the flexibility of marriage and frequency of adoption. But this kind of kinship has implications for po�liti�cal power, as Anthony Reid (1988) pointed out in his discussion of common phenomena that unite South�east Asia. Succession and inheritance are unclear in a cognatic system. Therefore, considerable competition exists for power and social influence. People show this by demonstrating their personal power and attracting followers; the costs of the need for ongoing demonstration of one’s prowess, of one’s prestige, are illustrated by the story of the Thai “Rocky” as told by Pattana Kitiarsa (chapter 15). Personal power is the basis of the patron–client entourage in Hanks’s discussion. For the Thai and other Buddhist peoples of mainland South�east Asia, the power of the patron of an entourage is rooted in concepts of merit and virtue, both earned and kept by individuals. Merit has already been discussed by High (chapter 3), and is further discussed by Darlington (chapter 11). An individual’s power can also be rooted in Brahmanic concepts of sacred power saksit. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the cognatic kinship system is not sufficient to understand South�east Asian people’s social organization. Certain cultures with cognatic kinship also conceptualize identities in terms of houses. The idea of “house societies” originated with Claude Lévi-Strauss and has since been applied (with adjustments) to South�east Asia by various anthropologists, particularly those working in the islands. Levi-Strauss defined the house as “a corporate body holding an estate made up of both material and immaterial wealth, which perpetuates itself through the transmission of its name, its goods and its titles down a real or imaginary line, considered legitimate as long as this continuity can express itself in the language of kinship or affinity and, most often, of both” (Lévi-Strauss 1983:174). The key elements are, therefore, the ideal of continuity, the passing down of some form of valued property; and the use of the language of kinship (Waterson 1995:49–50). As Roxanna Waterson notes, across island South�east Asia, we find shared themes in how people talk about houses and relate to them: there is a common tendency for the house to serve as a key social unit and for house idioms to be used to express ideas about kinship. Whether or not the house is occupied, it is frequently an important ritual site, an ancestral origin place, named, and sometimes replete with ritual titles. In a number of island South�east Asian societies, those affiliated with the ancestral house may be buried in or near the house, ancestral heirlooms may be stored in these houses, and founding ancestors may be symbolically (or literally) present in the house (Waterson 1995:54). For example, the Sa’dan Toraja (see chapter 14, by Kathleen Adams) can be considered a house society. The Toraja ancestral houses, known as tongkonan, are central to how people conceptualize their identities. Each Toraja individual is affiliated with a number of named ancestral houses, some more prestigious than others. One’s affiliations with these houses are acquired through both parents and will endure as long as one maintains ritual obligations to the houses (for instance, by contributing to house consecration rituals). So strong is the association with these ancestral houses that Torajas meeting for the first time far from the homeland may inquire as to each other’s house affiliations. For instance, when Kathleen Adams first encountered a Toraja graduate student studying in Chicago and he learned of her “adoption” into a Toraja family, he immediately inquired as to her adoptive family’s house affiliations. Upon discovering a shared ancestral house, he declared a kinship tie, established that he was younger than Adams, and playfully reminded her of her social responsibilities toward him as her “younger family member.” Although different from the Toraja, the Hanunóo also appear to have some of the features of a house society. They live in single-�family dwellings in nuclear families; this is the only corporate group. A groom goes to live in his wife’s village (and thus the society is matrilocal). Villages are not as important; they shift and people come and go over time, and so are not permanent. Kin groups are not named permanent groups, but people inherit from the people of their household. As we see in Conklin, the grandparents name the child—a marker of family continuity. Cognatic descent is not the only kind of kinship in South�east Asia. The predominant form in Vietnam is the patrilineage. There, patrilineality is modeled on Chinese kinship, likely the result of a thousand years of nese colonization from 111 bc to 938 ad (Vietnam was incorporated into the Chinese state long before much of the territory that is now China was). Even after independence, Chinese models of social structure and governance remained as an ideal in Vietnamese society. Vietnamese patrilineages are formally much like Chinese patrilineages, supported by Confucian ideals of order through ancestor worship as well as age and gender hierarchies. Patrilineages are the main form of extra-household organization in villages, and are often managed by a council of the elders of the patrilineages in the village. Much of social life revolves around ancestor worship and the maintenance of ancestral shrines or communal houses. Nevertheless, we cannot understand Vietnam as simply a miniature version of China. One distinct feature of Vietnamese society is the perception that, as in much of South�east Asia, there is a high degree of gender equality and women often carved out spaces of authority for themselves in village life (Nhung 2008). Regardless of the role of women, patrilineages are indeed significant to people in everyday life in Vietnam, designating their primary identification and placing people in social space in regard to each other. Patrilineages are important elsewhere in South�east Asia as well. The highlands people of mainland South�east Asia are largely patrilineal (see Hjorleifur Jonsson, chapter 8, and Chris Lyttleton, chapter 21). Yet we should not assume that all patrilineages function in the same way. The Lisu, for instance, identified themselves as patrilineal and patrilineages were ideologically favored; however, when po�liti�cal and economic conditions permitted, they appeared to be more cognatic than patrilineal (Gillogly, chapter 6). This sort of oscillatory shift between kinship forms is not unusual; Edmund Leach demonstrated that this shifting social structure was inherent to Kachin social and po�liti�cal organization (Leach 1965). We also find patrilineality more often among the elite of a centralized state. In Thailand, patrilineality is the predominant form among the urban well-to- do and aristocracy, as well as the Sino-Thai; while matrilineality exists alongside the state-validated patrilineality in the north and northeast (see Walker 2006 for a new view on this dual orientation). Matrilineages also exist in South�east Asia. Societies in which matrilineages predominate have captivated many outside observers. Classic examples include the Minangkabau in west�ern Sumatra, Indonesia; and the Musuo on the north�ern reaches of the South�east Asian cultural region (in far south�west�ern China). With the predominantly Muslim Minangkabau, one “belongs” to the group of one’s mother; rights to land and wealth are passed down through the female line. Although migration has eroded Minangkabau’s residence patterns, traditionally sons resided in their mother’s household, even after marriage. In essence, husbands were more akin to guests in their wives’ homes, and their key role as adults was not in their wives’ homes but in their sisters’ households (Blackwood 2000).

For centuries, Minangkabau males have partaken in a rite of passage known as merantau, which removed young men from their communities for long periods of time; young men would leave to seek experience, work, and wisdom away from the homeland, with the expectation of eventual return. Similarly, among the Musuo, households are matrifocal; there is no marriage among commoners; and men were often away on prolonged absences for long-�distance trade or living as monks in Buddhist monasteries (McKhann 1998). Another form of matrilineality is found in north�ern Thailand. Land there is passed on from mother to daughter, although management of farms is under the control of husbands; women also carry out ritual through trances to negotiate the welfare of the household with the matrilineal ancestors, who punish young people for social transgressions (Cohen 1984); and these matrilocal descent groups are also politically significant (Bowie 2008). It was, in fact, his observance of matrilineal relationships that led Jack Potter (1976) to argue that the model of “loosely structured societies” was wrong. In not recognizing the structures that were there, earlier observers had concluded that there was no structure. Finally, age and gender are two key features that interact with kinship systems to structure social relations. Most languages of South�east Asia draw distinctions on the basis of age, particularly to contrast the older and the younger (as Aragon notes in chapter 1). In the languages of many island societies, pronouns for the third-person singular are not marked by gender or age so that, unlike in English, it is impossible to know if the speaker is talking about a male or a female. In most mainland languages, gender is also potentially recognized. For instance, your siblings are marked as older or younger than you and while it is not always necessary to signal gender, a word indicating gender can be added to the terms for sibling. In addition, a Thai person needs to know whether a parent’s brother or sister is older or younger than the parent in order to address them. Relative age is also marked through patterns of naming in societies influenced by Chinese culture, as among the Lisu (chapter 6). We would be remiss not to note that modernity has added new �wrinkles and brought some changes to family systems in Southeast Asia. Urban life, commodification, and cash-based economies now color the family and social structure patterns that earlier generations of scholars chronicled. In some cases, these dynamics have led to an efflorescence or exaggeration of older patterns. For instance, amongst the Toraja of Indonesia (Adams, chapter 14), a “house society,” decades of out-migration for work in mining, timber, and other fields, and employment in the tourism sector have meant that many Toraja have invested some of their new wealth in “traditional” places. Over the past few decades, Toraja ancestral house-based rituals and funerals have become dramatically inflated. Those without the means to keep up with the often inflated expectations for ancestral house and funeral contributions find themselves with limited options: debt, shame, or opting out. Some members of the younger generation migrate to distant cities and relinquish their involvement in the rituals of all but a select few ancestral houses. Others marry non-Toraja spouses, a strategy that minimizes the number of ancestral houses to which one is tethered. Jonsson, writing about the Mien, has also found that household form has been responsive to the regional political economy (2001; see also chapter 8). In other parts of South�east Asia, life in urban settings where a younger generation has access to salaried jobs has eroded parental authority to enforce kin-based expectations. For instance, Tania Murray Li’s research chronicled what could be termed the “nuclearization” of Chinese and Malay families in Singapore. She is careful to stress, however, that the monetization of social relations in Singapore has “revised and restructured, but not eradicated in any uniform, pre-determined way” Chinese and Malay families (Li 1989:157, cited in King and Wilder 2003:299). In a sense, we can say that as in the past, new influences and opportunities now play on older Southeast Asian patterns.

 

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