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Baal, Jan van


BAAL, JAN VAN . Jan van Baal (19091992), a Dutch anthropologist of religion, studied Indonesian culture, law, and languages at Leiden University and was influenced by J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong's structural ethnology. Van Baal's Ph.D. thesis (1934) about the Marind-anim of New Guinea was based on ethnographic material collected by the Swiss ethnologist Paul Wirtz. Van Baal later became a civil servant in the Dutch East Indies (19341949), a prisoner in Japanese concentration camps (19421945), an advisor on native affairs to the government of Dutch New Guinea (19461953), and the governor of Dutch New Guinea (19531958). Van Baal served as professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Utrecht from 1959 to 1973, and he acted until 1969 as director of the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. He published Dema, a thousand-page volume on the Marind-anim of New Guinea in 1966, and a number of articles and books, of which Symbols for Communication (1971), Reciprocity and the Position of Women (1975), and Man's Quest for Partnership (1981) are the most important. Van Baal was admired by many anthropologists, Margaret Mead and Claude Lévi-Strauss among them.

Van Baal's theory is based on the view that religion is a system of symbols by which humans communicate with their universe. These symbols enable individuals to overcome their inner solitude, which is the inescapable result of their inability to solve the existential problem of being subjects opposed to and separated from their universe, as well as being part of that same universe and at the same time functioning in it. Religion enables humans to cope with the contradictions related to human existence itself. The several contradictions inherent in the phenomenon of religion must be connected with contradictions in human existence. These contradictions are the result of the idea of being opposed to the world one lives in. People express their detachment, as well as their feelings of being part of their world, in symbolic activities. The dialectics of "subject to" and "part of" contain the uncertainty of individuals. The ambition of self-realization can bring the individual into conflict with the universe, and it creates a dualism because one's fellow human beings and one's surroundings are used as instruments for self-realization. But, at the same time, the individual wants to be recognized and treated as a partner. Problems of doubt and loneliness, which are the result of this dualism, can only be solved, according to van Baal, when humans manage to remain subject to, as well as part of, the community.

Symbols play a crucial role here, since they can save people from existential solitude, and their analysis is therefore important in van Baal's work. In his Marind-anim ethnography he decodes the meanings of specific symbols and their interrelations within the context of the analysis of a specific culture, religion, or mythology. After this, more general descriptions of processes of symbolization are pointed out by different kinds of classifications. He characterizes the relation between the subject and the symbols he uses as being asymmetrical. The subject is unique and timeless, but the symbols are temporary and infinitely numerous. Moreover, van Baal holds that systems of symbols do not spring from the interaction between individuals and their surroundings, but first of all from the individual.

The basic model of gift exchange and reciprocity described by Marcel Mauss is given great emphasis in van Baal's line of thought. But among the distinctive features of offering and sacrifice he does not include their sacred nature. For him, both sacrifice and offering have one characteristic in common, that of being gifts. The dialectics of the human condition make communication an urgent necessity, and the gift is an attractive and persuasive form for establishing contacts and ameliorating relations. Giving is a symbolic act of communication; it is the symbol that counts, and the notion that offering and sacrifice are sacral acts hardly plays a role. Van Baal objects to a reification of the symbolic content by interpreting it as a magical act; he also objects to the use of the term sacrifice for rituals in which every element of the gift or of atonement is absent. For him, giving is participating, and it is essential for a meaningful existence. All communication begins with giving.

Van Baal's description of religion comes down to the acceptance of a non-empirical reality that influences the reality of people's daily life. Opposing the classical comparative method in cultural anthropology, he uses a monographic method that compares only a few religions after a systematic description of each separate religion. In doing so, van Baal wants to exclude ethnocentrism and a priori arguments. He does not make this "overall approach" absolute, and invariably asks himself what is the measure of integration between the elements of a religious system, how far does it link up with other social or cultural institutions, and whether or not its relation with them is strained. When it comes to the question what individual motives underlie the development of religious ideas, van Baal thinks that craving for "communion" is the fundamental motive. A successful ritual makes the participant feel at ease with his world. In his view, being part of a community implies the acceptance of authority, which reduces individual freedom.

In van Baal's work there is no connection between the development of religions and social stratification, religious specialists and charismatic leaders, and there is little analysis of the dynamics of religion and its social components, as can be found in the work of Max Weber. Van Baal's approach is ahistorical and structuralistic, and he is highly critical of phenomenologists like Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade. Van Baal is interested in the conscious ordering, in the role of the participants in the processes of symbolization. Unlike Lévi-Strauss, Baal is not concerned with the analysis of the results of human thought or the discovery of the grammar in them. Instead, he is primarily interested in and looking for the motives in human thought, and he is searching for its message and meaning.


Selected Works of van Baal

Over Wegen en Drijfveren der Religie. Amsterdam, 1947.

De magie als godsdienstig verschijnsel. Amsterdam 1960.

Dema: A Description and Analysis of Marind-anim Culture. The Hague, 1966.

"The Political Impact of Prophetic Movements." In International Yearbook for the Sociology of Religion 5 (1969): 6888.

Symbols for Communication: An Introduction to the Anthropological Study of Religion. Assen, Netherlands, 1971; 2d ed., 1985.

De Boodschap der Drie Illusies: Overdenkingen over religie, kunst en spel. Assen, Netherlands, 1972.

Reciprocity and the Position of Women: Anthropological Papers. Assen, Netherlands, 1975.

"Offering, Sacrifice, and Gift." Numen 23 (1976): 161178.

"The Role of Truth and Meaning in Changing Religious Systems." In Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies, edited by Pieter Vrijhof and Jacques Waardenburg, pp. 607628. The Hague, 1979.

Man's Quest for Partnership: The Anthropological Foundations of Ethics and Religion. Assen, Netherlands, 1981.

"The Language of Symbols." In L'ethnologie dans le dialogue intercultural (Ethnologie im dialog, vol. 5), edited by Gerhard Baer and Pierre Centlivres. Freiburg, Germany, 1980.

"The Dialectics of Sex in Marind-anim Culture." In Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia, edited by Gilbert H. Herdt, pp. 128166. Berkeley, 1984.

About van Baal's Work

Droogers, A. F. Boodschap uit het Mysterie: Reacties op de visie van Jan van Baal. Baarn, Netherlands, 1996.

Kuiper, Y. B. "Religion, Symbols, and the Human Condition: An Analysis of the Basic Ideas of Jan van Baal." In On Symbolic Representation of Religion: Groninger Contributions to Theories of Symbols, edited by Hubertus G. Hubbeling and Hans G. Kippenberg, pp. 5769. Berlin and New York, 1986.

Kuiper, Y. B., and A. de Ruijter. De Menselijke Conditie: Speurtocht naar Partnerschap. Groningen, Netherlands, 1982.

W. Hofstee (2005)

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