Asian Society

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Asian Society

I. South AsiaF. G. Bailey


II. Southeast AsiaW. F. Wertheim


The articles under this heading describe the societies of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. Other Asian societies are described in Chinese Society; Japanese Society; Near Eastern society; Oceanian society.

Discussions of Asian philosophical, political, and religious thought will be found under Buddhism; Chinese political thought; Hinduism; Indian political thought; islam; Pollution. Aspects of Asian economies are discussed under Agriculture; Economic data; Economy, dual; Famine; food; Land; Land tenure; Pastoralism; Peasantry; Plantations. The social structure of some of the societies of Asia is discussed in Caste; Kinship; Modernization, article onthe bourgeoisie in modernizing societies. For the arts of Asia, see especially Drama. See also the relevant articles under HISTORIOGRAPHY and the biographies of Bogoraz, Sternberg, and Jochelson; Granet; Majumdar; Radlov and Bartol’d; Schrieke; Snouck; Weber, Max.


The term “south Asia,” which covers the countries of India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and some smaller autonomous or semiautonomous states in the Himalayas, has come into use since the partition of British India in 1947. In area and population India is by far the largest of these countries. Partly for this reason, but more because the volume of research into Indian society and culture far exceeds that on the other countries, the present account will concern mainly India.

The area as a whole, and India within the area, displays a considerable diversity. Habitats range from perennial snows in the northern mountains to tropical rain forests in the south and east, and from deserts in the northwest to areas in the east which have the heaviest rainfall in the world. The range of culture is no less great. In the remoter jungles there are still tribes who hunt and gather wild foods, and who go naked and are innocent of any civilization. Elsewhere are found centers of some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, with religious and philosophical writings of a high degree of sophistication: three of the world’s major religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam—are substantially represented in the area. Finally, a high degree of technical and economic complexity characteristic of modern industrial society is also to be found, especially in such major urban centers as Bombay or Calcutta.

One can only deal with such diversity by seeking principles of social organization which are common to all, or to a large part, of the population. Some of these principles are the distinctive and peculiar characteristics of south Asian society: others are more general. I intend to analyze Indian society from the point of view of the forms of social organization which are common to south Asia and to other parts of the world. For example, the caste system will be regarded not as a uniquely Indian manifestation of religious ideas about pollution but as one form of social stratification. There are several early kinds of source materials that are genetically linked with contemporary social studies.

Hinduism and Islam have both provided a wealth of religious, philosophical, and legal writings that have sociological implications. Indeed, this is one characteristic which distinguishes south Asia from the primitive areas of the world, and it is this which gives direction to both the schools of thought to be discussed here. One school sets out to link “folk” culture to this higher civilization; the other maintains that a careful study of this writing will reveal certain basic values or patterns of social thought which are distinctively Hindu (or Islamic, as the case may be) and without which we cannot understand contemporary south Asian society.

Second, there is a great volume of descriptive writing which arose out of the needs of the British administration in India and was largely done by administrators. This material is found in census reports, settlement reports, and many other kinds of documents and records. Some of this documentation is addressed to particular problems in particular areas, but there is also much written at one remove, so to speak, from the immediate administrative problems. Some of these writings are general descriptions of particular tribes (for example, the monographs by Hutton, Mills, and others on the Assam tribes), and others are encyclopedic (the various “Tribe and Caste” series). These works are valuable factual sources, although they sometimes incorporate old theoretical frameworks, for example, unilinear evolution.

There are also, third, a few but important works of theory, drawing on both the classical sources (mainly Sanskrit) and the descriptive work and concerned mostly with understanding of the caste system. Works by Hocart, Senart, and Bougié are examples.

The present scene in the study of south Asian society was set in the decade after World War II. Between the wars and during World War II, with few exceptions, professional anthropologists who carried on research in south Asia directed their attention exclusively to tribal peoples who were to varying degrees removed from the civilizing influences of Hinduism and Islam. But the greater part of the research done in the decade of the 1950s concerned Hindu or Islamic communities and produced a number of “village studies.” The results of many of these studies were summarized in outline in Village India (Marriott 1955) and in India’s Villages (The Economic Weekly 1951–1954), although the editorial theme of the first collection of essays, and some contributions to the second symposium, questioned the value of studying single villages and communities.

The greater part of these village studies used the conceptual framework of social anthropology. This method has its origins in the study of what Redfield called “primitive isolates.” Village studies made in India were criticized on the grounds that Indian villages are neither primitive nor isolated and that the method of structural analysis was therefore insufficient.

I think the criticism is misdirected insofar as it is aimed at the method of structural analysis. Structural analysis does not depend upon finding units which are literally and absolutely isolated. The question is rather one of determining whether or not a village (or a region, or a caste, or a particular institution) can be conceptually isolated for purposes of study, and this depends upon the intensity of social relationships within the chosen boundaries. Although relationships within villages are becoming less important than they were, over most of south Asia the village remains an important locus of social relationships. Insofar as the criticism makes the point that besides the villages there are also patterns of social organization centering upon markets, or upon descent systems of particular communities, or upon religious sects, or political parties, and that these are worthy of study, then it is valid. But it is invalid insofar as it suggests that structural analysis cannot be applied beyond the boundaries of an isolated village and that the job is better done by a type of cultural analysis.

The analysis of total cultures . Criticism of the method of structural analysis of villages was also directed to the fact that the people of these villages are not primitive but enjoy the heritage of a great civilization. Just as the villages of Ceylon or Pakistan or India are not isolated from the point of view of social relations, so also (the argument ran) they are not culturally isolated. A structural analysis of villages in these countries presents only a part of the lives of the people. A more complete analysis would be achieved by understanding the civilization they share.

The motives and intentions which give form to this method are set forth in Peasant Society and Culture (Redfield 1956). In its broadest aspect this method is an attempt to apprehend the world view or philosophy of life—one might almost say the mood—which characterizes and gives shape to a civilization. To grasp the totality of a culture in this way is difficult because cultures are very diverse and exhibit different levels of sophistication, and the main task then becomes that of demonstrating the connection between the different levels and showing that they are in fact a whole.

The basic concept of this approach is that of “tradition.” The referent of this word is very wide and includes not only the heritage of social ideas but also particular forms of art, literature, and so forth, and particular items within these forms. Traditions exist at two levels: one, the level of those who are educated, literate, and sophisticated (the great tradition); and the other the level of the villager, a relatively primitive tradition and one preserved by word of mouth rather than in writing (the little tradition). But between these two levels there are lines of communication, so that items of village culture form part of and give shape to the great tradition (universalization), while in turn items from the great tradition become part of village culture (parochialization). These terms are used by Marriott (1955). By the use of this framework we can grasp—the argument runs —not the innumerable uncoordinated fragments of culture in the different villages but the totality of a civilization.

There are some general comments to be made concerning the actual use of this framework in research, for it seems to me to offer the possibility of two quite distinct operational schemes by which the hypotheses of universalization and parochialization may be tested. The first alternative focuses attention upon the morphology of cultural complexes or individual elements. An element or a complex which is recorded in a sacred text and is therefore part of the great tradition may be identified with an element or complex found in village rites and ceremonies by the fact that both elements possess a common attribute; or, one may work the same process from the ground upward, so to speak, by first witnessing the element in the village and later identifying it in a sacred text. The next step is to look at the other attributes which are connected with the identifying attribute at both levels and, if they differ, to try to explain why they differ. The procedure is excellently illustrated in the second part of Marriott’s essay (1955). This method directs attention to the form and content of cultural elements and complexes with the aim of producing a chart of the geographical distribution of cultural elements and tracing them through what we may call the contours of society. Needless to say, the task is an immense one, and it requires a linguistic and cultural training far in excess of that possessed by most social anthropologists.

It was possibly these difficulties that caused exponents of this method to pay greater attention to the sociological problems posed by the idea of a great and a little tradition. Under this second alternative, the student focuses not so much upon the morphological similarities and differences of cultural elements as upon the fact that these elements, whatever they are, must be transmitted both upward and downward by people: indeed, both individuals and institutions may have roles which seem to have the transmission of culture as one of their most significant functions. The centers of pilgrimage are obvious examples. Yet these institutions can be structurally analyzed in terms of social roles. In south Asia the interest in civilization and tradition will no doubt govern the choice of institutions selected for study and will also produce a fuller description of the content of culture than that found in some other institutional studies. But the result is unlikely to be methodological innovation. The conceptual framework by means of which villages are studied as if they were isolated wholes is basically the tool that is also used for the sociological study of a monastery or a temple town, for these institutions too require conceptual boundaries before we can study them as social systems.

Indology . The next approach to the study of south Asian society which I wish briefly to outline and comment upon is that of the Indologists, as exemplified by Dumont in Contributions to Indian Sociology. The discussion concerns India and Hinduism but is equally relevant to Islam or Buddhism.

The distinctive characteristic of this approach is that it directs our attention not so much at regular forms of social interaction but rather at the ideas which are implicit in those interactions or which are explicitly held by the actors: that is to say, it is concerned with “representations.” In my opinion societies can usefully be conceived of as natural systems. The Indologists (in common with many other social anthropologists) argue that social systems are to be distinguished from natural systems because they include an element of consciousness. We cannot understand social systems (the argument runs) unless we closely analyze the motives, values, and ideas that inspire behavior. We understand a society by understanding its social philosophy, the mental constructs which the people themselves make about their social interaction, or which we can see implied in that social interaction.

Unlike primitive societies, the countries of south Asia already have a developed and sophisticated indigenous literature in social philosophy, which is itself the object of scholarly comment by historians, philologists, and others. The social anthropologists whom I have called Indologists not only take account of this literature but also make its explication one of their main objectives. One of the dangers of this approach is that the linguistic and other skills required to use this material successfully are so great that the scholar tends to leave aside material from other sources to which his Indological skills cannot be applied. The Indology, so to speak, tends to push aside, or at least to restrict, the sociology.

It would be misleading, however, to imply that commentary upon and explication of the sacred literature is the only intention of the Indologists: their aim is, in fact, much wider. Like the exponents of the “total culture” approach discussed in the previous section, they are disturbed by the somewhat fragmented picture which structural studies of Indian society have so far produced, and their aim is to portray Indian society as a unity.

This task is made easier by the definition of the word “society” as a system of ideas. In the structural approach a society is conceived of as bounded by interaction. According to the Indologists’ definition, those who hold the same set of ideas about social interaction belong to the same society, although they may never interact with one another. Thus, in respect of their different social philosophies, the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian families who are neighbors in the same village belong to different societies, while Hindus everywhere (or Muslims or Christians, as the case may be) belong to the same society. Such a conceptual framework is clearly useful for those whose main aim is to analyze the systems of ideas about society found in Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity.

From the point of view of a wider sociology, this approach has some disadvantages. There seems to me to be an important gap between a philosophy of society and an actual system of social relationships—between a system of social interaction and its “representations.” By definition there is no gap when the “representations” are the constructs of the investigator, that is to say, when he is exploring the “implicit” connections between regular forms of social interaction. But when his raw material is drawn from the explicit “representations” of the people he is studying, there is certainly the possibility that these are not an accurate reflection of actual behavior, for they may well be, to name only one possibility, propagandist in intention. Propaganda too, of course, is legitimate sociological data, providing that one handles it as propaganda and not as a description of actual behavior.

These disadvantages are much increased when the investigator seeks to link behavior which he observes in the field with social philosophy found in the sacred texts of Hinduism or Islam. No doubt there are some points of contact, and it may well be that our understanding of what is distinctively Indian in the behavior of Indian party politicians or Indian capitalist entrepreneurs will be increased by a study of the social philosophy of Hinduism. At least, the hypothesis is worth investigating. But it seems to me that the understanding which we derive from this source alone will be jejune compared with the understanding which we find by observing the behavior of party politicians or capitalists elsewhere.

This leads to my second comment. The Indological approach seems likely to frustrate comparative sociology, at least in the short run. Indologists do not admit this, for their aim is first to isolate a distinctively Indian society and then to compare it with other societies. It seems to me that such a comparison is likely to be between elements which are so abstract that they give us little understanding of actual behavior. But more important is the fact that working toward a “total” picture of Hindu society or Islamic society seems to block the chance of making fruitful comparisons of particular institutions in India and elsewhere. We can illustrate this by a brief consideration of the Indian caste system.

In structural analysis the ritual concomitants of the caste system (behavior indicating ideas about relative purity) can be described as a means of making public differences in political and economic status. All systems of social stratification seem to have ritual epiphenomena of this kind, although none so developed as the caste system in India. To this extent ritual differentiates the caste system from other forms of social stratification. But in the school of Indology, religious ideas about purity and pollution are the caste system, and the investigator’s task is to show the systematic connection between these ideas. By doing so he may well explain what is distinctively Indian about the caste system; but it seems to me that if he does this and no more he has left in darkness the other seveneighths of the picture—in which the caste system is a means of organizing political and economic relationships—to be understood in the comparative light of systems of stratification elsewhere.

The idiosyncrasies of Indian social philosophy are a legitimate field of investigation for a sociologist with the required linguistic and other skills. But it is also true that a knowledge of the traditional social philosophy of Hinduism (or of Islam), no matter how deep, does not of itself provide more than a minimal understanding of fragments of contemporary systems of social interaction.

An outline of south Asian society

The simplest short analysis of south Asian societies rests not upon a characteristic institution or complex of institutions but rather upon a characteristic process of change. I shall describe two institutional complexes placed on a continuum, one end of which represents a hypothetical and simplified picture of the recent past, while the other end represents what I conjecture will be the future. Any society in south Asia can be understood by placing it somewhere on this continuum and by showing how and why this society seems to be moving from one end toward the other.

In other words, one end of the continuum is represented by the simple society and the opposite end by the complex society. The criterion of simplicity is the degree to which social roles and social institutions are specialized and separated from one another according to activity. Thus, in a city in a highly industrialized state, a man may have economic relationships with one set of people, political relationships with another set, and kinship relationships with a third set; and he may conduct his religious activities with a fourth set. What happens in one type of activity may affect his relationships in another, but in each case a different set of people is involved. In a simple society, on the other hand, not only do all these activities tend to be performed with one and the same set of people, but the different roles tend to be fused into one, so that we may say that kinship is the “master principle” of one society or that the caste system is the guiding institution in another. There are other criteria as well to distinguish simple from complex societies, some connected logically and some empirically with this main distinction, which is based upon the clustering of roles. For example, simpler societies tend to have a narrower range of social relationships and to be based upon less developed economies than complex societies.

My first broad description of south Asian society is that it is changing and that the direction of change is from the simple toward the complex. I would insist that this is an empirical statement capable of verification, a matter of historical fact. But even if the historical statement is doubted, the framework still has its use as a means of classification. We could ignore the fact of change and place the different social systems in south Asia in categories, according to their respective degrees of simplicity or complexity.

This would give three very broad categories of system: tribal, village, and complex. These names are not very satisfactory, for they suggest cultural rather than social criteria, different ways of life rather than different patterns of social relationships. Furthermore, they are logical categories of social relationships, so that any given field may— and in fact does—exhibit more than one category: for example, there are Rajputs or Jats or Pathans or even Gonds, whose interactions fit into both the tribal and the village categories, and in some cases into the complex category as well. But for the moment I can speak roughly as if these were in fact population categories.

The dominant characteristic of the tribal peoples is that they are divided into groups which are all equal and none of which is ranked above or below another. The groups, in other words, are horizontally arranged, and the pattern of relationships is segmentary. This does not mean that there are no tribal chieftains, nor that a father is not the head of his family; it does mean that there is no corporate class of chieftains to be set against a corporate class of subjects. In short, individuals may be ranked and individual roles may be invested with authority; but the groups into which the population is divided—typically clans or lineages in a system of unilineal descent—are not ranked above and below one another.

Units within village society also have this segmentary pattern, but the units themselves are set in a system of institutionalized ranks. When we look at the village as a whole, the dominant characteristic is that its groups are not equal but are related to one another in activities which express superiority and inferiority: that is to say, village society is stratified, and its groups are vertically arranged.

Both village and tribal types of society fall within our category of simple, for in both there is a tendency for roles to be clustered and for relationships to be multiplex. In economic, political, and religious activities (and kinship activities too, in the case of the tribes) one man is likely to interact with the same set of people; and his role in one activity is likely to be consistent with, if not entirely fused with, his roles in other activities. Thus a relationship of brotherhood between two Kond tribesmen entails rights and duties which concern not only kinship but also politics, economics, and religion.

The complex category is more difficult to describe, beyond the bare statement that roles tend not to be clustered and that different activities are carried on with different sets of people. A positive description is difficult because our conceptual apparatus makes it far from easy to handle the institutions of a complex society in the same deft way that we have learned to deal with social institutions in simple, bounded communities. But we can at least add that while roles in complex systems tend not to be clustered, these systems are stratified, although the form of this stratification is very different from that found in the villages.

I am not here postulating a single unilinear course of necessary evolution, so that tribal people today will become village people tomorrow and in the end south Asia will be one vast complex society. But I am saying that the process of change which is to be seen everywhere in south Asia at the present time is tending to replace simple patterns of social interaction by more complex patterns: multiplex relationships are giving way to relatively single-interest relationships.

In the following sections I shall deal first with kinship in rural India as an example of the segmentary pattern of relationships which are characteristic of total tribal societies or whole castes. Second I shall describe the relationship between units in village societies; and third I shall consider change and describe the complex society which is so far only fragmentarily exemplified in south Asia.

Kin groups in rural India. In this description I assume a rule of patrilineal descent: in some parts of India other rules of descent are (or were) used —traditional Malabar is a well-known case in point. Obviously my analysis does not apply to such examples, but I insist that an analysis of the same type—one which asks the same kind of questions —could be applied.

What are these questions? First, what are the main groups into which people are divided on the basis of kinship? In this context the word “group” is strictly defined by the criterion of interaction and is not used as a loose equivalent of “category,” which means a collection of persons with a similar attribute. By “the basis of kinship” I mean rules of descent and rules of marriage. Second, what functions are performed by the division of people into such groups? Through which group is property transmitted or managed? What are the rules of succession? Which group takes care of and socializes the children, and so forth? Third, having divided the people into groups, we ask the complementary question: How are these groups linked together so as to form a whole?

In general there are four levels of grouping. The largest is the tribe or the caste, and this is bounded by a rule of endogamy, across which there can be no kinship relationships. At the second level the tribe or caste is divided exhaustively into unilineal descent groups bounded by a rule of exogamy, which proscribes marriage between descendants of a common ancestor. At the third level these clans or lineages may be divided into smaller agnatic groups, joint families defined by common ownership of property and sometimes by coresidence. At the fourth level there are nuclear families consisting of a man, his wife, and their children.

Dividing the population of a caste or tribe into groups at four different levels means that every person—for simplicity let us say every adult man —has a set of rights and duties at each of these levels, as a member of a nuclear family, sometimes of a joint family, of an extended family or lineage or clan, and as a member of the caste or tribe. The first task is to show to what extent the different roles that a man possesses are consistent with one another.

In order to do this a distinction must be made between corporate groups and ego-centered groups: that is to say, from the point of view of an individual, between his unilineal kin and his kindred. Apart from the four sets of rights and duties which a man has toward those of the same descent as himself, he also has various prescribed roles toward those not of the same descent. Besides the roles of father, son, and brother (this last being widely defined to include clan or lineage brothers), a man is also a husband, son-in-law, brother-inlaw, maternal uncle, father-in-law, and so forth, to people of different descent from himself.

These two kinds of roles give rise to two different kinds of groups. Descent groups are corporations in the strict sense: they exist independently of any one member and possess continuity. If one divides the population by descent—to put the point another way—there can be no overlapping: a man cannot belong to two joint families or two lineages. On the other hand, ego-centered groups are not corporations with clearly defined boundaries; they exist only with reference to an individual, and they vanish when he dies. Membership overlaps: for example, a man may belong to the ego-centered groups of his wife, his daughter-in-law, his brother, his sister, his mother’s brother, and very many other individuals.

Kinship thus divides people in two ways. A rule of descent provides a “hard” division into groups which are exhaustive and clearly defined from one another. The word “hard” is also appropriate because such groups usually deal with the management and transmission of property and are likely to be in conflict with one another in various ways. But the division between such groups is rendered less sharp by ties of marriage and kin links springing from marriage between persons in different descent groups. These “soft” kinship links serve to lessen a man’s commitment to his own descent group and to separate and identify him within the group of unilineal kinsmen. At the same time they are the network—perhaps web is a better metaphor—which binds the descent groups together into one caste or tribe.

Consider, for example, the relationship of husband and wife in rural areas and its connection with the joint family. She never uses his name but addresses him by teknonymy, a way of showing respect; she serves him before she has her own meal; she walks behind him, never at his side; she would not sit beside him in a public place; affection is never publicly demonstrated; men take their leisure with other men and never with their wives. Such customs seem to be saying two things: first, that the woman is subordinate, and second, that if there is a strong bond of affection between husband and wife, this bond must be concealed or even denied in the interests of the husband’s other obligations, namely toward his brothers.

This is especially true when the couple live in a joint family household and the wife is under the control of her mother-in-law. It seems to be expected that this relationship will be an unhappy one; and the wife, especially when she has children of her own, may want her own kitchen and her own storeroom, and ultimately she may urge her husband to demand partition of the family land. The husband is thus faced with a direct conflict of obligation and must choose between solidarity with his brothers or separation from his brothers and a closer relationship with his wife.

Such conflicts are inevitable, and various institutions exist within a caste or a tribe for their settlement. An indication of the importance of kinship is that no person, man or woman, stands alone in a dispute. One reason why a wife can be strong in a quarrel in her husband’s house, and may ultimately be able to force partition, is that she has the support and help of her own descent group. Thus, in troubles that may occur after marriage—and more especially in the often troubled negotiations leading up to marriage—the parties to the dispute are not just a man and a woman but their respective descent groups mobilized through such linking relationships as the wife’s brother or the mother’s brother. To resolve such troubles there are councils, often ad hoc, consisting of parties in the dispute and some representatives of the society at large.

We have at this point returned to the “hard” divisions, for if two brothers quarrel, then the dispute is likely to be mediated (at least in the first instance) by the remainder of the joint family; if two joint families are at odds, then the other joint families of the lineage will try to settle the conflict; and if two descent groups quarrel (as in the negotiations for a marriage), then the caste (or the tribe, as the case may be) decides the issue. The fact that other people can legitimately intervene in a quarrel brings home to both parties that they belong to one group, and in fact such regular institutionalized intervention is part of the complex of interactions that make up the lineage, or caste, or any other “hard” group.

Two further points remain to be made about this segmentary framework of horizontally arranged groups. First, the picture that I have drawn is no more than an outline, for many elaborations are possible. In particular I have not discussed the variations in relative status of wife and husband and of their respective kin groups. These variations depend very much on the amount of property that they possess and that is involved in the marriage. Roughly speaking, property is an important consideration in high castes and less important in low castes. But the very boldness of the outline is in a way appropriate, since no one can begin to understand the life of a peasant in India unless he realizes that many of the social interactions which make up his life are with kinsmen of one kind or another. The outline should be drawn heavily because kinsmen represent a major dimension of social life. Kinship institutions are important in economic life; they are also a source of protection, advice, help, and discipline. Relatives provide the security and identity which in our differentiated complex society we expect to get from the state and its agencies or from voluntary associations.

Second, the analytical framework used here has been developed less in India than in Africa. It tells us nothing which is essentially and specifically peculiar to south Asia, but it does tell us how Indian rural society is broadly organized. Our understanding of that society has, for several decades, been vitiated by undue emphasis on its more bizarre aspects. This is especially true of the caste system.

Stratification—the organic pattern. The interaction between social groups discussed in the preceding section is characteristically between units of equal rank. But where a caste system is found, such an analysis would refer to one caste in the society. As will be seen, the economic and political content of relationships between segments is very considerably modified by the fact that a large part of political and economic interaction takes place between castes and not within them. These relationships between castes are not between equals but between members of hierarchically organized units.

The most important context in which this hierarchical system operates is a village, or sometimes a cluster of villages. Assuming that a village can be treated as an isolable unit, it is possible to say categorically that any caste is divided territorially into segments. The segment that lives in one village, which in some areas is also a descent group, I call a “caste group,” and I shall be concerned in this section with the relationship between the different caste groups in one village.

I have already remarked that the relationship between the segments within a caste is one of institutionalized equality. This means that the segments resemble one another in form and function and are equivalent to one another. The whole caste is no more than an aggregate of like units, and if one unit were to die out or another to be added (which happens all the time) then such an event makes no functional difference. But the totality of village relationships is not like this: it is organic. That is to say, the units which make it up are not equivalent in function. Each has a specialized task, which it contributes to the whole, and if one unit is removed, then the totality is changed. In other words, the system of village relationships is based upon a division of labor.

Specialization of function does not logically en-tail a system of hierarchy, since it is possible to conceive of a division of labor between units which are ranked equally. But since the division of function in Indian rural society includes the differential allocation of power and is not confined to the production of different kinds of goods, the units in a village are differently ranked.

This ranking occurs, as one would expect in a simple society, in more than one field of activity. Thus members of one caste have roles of superiority (or inferiority, as the case may be) toward members of another caste in political, economic, and ritual activity. Also—again a characteristic of a simple society—these roles tend to be consistent, even fused, with one another. To say that X is of higher caste than Y is a statement not only about the ritual relationship between X and Y but also about their political and economic relationships.

The basis of this system of stratification is, in most parts of India, an agrarian economy, to a large extent, indeed, a subsistence economy. The basic division of labor in the field of production is threefold: those who own and manage land (usually a dominant caste); those who own no land and gain their living by labor on the land of others (often Untouchables); and those who provide specialist services—priest, herdsman, carpenter, barber, washerman, potter, scavenger, and so forth. There are no market elements in this economy, in that there is no provision for competition and no expectation that there will be bidding for terms of service. The relationship is one based rather upon status than upon contract, and it is expected to be permanent. Payment is by a fixed share of the harvest and a small fee each time the service is given; all payments are typically in kind. Furthermore, these activities lack the true specialization of a market relationship in that economic relationships are fused with other kinds of relationship. For example, the barber not only cuts hair but also has a number of ritual duties and prerogatives in the houses of those whom he serves. There are also hints of permanence in this relationship and of the absence of specialization, reflected by the terms of address: for example, the landowner and his Untouchable farm servant may address each other as “son” and “father” or “king” and “subject.”

There is also a division of labor in the field of politics. The dominant caste of landowners rules the village. Sections within this group compete with one another for power. The status of the rest is, as it were, that of second-class citizens. They have access to the village council only by the grace of their patron in the dominant caste, who is also their protector. To put it another way, no caste other than the dominant caste has a full political existence; its members alone may enter the competition for power. The lower castes are not to be seen as political groups in opposition to the dominant caste (as would be the case in a class system). Each member of the lower castes has a political existence as a dependent either of a family in the dominant caste (in the case of the Untouchables) or of the corporate body of the dominant caste (in the case of the specialists).

This pattern of superiority and inferiority is reflected in ritual relationships between individuals in different castes. Thus there are differential degrees of purity so that, for example, food and water (in certain prescribed forms) may be exchanged between equals or may be given by a superior to an inferior. To accept these prescribed foods from a person of a different caste is to acknowledge the superiority of that caste. Furthermore, degrees of superiority are marked in a generalized fashion by differential access to places of ritual value, for example, wells or temples or the kitchen of a house. The ritual disparity is also marked in mere contact, so that a person of higher caste in some cases may be polluted by the touch of those lower in the hierarchy.

To some extent the differences in ritual purity correspond with different positions in the politicoeconomic hierarchy. Indeed, this must be so for the ritual observances should be regarded as public statements about politicoeconomic status. But it must be admitted at once that this correlation is exemplified only in the middle ranges of the hierarchy. The highest ritual status is held by the Brahman, who may nevertheless be poor and politically without power. The important point is that such a disparity would be regarded as normal. At the other end of the scale the Untouchable is in a corresponding, but not precisely the same, position. His ritual status too seems to have an existence of its own, apart from his politicoeconomic status, and to be more than a mere public statement of this status. If an Untouchable grows rich and powerful (as some of them do), the disparity is certainly regarded by other castes as abnormal and undesirable. A poor Brahman is part of the order of things: a rich Untouchable is not. When other castes higher in the hierarchy grow rich and powerful, their ritual standing is likely to be raised; this does not happen in the case of an Untouchable.

This is an outline of the caste system viewed as a system of interaction within a village. Its main characteristics are that its groups are ranked, are arranged in a system of organic interdependence so that no competition between caste groups is allowed for, and that different fields of activity (political, economic, and ritual) are organized by roles which are not only consistent with one another but may also be fused into a single role.

The basis of this system is the politicoeconomic hierarchy. If we are to understand village life in India, we must first close our eyes to the peculiarities of ritual interaction and see only the fact that the people of the village are either landowners or dependents and specialists. This, in general, is the framework which gives regularity to village life. The system of ritual interaction is an elaboration upon this framework and in itself has no meaning, except as a series of statements, in words or in action, about politicoeconomic relationships. I do not mean that the ritual interaction can be ignored. Far from it, for this ritual interaction is the cultural attachment which makes this politicoeconomic hierarchy peculiar to India. But I do mean that when the caste system is analyzed as a system of politicoeconomic interaction, then comparisons can be made between it and hierarchies elsewhere. The caste system is a way of organizing power relationships in the political and economic field; it defines those who are eligible to compete for power and those who must be dependents.

The process of change. Like all systematic analyses, the picture which I have drawn of social interaction within the horizontal segmentary system in a caste or tribe and of the vertical system of organic relationships between caste groups within a village is a highly abstract one. Certain factors which are present in actual reality must be taken into account, in particular political and economic relationships extending outside the village. All villages today in India are under the control of a bureaucratic administration, and even in the past almost everywhere there has been some form of political control above the village level. The degree to which this control has in fact influenced social relationships inside the villages or between one village and another has varied immensely: at one extreme “control” was nothing more than tax raids and punitive expeditions; and at the other extreme there is, as in all the larger countries of south Asia, a government intent upon changing the structure of social, political, and economic relationships in the countryside in order to bring about a higher standard of living. Apart from these political agencies there has also been a great variety of economic institutions which directly and indirectly affect the lives of the villagers. For example, villagers may grow cash crops for world markets, or they may migrate from the villages to work in industrial enterprises.

The outside institutions have themselves changed. During the last hundred years, and with particular rapidity since the end of World War II, there has been a tendency toward more centralized and more effective government and a great expansion in the industrial and commercial capitalist economy. In order to take account of the effect on village and caste life of both outside relationships and the change in outside institutions, one must introduce a second variable—time.

In plain terms, movement along the continuum of change means that the villager acquires relationships with outsiders which he did not have before: with traders, or administrators, or politicians, and so forth. Even where the contacts are with fellow villagers they may still be new by virtue of the fact that they occur under the auspices of new institutions, for example, of a political party or in the context of a local government election. But the process does not stop there, for the new relationships bring about a change in the traditional pattern of relationships within the village or the kinship group. For example, if the son of an Untouchable farm servant is a prominent member of the local Congress party, or an official of the police, it will not be possible to treat him with formalized disdain as his father was treated. How do these changes come about?

The new relationships are typically single-interest; that is to say, they involve political activity, or economic activity, or perhaps religious belief. But the relationship upon which they impinge in the villages is a multiplex one, and by affecting one of its strands, they affect the total relationship. Multiplex relationships, characteristic of a simple society, cannot easily be maintained in the face of diversification and specialization of activities. In simplified abstract terms, this is the characteristic process of change in south Asian society.

The basis of the system described in earlier sections was an agrarian subsistence economy. In a diversified economy new ways of making a living are created, and it may happen that those who were qualified only for dependent roles in the old system (like an Untouchable or the specialist) take the lead in exploiting new opportunities. If such a man succeeds, then his new economic status will not be consistent with his traditional ritual and political status. For example, new economic opportunities may create such anomalies as a rich Untouchable, a man of influence who desires ritual recognition of his new status.

A further basis of the system described earlier was the monopoly of force by the dominant caste of landowners. Under a close administration the power of the dominant caste may be effectively displaced by the power of the administrators and their courts, and there may be a deliberate attempt by’ the administration to humble the former rulers.

These are only some of the possibilities. New opportunities may be most accessible to those already rich, and the administrators may support those already in power. They may or may not bring about spatial mobility. Government may be intent upon conservation or upon reform, and different administrations may vary greatly in their effectiveness. Clearly the range of outside influences is a very wide one. On the other hand, the range of possible reactions in the village structure is a limited one.

One reaction is accommodation. Positions within the structure may be altered, but the general pattern of relationships remains the same. For example, in the system of vertical organic relationships within a village, if a group low in the hierarchy grows rich through the accident of outside relationships, it may be able to achieve social (i.e., ritual) recognition of its new status. The position of that particular group in the hierarchy changes, but the general pattern of the hierarchy does not. The system remains ranked, organic, and made up of multiplex relationships.

But for a variety of reasons, accommodation may not always be possible. There may, for example, be points of rigidity in the traditional system, as is so in the case of the Untouchables who, if they remain in the villages, find it virtually impossible to get recognition of an enhanced political and economic status. The ensuing struggle to achieve this recognition is likely to make a quite radical alteration in the structure of organic relationships within the village. First, relationships have partially ceased to be multiplex in several respects. The new wealth is achieved by relationships going outside the village. Wealth brings power, so that the Untouchables are no longer so clearly subordinated to the former dominant caste. But the ritual relationship is likely to remain disputed, inasmuch as while the Untouchables demand to be treated as social equals, the former dominant caste is likely to go on treating them as if they were still politically and economically subordinate. Political, economic, and ritual relationships can no longer be viewed as clustered into a single multiplex relationship. Second, the organic relationships of the traditional system are replaced by competitive relationships. This happens in both economic and political activities. Farm laborers break off their traditional permanent relationships with a master or a patron in the dominant caste and work for a daily wage in a system of relatively free market competition. In the political field, the aspirant group (Untouchables in the example we are considering) is likely to transform itself into a corporate group with corporate political aims. Relationships of political allegiances now run horizontally, so to speak, toward members of the same caste and not vertically, as they did before, toward masters and patrons in the dominant caste. Formerly the village was an organic system of groups ranged in an accepted pattern of superiority and inferiority: it now becomes a segmentary system of opposing and competing groups.

In discussing both accommodation and radical change, we have remained within the bounds of the village. But an essential part of this change is the slow decline of the village or the village cluster as an important center for political activity, and its replacement by arenas where competition is regulated by different institutions and where the scale of activity is usually much larger: for example, local government or state politics. To compete effectively in these fields, groups which far transcend villages and caste groups are required. How are such groups recruited?

There are two broad possibilities. The first is that traditional loyalties may be used to build up groups which compete in the new system, the most striking example in India being the use made of caste. Political allegiances grow horizontally, so to speak, first to one’s fellow caste members in the same village, then to members of the same caste in other villages, and finally far beyond this to include, in some cases, members of similar castes throughout the region. The Nayar Service Society in Kerala is an example. Such groups may still be called castes, but they are operating in a system totally different from the village caste system described in the preceding section.

Political allegiances may also be created in the idiom of the new institutions, as in the case of professional associations, trade unions, or political parties. These have the advantage over organizations recruited on the basis of traditional loyalties in that they have a wider recruiting area; but they also have the corresponding disadvantage of having no existing sentiments and loyalties on which to capitalize.

In other words, there are three points on the continuum that mark the process of change characteristic of south Asian society. At the first point the people of the countryside are divided into relatively small, isolated, self-contained communities. Internally these communities are divided into parts which are organically linked with one another. At the second point, the groups are no longer so isolated. Outside relationships make it possible for erstwhile dependent categories to form political groups and compete with their masters, and the organic system of interdependent parts tends to give way to a segmentary system of competing groups. At the third point, political groupings cease to be territorially based and territorially exclusive. The tendency toward castes forming political groups in competition with one another is magnified, since caste allegiances form a useful basis for organizing political groups. But at the same time caste (or any other traditional loyalty) is only one way of organizing such groups, and it may in the end be superseded by other forms of organization. Perhaps the shortest way to describe the process of change is to say that small-scale systems of vertically organized organic groups are being replaced by large-scale horizontal systems of groups in competition with one another. In the future we may be able to look back and summarize the whole process adequately by saying that the caste system was replaced by a class system.

Prospects and opportunities

In this final section I shall discuss the contribution which research in south Asia is likely to make to the advancement of social anthropology and the study of society generally. If, in some respects, this contribution is a distinctive one, this will happen not only because of something unique and distinctive in south Asian society itself but also because of certain accidental features in the way research has developed in south Asia.

While no one can deny that the civilizations of south Asia, whether widely defined as total cultures or narrowly defined as social philosophies, are worthy and necessary objects of study, I think it is likely to prove a crippling error if all energies are directed into understanding “totalities” of this kind. After the heterogeneities of tribal Africa, the cultural unity of Hinduism or Islam strikes the eye (particularly if one is long-sighted enough to ignore numerous irregularities), and it is understandable that some anthropologists should have thought that these civilizations must be their first object of study; this was what distinguished their field of study from more primitive fields. But south Asia offers other, more exciting opportunities, namely, the study of social change and the chance of developing techniques for the analysis of complex societies. The process by which parochial loyalties are eroded by the demands of the nation, by which village or tribal arenas are replaced by regional and state arenas, is roughly a decade in advance of the analogous processes in sub-Saharan Africa. It is too late, even if we were so inclined, to fight a rear-guard action by proclaiming that kinship and cosmology form the subject matter of social anthropology, while the role of political parties, trade unions, and large-scale capitalist enterprise should be left in the hands of political scientists and economists.

The key to this situation is the degree to which different activities are specialized. Clearly there are levels of political and economic activity so specialized that they belong exclusively to political science and economics. But even in our own highly complex societies, there are still centers of activity where politics, economics, kinship, and religion are mingled with one another. These are the points appropriately studied by the methods of social anthropology: we replace these activities in the social matrix from which more specialized disciplines have abstracted them. The opportunity offered by south Asia is that the degree of specialization of activity is as yet much lower than in the more developed societies. We can, so to speak, grasp both the simple and the complex in one situation and by doing so, one hopes, evolve a framework of concepts which will enable us to understand both processes of change and complex patterns of social interaction. This is our opportunity. To adopt a narrower definition of the scope of social anthropology and attempt to repeat in south Asia work done in Africa, or to reach for the unattainable end of comprehending total cultures, would be to miss that opportunity.

F. G. Bailey

[See alsoCaste; Hinduism; Indian political thought; Islam. Other relevant material may be found inKinshipandSocial structure.]


Bailey, F. G. (1957) 1958 Caste and the Economic Frontier: A Village in Highland Orissa. New York: Humanities; Manchester (England) Univ. Press.

Bailey, F. G. 1960 Tribe, Caste, and Nation: A Study of Political Activity and Political Change in Highland Orissa. Manchester (England) Univ. Press.

Bailey, F. G. 1963 Closed Social Stratification in India. Archives européennes de sociologie: European Journal of Sociology 4:107–124.

Berreman, Gerald D. 1960 Caste in India and the United States. American Journal of Sociology 66:120–127.

BouglÉ, Celestin (1908) 1935 Essais sur le régime des castes. 3d ed. Paris: Alcan.

Contributions to Indian Sociology (Paris). → Published since 1957 under the editorship of Louis Dumont and D. Pocock.

Dumont, Louis 1957 Une sous-caste de I’lnde du Sud: Organisation sociale et religion de Pramalai Kallar. Paris: Mouton.

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Hocart, Arthur M. (1938) 1950 Caste: A Comparative Study. London: Methuen. → First published in French as Les castes.

Hutton, John H. (1946) 1963 Caste in India: Its Nature, Function and Origins. 4th ed. Oxford Univ. Press.

Leach, Edmund R. (editor) 1960 Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North-west Pakistan. Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology, No. 2. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Marriott, McKim (editor) 1955 Village India: Studies in the Little Community. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Also published as Memoir No. 83 of the American Anthropological Association.

Mayer, Adrian C. 1960 Caste and Kinship in Central India: A Village and Its Region. London: Routledge; Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

Redfield, Robert 1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962, bound together with Robert Redfield’s The Little Community.

Senart, Émile (1896) 1930 Caste in India: The Facts and the System. London: Methuen. → First published in French.


Southeast Asia includes a considerable part of the Asian continent—Burma, Thailand, the Malayan Peninsula, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—and two large island groups: the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippines. In terms of population, the archipelagoes together slightly outnumber the continental countries: nearly half of the total population of southeast Asia belongs to Indonesia alone (100 million out of about 225 million). Still more striking is that nearly one-third of the total population of the area is found on an island of very moderate size: Java, with nearly seventy million inhabitants in an area of only 132,000 sq. km. The total land area of southeast Asia is 4.5 million sq. km.

These few figures may suffice to indicate one of the characteristics of the area: the extreme differences in population densities. Despite rather similar climatic conditions—described by the term “monsoon Asia” sometimes applied to this area—the distribution of the population is uneven. This may be due partly to differential soil fertility: the extremely fertile riverine valleys of the mainland and the volcanic soils of Java allow population densities unknown in rural areas in the Western world. The differences are also partly due to cultural factors, related to the prevalent type of land use. Even in early times populations that grew rice in open irrigated fields were well distinguished in cultural traits from the peoples of forest areas who practiced swidden cultivation of the slash-and-burn type.

Early civilizations

The inland states . The areas of irrigation agriculture in southeast Asia were generally those most deeply affected by Hindu civilization. Though irrigation may have been developed, particularly in Java, before contact was made with the Indian world, it is probable that Brahmins called to the princely courts of southeast Asia played an important role in the further spread of Hindu civilization, including irrigation techniques. The Dutch sociologist J. C. van Leur has put forward a hypothesis that it was Indian Brahmins who provided a sacral legitimation to ruling dynasties by furnishing mythological sanction to genealogy. At the same time they probably served these princes as chancellors, advisers in matters of government and the domestication of the rural population as well as in the construction of temples and irrigation works (van Leur 1955, pp. 103–104, 257–258). Thus, they laid the foundation for the greater southeast Asian empires based on irrigated rice-field cultivation. Within this category one could include the central Javanese kingdom of Mataram until the tenth century, the Khmer kingdom of Angkor in the area that at present constitutes Cambodia, and to a lesser extent the preponderantly mountainous Champa kingdom in the southern region of what is currently known as Annam. In the Red River basin a similar state structure emerged under Chinese influence; but in this case it was not cultural diffusion of the type carried by individual Brahmins but military conquest during the Han dynasty that laid the foundations for the bureaucratic structure. In later centuries the center of the Javanese empire temporarily shifted to eastern Java, whereas on the continent new empires emerged in the Irrawaddy and Menam delta regions.

The empires based on levies from the yields of irrigated rice fields and on socage are defined by van Leur in a Weberian term—”patrimonial bureaucracies.” He describes these oikos states in the following way:

… mass domestication made possible by river and canal irrigation farming formed the basis for control of the population by the officialdom of the ruler. All subjects were required to render service to the authority, and that service was organized and directed bureaucratically by an administrative apparatus. The chief role of the cities was that of being royal seats— kraton towns, thus—in which levies in kind were brought together from the whole country, and royal storehouses in which the levies were stocked and from which the host of officials, the army, and the royal household were provided. The same system was used for lower administrative units. Large-scale planned projects of agrarian colonization were undertaken, and with the services of the subjects monumental building activities were accomplished. They were forced-labour states, socage states or liturgical states. The legal status of the agrarian population could vary from that of freeholders to that of serfs and slaves brought into the state by predatory war, purchase, or subjugation and established in agrarian colonies. (van Leur 1955, pp. 56–57)

Though a certain amount of central authority is essential for the maintenance of irrigation systems, Wittfogel’s picture of these ancient Asian empires as strongly centralized units over which the prince exercised “total power” would appear to be far removed from historical reality (1957, passim). The very fact that the rulers had to use force time and again to keep the local lords under their control is not a sign of absolute power, but rather of weakness. Among the means tried to prevent imperial disintegration and to ensure the regular payment of tribute, Weber (1922) mentions periodic royal tours; dispatch of confidential agents; demands for “personal guarantees” (such as hostages or regular appearances at the court); attaching sons of officials to the courts as pages; putting relatives in important positions (which usually proved to be a double-edged sword), or just the reverse—appointing people of inferior class or foreigners as ministeriales; brief terms of office; exclusion of public servants from seigniorages over territories where they had landed property or family connections; attaching celibates or eunuchs to the court; having officials supervised by spies or censors. None of these expedients proved to be a panacea, and imperial unity was continually threatened from within by decentralizing tendencies.

Most of the practices listed by Weber as characteristic of patrimonial states were also tried by southeast Asian rulers to check the ever-threatening centrifugal tendencies (Schrieke 1955–1957, vol. 1, pp. 184–185, and vol. 2, pp. 217–221; Vella 1955, pp. 322–331).

More difficult than a general characterization of the bureaucratic structures is a description of the basic units—the villages in the irrigated rice-growing areas of early southeast Asia. The available literary and epigraphic sources are, in general, exclusively concerned with the description of life at the courts and in monasteries. In order to get some insight into village life we must make more or less conjectural inferences from observations of later periods.

It is highly probable that the villages were largely characterized by a subsistence economy, a high proportion of the surplus being levied, through village authorities, by the bureaucratic apparatus to sustain the larger and smaller courts and the town population surrounding them. But the concept forwarded by Boeke ([1947] 1948, pp. 5, 13) of completely closed village economies in early southeast Asian societies cannot be upheld: in Java, for example, a group of neighboring villages were connected by a single market system. Moreover, the peasantry were partly dependent upon tools external to the village economy, such as imported iron plowshares.

The Marxian concept of a typically Asian mode of production—characterized by a lack of private ownership of land and the complete subjection of the individual peasant to village authority, and accounting for a basic unchangeableness of ancient Asian societies—should also be reconsidered (Chesneaux 1964, pp. 47–53). Marx’s interpretation of Asian village society, based on a rather shallow range of reading, appears untenable in the light of present-day knowledge of early peasant societies in southeast Asia. The kings and their chroniclers kept up a pretense of the king’s absolute ownership rights over all the lands belonging to his realm and denied any rights of the individual peasants. It is this formal interpretation that was greedily adopted by later colonial governments to substantiate their claim, as successors to the king, to domanial rights. But social reality may have substantially differed from this legal construct, as was recently demonstrated by a study of land law in Ceylon (Pieris 1956, pp. 1–22).

Though it is highly probable that the village communities in general had rather extended powers over land use and crop rotation schemes, this does not exclude the possibility that in some areas individual peasants may have enjoyed private, even hereditary, rights to definite plots of land, whereas in other areas periodic redistribution of plots may have been the normal procedure.

A rejection of Marx’s concept of an “Asiatic mode of production” is not necessarily an endorsement of the Marxist concept of the evolution of the Western world—from slavery to feudalism to capitalism—as valid for Asian societies. There are strong indications that slavery never had the importance in southeast Asian rural economies that it had in ancient Greek-Roman civilization. Socage, not slave labor, in all probability furnished most of the manpower needed for the construction of monuments and irrigation works. This may explain why huge Hindu and Buddhist monuments are found exclusively in areas where wet-rice cultivation was prevalent, not in a center of Buddhist culture like Srivijaya (Sumatra), which was situated in a region that was characterized by swidden cultivation. One could presume that in Java the peasantry were summoned for building activities after harvest time, during the dry eastern monsoon, and that afterward they returned to their villages to till the fields. In the same way, military expeditions were undertaken by the princes of the Muslim empire of Mataram during successive years in the first decades of the seventeenth century.

The basic “unchangeableness” claimed by Marx for Asian societies “in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic States, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty” (1867–1879, vol. 1, p. 394 in 1912 edition), also remains a highly debatable concept. The impression of Asian societies as static may have been conveyed by their seeming stagnancy under the impact of Western expanding capitalism in the nineteenth century; it may have been reinforced by a lack of detailed information on the social and economic history of the peoples of Asia at a time when sociological analysis was still in its beginnings. However true this may be for other parts of Asia, as far as southeast Asia was concerned there is little evidence to substantiate the validity of such a view.

There are at least two important factors that may have produced such instability and social change in the area under discussion: first, the existence of inner contradictions within the patrimonial bureaucratic structures; second, the situation of southeast Asia at a crossroad of cultural currents.

Before discussing these two factors, we should first note another aspect of southeast Asian societies that is highly relevant in facilitating social change: the great variety of social and cultural forms.

The tribal peoples. In the forest areas characterized by swidden cultivation, a way of life and political forms developed that were completely different from those found in the patrimonial bureaucratic structures. When viewing southeast Asia as a whole, however, we see certain common cultural traits expressed in similar folk beliefs and traditions. These similarities are part of a cultural heritage that derives from the times when swidden cultivation constituted the form of land use found all over the area.

Whereas the cultivators of wet-rice fields generally lived in a village community, settlements of swidden cultivators were mostly structured by genealogy, clans and tribes providing the predominant social units. Their main sites were frequently characterized by a group of permanent dwellings belonging to one tribe or to a part of it; these settlements were widespread and covered vast areas in the islands of Indonesia outside central and eastern Java and Bali, most of the Philippines until the advent of the Spanish and Portuguese, large tracts of the Malay Peninsula, and the mountainous hinterland of continental southeast Asia. The cultural diversity among these tribal peoples was probably much greater than among the settled peasants of the irrigated areas. Subsistence types and material culture also varied greatly. Rice was not necessarily the main food crop raised on the swidden; such commercial crops as pepper and spices could be grown in addition to the food crop, and both these and forest products were traded through the intermediary of tribal chiefs in exchange for salt or oil. Cattle-breeding tribes were generally distinguished by a strictly patrilineal type of family organization (Terra 1953, pp. 308–313, 442–446). Whereas the position of women in those areas of southeast Asia where wet-rice cultivation and mixed gardening were prevalent generally did not show any of the serious disabilities known from large parts of the Indian subcontinent, male authority may have been much stronger among cattle-breeding tribes.

The most striking feature of these tribal peoples, however, is that they were generally not integrated into larger political units. As political organizations the tribal units were quite often able to maintain a certain amount of independence.

The harbor principalities. In the inland states the wet-rice regions were linked with the larger and smaller court towns that were the centers of the higher and lower bureaucracies dominating these states. In addition, however, a different type of town was to be found in the southeast Asian region, spread along the seacoasts and near the river mouths: the centers of sea trade called by van Leur (1955) harbor principalities.

Van Leur demonstrated that these commercial towns cannot be compared with the Hanseatic towns of western Europe. The traders did not possess any political power and they were subordinated to princely authority. The great majority of them were small traders, living in separate quarters according to their ethnic group, each of the groups being under the command of a native chieftain appointed by princely authority. As far as their social and political structure was concerned, these harbor principalities were not essentially different from the inland court capitals, in which the royal aristocracy was dominant. The artisans and small traders were mostly foreigners, economically dependent upon the clientele of the court and, even though they may have been organized into guilds, politically subordinate to the prince.

It is true that in the harbor towns sea trade and international traffic generated a more cosmopolitan atmosphere and a greater receptivity to foreign cultural influences. But even the international trade was largely dominated by the harbor princes and their retinue, although a group of patrician merchants of foreign origin also participated in it (van Leur 1955, passim). Van Leur’s overdrawn dichotomy between small traders—defined in his studies as peddlers—and big patrician merchants living in an aristocratic style has been criticized and refined by Meilink-Roelofsz (1962, pp. 5–12).

This domination of foreign trade provided the harbor principalities with a large portion of their revenue. It replaced as a source of income the socage-and-tithe basis of the inland states, though most of the harbor princes possessed some landed estate near the town. These estates were sometimes worked by slave labor. Many of the harbor principalities, on the other hand, profited from another type of hinterland: especially in the sparsely populated islands of Sumatra and Borneo and in the Malay Peninsula they commanded the trade with the forest areas where commercial crops were grown and forest products were gathered, and they sought to acquire these products at cheap prices through the intermediary of tribal chiefs. The political relationship with these swidden areas was, however, different from the type of dominion of the inland states over irrigated territories and their peasant populations. The harbor prince acted rather as a suzerain who dealt with a tribal chief as his vassal; no bureaucratic structure comparable to those of the inland states was to be found in the swidden areas. No food surplus of any proportion was produced nor was a manpower surplus available for the construction of public works. For menial work the harbor princes and their retinue, as well as the patrician merchants, needed slave labor imported from overseas.

The relationship between inland states and harbor principalities is an intriguing one. There is still much uncertainty about the true relationship between the inland state of early Mataram (central Java) and the powerful harbor principality of Srivijaya (Sumatra) at the time of the Sailendra dynasty (c. a.d. 800). Van Leur (1955, pp. 104–107) suggests the possibility that the dynasty ruling the Sumatran riparian sea power had temporarily exercised a kind of suzerainty over the patrimonial bureaucratic state in Java, in a way somewhat analogous to the overlordship of the polls Rome over its province Egypt. It is equally possible that the sovereignty over the Khmer kingdom of Cambodia, attributed by Coedèes (1962, pp. 94–95) and other scholars to the Javanese kings, was in fact exercised by the rulers of Srivijaya, who were a strong sea power at that time. Benda (1962, p. 114, note 15), on the other hand, expresses his doubts that any political relationship of this kind between the two types of polity, combined in one and the same dynasty, could ever have existed. However this may be, in later years the relationship was more or less reversed. After the shift of the center of state power in Java from the central to the eastern part of the island, the kingdom of Majapahit combined patrimonial bureaucratic traits, as evidenced by the panegyric Nag arakrtagama (1365), with a mighty sea power extending far beyond Java and keeping some of the east Sumatran harbor principalities under subjection. The subsequent history of Java shows a continuous battle of the successive inland states against the harbor principalities along the northern coast of the island.

Cultural influences and social change. The variety of social and political structures in southeast Asia accounts for a greater amount of social change than admitted by van Leur (1955, pp. 166–169) or Schrieke (1955–1957, vol. 2, pp. 4–5), who in this respect retained the static view held by Marx and others. In any patrimonial bureaucracy there exists a basic instability, generated by an eternal tension between center and periphery—the satraps and provincial rulers in the periphery aspiring to achieve a central position by displacing the ruler. But in such a case, one could still argue, the general structure of the polity is being kept intact in spite of a fall of the ruling dynasty. A new dimension to the struggle between center and periphery is added, however, whenever the inland state at its periphery comes in contact with societies of a different order—as was the case with the harbor principalities, which provided a kind of counterpoint to the patrimonial bureaucratic structure.

As outlined before, however, other factors that could generate social change also were operative. The patrimonial structures were not immune to inner contradictions. First, there was a basic contradiction between the peasantry and the bureaucracy. The history of southeast Asia, as of China, was probably fraught with a continuous recurrence of rural unrest and jacqueries, which embodied a protest against too harsh an exploitation of the peasantry by the officials (Chesneaux 1964, p. 52). One could argue that jacqueries do not succeed in basically changing the fabric of a society, since at best they achieve a supersession of one ruler or dynasty by another, without affecting the bureaucratic structure as such. This is precisely why Marx claimed an intrinsic unchangeableness beneath all the bluster and thunder of dynastic change.

Peasant unrest in southeast Asia, however, could achieve more than a mere supersession of one master by another. There are indications that the peasantry possessed a more lasting weapon to dispose of too oppressive an exploitation. If socage service was too burdensome, the peasantry moved to other regions where the pressure was less heavy. This probably occurred in central Java when temple-building activities had been stepped up beyond the endurance of the peasantry (Schrieke 1955–1957, vol. 2, pp. 300–301) and caused a shift not only of the center of Hindu-Javanese culture and political power but also of political and religious orientations of the ruling aristocracy. In the same way, Chesneaux (1964, p. 52, note 47) suggests that the drive of Vietnamese peasants toward the south may have been caused by an excessive exploitation by the bureaucracy in the north.

The significance of the contradictions within the inland states can be fully understood only if one takes into account the tensions between royalty and clergy. Benda (1962, pp. 114–124) has clearly pointed out that the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism in southeast Asia, which is often presented as one of accommodation and harmony, actually may have been much more strained than generally admitted. This hypothesis becomes more probable if one assumes that the universalistic appeal of Buddhism, especially Tantric Buddhism, may have won a certain following among the peasantry. Similarly, in Vietnam the Confucian scholargentry may have been in conflict with the Buddhist monks, who placed themselves at the helm of peasant unrest.

The picture of continuous social change achieves still greater depth from an analysis of the spread of Theravada Buddhism and Sufi Islam. As noted before, in its earlier history southeast Asia had undergone influences from India and China. About the fourteenth century new cultural currents in religious forms presented themselves to the southeast Asian societies. In Angkor the “building mania” of the god-kings had caused popular discontent, which made the peasantry susceptible to the revolutionary new faith imported from Ceylon. To quote Benda:

The innovations introduced by Theravada Buddhism were threefold. In the first place, it created a quasiegalitarian religious community of which even the monarchs themselves became, albeit for short times and mainly symbolically, members. Secondly, it is not likely that by virtue of their example and teachings the monks could exercise a measure of restraint on the exercise of monarchical power. And, finally, the sociologically most important innovation of the new faith lay in the new monkhood which practised the principles of other-worldly simplicity and frugality, in sharp contrast to the Mahayana monks of the classical era. In spite of the close liaison between the upper ranks of the sangha [the Buddhist hierarchy] and the courts, the mass of the new monks became village “priests,” permeating all aspects of peasant life and forming the undisputed center of rural education and social activities. This, I think, amounted to a revolutionary change in the religious landscape of mainland Southeast Asia, or more precisely, in the traditional balance between secular and ecclesiastic authority. The two were still, it is true, intimately connected, but they no longer represented the twin aspects of court culture only. Indeed, the new religious order had an obvious bearing on rural unrest in Theravada lands. For, as often as not it came over the centuries to be led by monks, the only spiritual and organizational leaders of the peasantry. (1962, pp. 121–122)

The penetration of Islam into other parts of southeast Asia (Indonesia, the Malayan Peninsula, Champa, and the southern Philippines) had a somewhat different character (Johns 1961, pp. 10–23). The new faith at first found its adherents mainly among the urban traders in the harbor principalities, who discovered in the egalitarian ideology of Islam a spiritual satisfaction that was denied them under Hinduism. A situation in which a large proportion of the urban population was Islamized favored an ascent to power of Muslim rulers, either through conversion of the harbor princes under the influence of wandering ulama (Wertheim [1956] 1959, pp. 197–200) or through conquest by prominent foreign Muslims (MeilinkRoelofsz 1962, p. 6).

The Islamization of the harbor principalities, especially on the north coast of Java, sharpened their antagonism to the weakened Hinduized inland states of Java. The only way for the inland rulers to counter the impact from the coast was to embrace Islam, which provided these rulers with the possibility of winning the allegiance of the peasantry, to which Islam also had begun to spread. The ulama, operating from their religious schools, which had replaced the former Buddhist monasteries, played an important part in this mass conversion.

Again, as with Theravada Buddhism, a more egalitarian creed had won a victory because the patrimonial bureaucratic structure, if it was to survive, was in need of striking deeper roots among the common people instead of contenting itself with mass domestication and royal charisma. This time, it was not only the upper layers that were affected by the foreign influences; by the fourteenth century these influences had reached the common people and had kindled a spark of selfreliance and human dignity.

The colonial period

Early contacts with the West . The first centuries of Western intrusion into the world of southeast Asia were not accompanied by profound structural changes within the fabric of the affected societies. Most of the Western activities and interests were in the realm of overseas trade and naval war and were therefore marginal to the life of the peasantry—the largest section of the peoples of southeast Asia. The deepest changes were brought about in the Philippines, where Roman Catholicism became dominant in most of the islands; in addition, the political units, which before the advent of the Spanish did not extend beyond the barangay (kinship group living in a settlement of village size), were integrated into a larger state structure. Even so, one could argue that until the end of the eighteenth century the Spanish did not accomplish much more than to provide the rice-growing areas with the kind of patrimonial bureaucratic superstructure that had been developed long before in Java, Angkor, and Champa under Hinduism and in the north of Vietnam under Confucianism. First the encomenderos (private persons entrusted with official power by the governor-general), and later the appointed officials, were charged with tax collection and the exaction of corvée. Monastic orders and church estates, exempted from tax liabilities, fulfilled a similar tax-collecting function in the areas allotted to them, as the Buddhist mandalas and later on Muslim pesantrens in Java, who gathered the taxes from the perdikan dessas (free villages).

Nor was the extension of Dutch power over Java in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries accompanied with basic intrinsic change. By their overwhelming naval power, the Dutch had succeeded in establishing themselves in the Moluccas, on the north coast of Java, in Malacca, and finally in Macassar (Celebes), after having ousted first the Portuguese and then the British from the area. Despite their bourgeois origin, however, the Dutch were soon forced by their Asian environment to relinquish their bourgeois ways and to conform to the political, social, and commercial patterns of the southeast Asian harbor principalities. The East India Company’s monopoly system made the existence of a free Dutch bourgeoisie impossible. The servants of the company retained the appellation of merchant or merchant in chief, but their way of living approached ever closer to that of the Eastern nobles. In Batavia, as in Indonesian harbor princedoms, the various nationalities lived in separate wards under their own chiefs. A considerable section of the population were slaves. “The Company’s Batavia had become an Eastern harbour principality by the eighteenth century” (Wertheim [1956] 1959, p. 172).

As far as the rice-growing areas of central Java were concerned, the Dutch East India Company at first contented itself with exacting part of the rice surplus raised by the inland state of Mataram. In exchange, the company ousted the leading aristocracies and merchant families of the rival harbor principalities on the north coast, so much feared by the Mataram rulers; they had to take refuge in the outer islands. Later on, the company succeeded in practically subjecting the Mataram rulers, after repeated immixture into their wars of succession, and in establishing for the governorgeneral the status of overlord in his relationship to the divided “principalities” of central Java. Even this, however, did not produce a completely new structural phenomenon: the company, hitherto a powerful harbor principality, constituted itself as a patrimonial bureaucracy ruling over the inland state of Java and, thus, attained a position similar to that possibly achieved by Srivijaya in earlier times in relation to the inland state of early Mataram.

Economic expansion. It was not until the introduction of large-scale cultivation of commercial crops that the structure of southeast Asian societies underwent a basic change. During the eighteenth century the first steps in this direction had been taken with the introduction of forced coffee cultivation in the mountainous Preanger regencies of western Java (an area where swidden cultivation had been prevalent until that time) and with the enactment of a tobacco monopoly in the Philippines. Earlier, clove and nutmeg cultivation in the Moluccas had been subjected to strict regimentation and to enforced extirpation by the Dutch East India Company of all the trees in excess of its requirements.

The nineteenth century, however, witnessed a substantial expansion of the plantation economy. These plantations were mostly under the direct management of the colonial government at first and made use of bonded labor. The “cultivation system” in Java, from 1830 to 1860, expanded the forced cultivation of “dessert” crops, such as sugar, tea, and coffee, over large areas. Similarly, in the Philippines the cultivation of tobacco, sugar, and other crops was much expanded on government and church estates.

Private plantations expanded during the second half of the nineteenth century. Java and the Philippines led the way, but soon the plantation economy developed in other regions as well: Sumatra, the Malayan Peninsula, Cambodia, and Cochin China became important plantation centers and were run under Western management along strictly capitalistic lines. Whereas the “dessert” crops had dominated the plantation economy of Java and the Philippines, in the areas where there was still plenty of forest land available trees producing raw materials for modern industry, such as rubber and palm oil, were predominant. In addition, mining of oil, tin, and bauxite was developed in areas that had hardly been explored in former times (Borneo, Sumatra and the smaller islands east of it, and the Malayan Peninsula, including that part of it belonging to Thailand). Coal, iron, tin, zinc, phosphate, manganese, and wolfram mining was developed in Tonkin, whereas on Luzon Island vast reserves of gold, iron, and chromium ore were exploited.

The southeast Asian region thus became a typical colonial producer of raw materials for the Western industrial world and a consumer of readymade goods, predominantly textiles. Thailand was the only country that, by playing off the imperialist powers, managed to maintain a formal independence. The social and political structure of the whole region was strongly affected by the onslaught of Western capitalism, the more so since even the cultivation of rice, the traditional food crop, was seriously affected by the new economic order: in many areas of Java rice growing was geared to a plantation economy by the introduction of a pattern of crop rotation, thus forcing the rice cultivator to become a part-time worker on the sugar plantation during the time when it was occupying his land. In Burma, on the other hand, the British colonial administration forced a system of free disposal of land and crop upon the peasantry in order to get an exportable surplus of rice in exchange for industrial products imported from the home country.

According to Furnivall (1948) both systems led equally to a disruption of the rural social order and to an impoverishment of the peasantry.

The impact of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Western capitalism on southeast Asian societies was profound and lasting—even in Java, where the official policy has been one intended to keep the social order intact and to preserve many native institutions, or in the Philippines, where the Spanish government for a long time tried to exclude other Western capitalists from the country and thus to shield Filipino society from foreign influences.

Changes in the state structure. During the period of preponderantly mercantile contacts in the Philippines and Java, Asian types of bureaucracy and political relationships were largely adapted to the requirements of the Western overlords. But the expansion of commercial crop cultivation stimulated more direct forms of internal administration and the colonial government and its civil service penetrated more deeply into the rural areas.

The Dutch colonial government developed a dual system of administration. A Westernized bureaucratic apparatus was superimposed on an Indonesian infrastructure in which many patrimonial bureaucratic traits were preserved (Wertheim [1964] 1965, pp. 115–117). Until late in the nineteenth century the regents of Java were still entitled to domestic services exacted from the rural population to supplement their meager salaries and to prop the social prestige which the Dutch expected them to retain vis-à-vis the rural population. On the other hand, their involvement in commercial agriculture, as agents of Western interests, may have detracted from their traditional aura in the eyes of the rural population (Schrieke 1955–1957, vol. 1, p. 190). By the turn of the century, however, the Javanese civil servants were transformed into salaried officials. Nevertheless, on lower levels of the bureaucracy, patrimonial remnants were still prevalent. The village officials remained unsalaried even up to World War II and were remunerated indirectly by receiving a percentage from the tax revenue and by grants of land.

In the Philippines, despite a certain amount of political reform during the nineteenth century, the system of administration remained conspicuously unfit for developing commercial crop cultivation along capitalistic lines. One of the weakest points of the system was the vast extent of landed estate held by monastic orders. This land was practically free from taxation and emphasized the weak position of the administration vis-à-vis the clergy. This was one of the main causes of the revolution of 1896. It was the Americans who, after their intervention, attempted to introduce a type of government better adapted to the requirements of a capitalistic exploitation (Corpuz 1957, pp. 5–6, 128–195).

In the regions where the British came to power, they applied the system of direct rule that they had used in India. The proclaimed British policy at the annexations of Lower Burma in 1826 and Upper Burma in 1886 “… was directed to the provision of a suitable code of laws, the enforcement of a moderate system of taxation, the recognition of religious and personal freedom as a fundamental principle of rule, the freedom of trade and abolition of oppressive duties, and the improvement of roads and other means of communication. Except for the final item this policy was merely negative, a policy of laissez-faire” (Furnivall [1948] 1956, p. 63).

Furnivall himself, however, points out that the introduction of a completely Westernized administration proved impossible or too costly and that in many respects the government had to revert to the Burmese system of payment by a commission for revenue collection. “Thus, while the European branch of the administration was becoming more centralized and mechanical, the local or Burmese branch was reverting to type, and the people were still managing their own affairs much as under their own rulers” ([1948] 1956, p. 38). Actually, therefore, in Burma under the British a dualism in the system of administration developed similar to that in Java under the Dutch.

The change of political structure, however, was not confined to the colonial sphere. Interestingly, Mindon, the ruler of the kingdom of Ava in Upper Burma, had made an effort, before the British annexation and no doubt under the impact of what had happened in Lower Burma, to reorganize and modernize his state apparatus:

He tried in particular to abolish the Myosa system of fief assignments to princes and high officials. He attempted also to end the misappropriation of moneys passing through official hands by instituting a system of designated stipends and salaries. He undertook to raise revenues for the most part from thathameda land-tax assessments based on a productivity index for a given area multiplied by the number of households. … The establishment of administrative supervisory posts checked flagrant financial abuses. … Unfortunately the attempts at the reform [met] with little success to eliminate feudal aspects of the Burmese administrative system. … (Cady 1964, p. 388)

More ambitious still were the reforms brought about by the kings of Thailand. Under King Chulalongkorn, for example, salaried officials were appointed to replace the hereditary governors. Especially after the king’s younger brother, Prince Damrong, had gained influence after 1893, the provincial government was thoroughly reorganized on modern lines. Though the practical effect of many of the reforms may be doubted, the effort proves that the inefficiency of the traditional patrimonial bureaucratic system was also realized by southeast Asian rulers (Vella 1955, pp. 340–349).

The French in Indochina introduced a highly bureaucratic and centralized rule in Cochin China, but in Annam and Tonkin they retained a certain measure of indirect rule and kept the mandarinate bureaucracy, at least formally, intact. Indirect rule was also, sometimes more nominally than in fact, applied in Laos and Cambodia, in Malaya, and in large parts of the outer islands of Indonesia.

This schematic survey makes clear that, however great the divergences in political structure produced under colonial rule—each being modeled more or less in accordance with the concepts cherished by the particular colonizing power—still the economic and social realities made for a certain parallelism throughout the southeast Asian area.

Plantation society. The system of social stratification in nineteenth-century southeast Asia was strongly influenced by both the conquest of most of southeast Asia under imperialist expansion and the spread of a plantation pattern of social organization. To begin with the latter: wherever plantations were started in virgin or nearly virgin areas, such as Sumatra’s east coast or Malaya, there was a clear organizational principle. The management and staff were whites; the laborers, all of them imported from elsewhere, were Asians (mostly Chinese and Javanese in Sumatra, Chinese and Indians in Malaya).

A plantation was a harsh frontier society, with rigorous discipline and a rigid code of behavior aimed at maintaining the social prestige of the white managerial group. The laborers worked under a system of indentured labor and were not free to quit or to leave the plantation. Both the planters and the coolies considered their stay at the plantation temporary and dreamed of quickly accumulating enough money to return home as well-to-do men. But only in the case of the planters was this likely to be more than a dream. Some of the Chinese and Indian workers were thrifty enough to send regularly part of their earnings home, and there were even quite a few who managed to establish themselves as independent traders in the colony and to make good in society. But for the great majority, especially for the less thrifty Javanese, there was no alternative after the expiring of the contract but to sign for another term. The management did everything in its power to prevent the coolie from quitting; playing hazard was a muchused method of getting an old-timer, whose contract had nearly expired, into debt. For the great majority of the laborers, many of whom had been cheated into signing a contract, working on a plantation meant lifelong bondage, made even harsher by the nearly exclusively male composition of the frontier society.

In later years, a larger number of female laborers from Java were employed on Sumatra’s east coast plantations. Consequently, a kind of normalization occurred in the frontier society, and particularly during the rubber boom of the 1920s the regimen became, accordingly, somewhat softened. Abuses were more rigorously combated, the more so since the indentured system had come under strong criticism by the home press and political parties. But the essential traits of the plantation society were nevertheless preserved.

Still, the plantations were not established in a kind of vacuum. Even on Sumatra’s east coast and in Malaya the indigenous social structure was not completely absent. For their land grants the plantation owners were dependent on the Malay sultanates—which gained in wealth, if not in prestige, among the population—because of their involvement in Western enterprise.

In areas like Java and the Philippines, where plantations were established amidst a settled population, the new institution had to be geared to traditional patterns of the surrounding rural society. The plantation managements in Java to a certain extent assumed the paternalistic ways of the native aristocracy and vied with these in style of living and forms of leisure, even after the system of bonded labor had been replaced by one of free, paid labor. In the Philippines the cultivation of commercial crops on haciendas was to an important extent in the hands of caciques, the mixed offspring of the former Malay chiefs, who used their social prestige to exact the required amount of work from their tenant-farmers, kept in peonage under the kasama (sharecropping) system. Thus the plantation management combined the characteristics of modern enterprise with the ways of a landed gentry. In the Philippines the cacique was at the same time landlord and magistrate.

Social stratification. The plantation society set a model for colonial society in its totality. The white colonizers superimposed themselves as a ruling caste upon the southeast Asian social body. Their status was based on ascription; their dominant position was derived from their white ancestry, even though their supremacy in military and political matters had been attained through their initial start in education and in technical and administrative matters. The nineteenth-century colonial society was molded on racial principles: belonging to the dominant white upper caste provided one with prestige and power largely independent of one’s personal capabilities. A strict ritual was introduced and maintained, by force when necessary, to preserve the white caste from contacts with Asiatics on a basis of equality and to maintain the former’s prestige as the dominant group.

Raymond Kennedy, who was probably the first to analyze colonial society as such in sociological terms (1945, pp. 305–346), correctly points to the great differences in colonial patterns corresponding to specific views and attitudes of the colonizing power. He indicates such national peculiarities as the British colonial code, which “draws the most rigid color line of all. … The entire social ritual of the colonies symbolizes the separateness of rulers and ruled. Nowhere in the colonial world are the lines of caste drawn more rigidly: in clubs, residential areas, places of public accommodation, and informal cliques. Nowhere is the taboo on intermarriage stronger and the penalty for infraction more drastic” (1945, p. 320). The Dutch suffered less from preconceptions of racial superiority and inferiority than the British and were more liberal in their attitude toward deviations from the colonial code of caste. Social relations between natives and whites were by no means free and equal, but by comparison with the British colonies the Dutch East Indies appeared as a zone of exceptional racial tolerance. Eurasians, born from a marriage of a European man with a colored woman or acknowledged by a European as his offspring in case of illegitimate birth, were legally, if not socially, assimilated into the European population. The policy of the French resembled that of the Dutch in its “relative freedom from racial prejudice” (Kennedy 1945, p. 329). The French ideal of carrying their civilization to the colonial peoples, moreover, led them to an attitude of accepting at least socially those few among the Asians who had fully assimilated French culture.

The Spanish colonizers in the Philippines did not suffer from strong racial prejudices. The Christianization of the Filipinos had furthered intermarriage, from which sprung not only the dominant landowning group of caciques but also an urban and educated intermediary class of light-colored Filipinos. The Americans, on the other hand, maintained a rather strict color line in the Philippines. It was manifested especially in the social and economic spheres. The Americans did not mix freely with Filipinos, and imposed a strong taboo on intermarriage. This social code was an obvious reflection of the racial mores of the United States, and might be characterized as a kind of “informal Jim-Crowism.” It was merely understood that only under certain circumstances were Filipinos or mestizos invited to white homes, and that certain clubs and schools admitted only Americans. The caste line was not so rigid as in British colonies, but not so loose as in Dutch and French dependencies. Economic discrimination on the basis of color appeared particularly in employment practices. American firms reserved the better positions for whites, and Filipinos seldom rose above clerical jobs. (Kennedy 1945, pp. 332–333)

Still, despite all such differences the general pattern was clearly set. However different the way the color line was drawn, the fact remains that in each instance of colonialism it existed.

The first of the universal traits of colonialism is the color line. In every dependent territory a true caste division exists, with the resident white population separated from the native masses by a social barrier that is virtually impassible. The color line, indeed, is the foundation of the entire colonial system, for on it is built the whole social, economic, and political structure. All the relationships between the racial groups are those of superordination and subordination, of superiority and inferiority. (Kennedy 1945, p. 308)

Social reality in the different colonies was, moreover, often less varied than formal policies, as pointed out by Kennedy, would suggest. The grading of social prestige according to skin color and other characteristics pointing to one’s affiliation with either racial group was to be found in most of the colonies, regardless of whether the Eurasians were included among the European group or relegated to the position of Asiatics. The specialization by Eurasians in clerical or supervisory functions, which commanded a certain social prestige as symbols of emancipation from menial tasks and familiarity with the language of the colonizing people, was typical not only in the Dutch colony and the Philippines but in British dependencies as well (Koop 1960, pp. 20, 48; Jones 1953, p. 41).

And even in independent Thailand the whites, especially under the unequal treaties, achieved a status—as foreign advisers, firm managers, or missionaries—that was not very different from their position in a colonial country. The main difference from the colonies appears to be that the “advisers” —in fact, administrators—were chosen from several countries.

On the other hand, even in the colonial countries the Western authorities could not dispense with the traditional southeast Asian social structure. Even though the “natives” were formally classified as an inferior caste, the traditional aristocracy or those who were elevated by the colonial government to an equivalent position received privileged treatment and to a certain extent were also accepted socially by the representatives of the colonial upper caste. It was also their offspring who, by enjoying better educational facilities, could aspire to positions otherwise reserved for members of the dominant caste. This was especially the case in those areas where a certain amount of indirect rule was maintained during the colonial period. Again, Thailand differs not in kind but rather in degree.

For the rest, until the end of the nineteenth century the social differentiation brought about by colonial exploitation was limited indeed. Educational facilities for the mass of the population remained very restricted; only after 1900 was a somewhat more liberal educational policy adopted, the Americans in the Philippines leading the way in this respect. The spread of a money economy into the countryside created some new types of workers, such as mechanics, tailors, cart drivers. Plantations under Western management and railway transport also required technically trained or supervisory personnel. The expanding towns opened opportunities for those who mainly from practical experience and without benefit of school training succeeded in learning a trade or a skill.

Schoolteachers and people in lower clerical jobs were also able to rise above the level of the rural and urban mass. But a peculiarity of most countries of southeast Asia under colonial rule is that up to the end of the nineteenth century there was hardly a native intermediate layer between the white upper caste, assisted by the aristocracy, and the uneducated rural masses. Not only were a large portion of the clerical jobs filled by nonnatives (in many areas Eurasians) but also the intermediate economic level—people working in trades and crafts—was largely occupied by groups coming from outside the southeast Asian area: Chinese and Indians, the latter group mostly in Burma and Malaya, the former all over the area, including independent Thailand.

Trading minorities and pluralism. In nearly virgin areas, such as east Sumatra and adjoining islands, West Borneo, Malaya, and Singapore, the Chinese settlers engaged in a wide range of economic activities. On the other hand, in the densely populated regions of Java, Tonkin, and a few other irrigated rice-field areas, they were largely relegated to commerce and crafts and remained a numerically restricted group, generally not exceeding a rather low percentage of the total population (Wertheim [1964] 1965, pp. 43–45). But even then they played an essential role in a modernizing economy, profiting from the circumstance that in an agrarian society with an aristocratic tradition professional trade had for a long time been a scorned occupation readily left to foreigners.

New economic opportunities and the development of steamship transport brought large numbers of Chinese immigrants, who generally had to start from scratch to achieve a living in southeast Asia. In their sworn brotherhoods they developed an interesting social institution to accommodate newcomers to the new environment and to acquire a certain amount of protection. In these secret societies they created a kind of substitute for the clan organizations and guilds that dominated urban life in China. But the more well to do among the immigrant groups, some of them already living for generations in the colony, developed a more individualistic attitude to life. It was they who were nearest to what could be considered a bourgeois middle class in the Western sense.

Furnivall (1948) has developed the concept of the plural society for the colonial countries of southeast Asia to denote the strict compartmentalization of colonial society according to racial lines. Insofar as this concept suggests a juxtaposition of the different racial groups, it creates a wrong impression by neglecting the hierarchical nature of the race relationships. Another weak point in Furnivall’s view is that he denies any social and cultural contacts between the different racial groups. In fact, a creolization process was very much in evidence in the colonies; in many cases the offspring of the immigrant groups (Europeans and Chinese) even adopted the native language.

Segregation is not a natural procedure in these colonies but is purposely being kept in force by the dominant group. That is why the total structure is better defined by the caste concept than by the concept of a plural society.

Urban and rural developments. The colonial type of economy produced, as one of its main concomitants, a rapid urban growth. But it was a growth of a specific and rather one-sided nature, occurring mostly near natural seaports or in delta regions and facing toward the sea as a symbol of the city’s outward orientation. Philip M. Hauser (1957, pp. 86–88) has established that, with the exception of Indonesia, where there were a number of larger towns, the primary cities tended to be from five to ten times as large as the next largest city in the country. They owed their origin and growth to their function as a link between East and West, or the indigenous economy and the mother colonial power. They were likely “to be ‘parasitic’ in the sense that they tended to obstruct economic growth in their country of location by retarding the development of other cities in the nation, by contributing little to the development of their own hinterland, by being oriented primarily toward the contribution of services to the colonial power abroad or the colonial or indigenous élite in the great city itself” (Hauser 1957, p. 87). Industrialization was deliberately retarded by the colonial powers, and the cities were developed as seaports for the export of commercial crops and minerals and for the import of ready-made industrial goods from the West.

Moreover, the colonial setting contributed to the color caste pattern of urban settlement, with the concomitant racial segregation, which was responsible for utter ignorance and general neglect of the interests of those who lived in the native quarters.

The increasing flow of migrants was, accordingly, not so much a consequence of the pull of new opportunities for employment and the lure of attractive living conditions in the cities as of the push factor operating in the rural areas. And though most of the movement might have begun as circulation, that is, as a temporary move without losing a foothold in one’s own village, in most cases it eventually led to lasting migration.

In the countryside, a certain amount of dislocation occurred as a consequence of the introduction of a money economy. Imported cheap textiles had all but abolished native handicraft. The deepening of official interference in rural affairs and the spread of governmentally managed plantations and those worked by bonded labor in behalf of monastic orders or private persons led in many cases to an increased burden of work required from the peasantry, as had the extension of statute labor for public works. New kinds of taxes were raised, and quite a number of peasants lost their land, either because of the intrusion of Western plantations, as in Java, or because of increasing rural indebtedness owing to a policy of converting both the land and its crop into commodities, as in Burma. Both landlordism and usury were on the increase, throwing a growing proportion of the population into a position of utter dependency as landless farmhands or sharecroppers.

Anticolonial stirrings. The dislocation produced a certain amount of rural unrest. But owing to a lack of politically mature leadership the discontent could express itself only in rather ineffective outbursts of rebellion, mostly under religious leadership. The messianic and millenary movements in Java led by Muslim religious teachers, who had come under the influence of Wahhabism and had no acknowledged status in Dutch colonial hierarchy; the dacoity in Burma, sometimes led by Buddhist monks, who under British overlordship had lost their leading and established position in popular education (Cady 1964, pp. 400–403); the “hundreds of bloody uprisings against Spanish oppression” in the Philippines (Jacoby [1949] 1961, p. 210)—all of these stirrings can be viewed as reactions to the intrusions from the West and as abortive attempts to restore an imaginary lost paradise.

The only really dangerous opposition to the colonial powers at the high tide of colonialism was the political opposition led by southeast Asian princes defending their independence against the foreign intruders. The nineteenth-century history of the area is a long story of battles alternating with diplomacy. The Western powers moved steadily against the native rulers, who generally tried to appeal to the religious allegiance of the peoples and to ally themselves with religious leaders— whether Muslim or Buddhist—or, in the case of Tonkin and Annam, with the mandarin bureaucrats. In the long run these princes generally were forced to yield, not only because of their relative weakness in military matters but also because of their inefficient and oppressive rule, which could hardly enlist the enthusiastic support of the rural populations under their government.

Only after a growing number of southeast Asians had mastered Western ideas, Western techniques, and Western ways of reorganization in the first decades of the twentieth century could they effectively challenge the colonial powers. Only in the Philippines, owing to the inefficient and oppressive Spanish administration and to an unusually high proportion of Filipinos of mixed parentage who had enjoyed Western education, did the first serious challenge to Western power occur just before the turn of the century.

The emancipation period

The changing stratification system. The colonial caste system was, as we have seen, preponderantly ascription based. It denied access to economic and political power and the ensuing social prestige to those who did not belong, by birth, to the upper caste. There was a basic contradiction between this principle as applied in the colony and the democratic principle as adhered to by the colonizing powers at home (with the partial exception of the United States as far as the nonwhites were concerned), according to which achievement was the only criterion for one’s position within the status system.

As soon as a rapidly growing group of southeast Asians succeeded in acquiring the individual qualifications needed for social ascent, they discovered the paradox of a system that taught them new capabilities and at the same time denied them the opportunity to make full use of them. Those who had enjoyed higher education felt particularly frustrated by a colonial system that denied them access to the higher rungs of the ladder of bureaucracy, and they felt humiliated by the low esteem in which they were held in their own country.

Those who tried to climb the social ladder via private enterprise also found their way blocked by the presence of a powerful merchant class of foreign Asiatic origin, who by their greater experience, capital resources, and an established network of communications within their kinship groups were able to maintain a near-monopolistic position. This was especially the case in an area like Java, where a tradition of native trade was largely absent. In areas where the former Muslim harbor principalities had been able to maintain themselves for a long time (as in Sumatra and Borneo) small local entrepreneurs survived and took advantage of new opportunities, such as the cultivation of native rubber or coconuts on the former swidden fields.

In the first decades of the twentieth century the trend of thought was mainly individualistic; the Asian religions were affected by new rationalistic trends in the Western world. Religious reform movements, in both the Muslim and the Buddhist spheres, gave expression to an individualistic world view, trying at the same time to counter the appeal exerted on the youth by Christian missionaries (Wertheim [1964] 1965, pp. 139–140). These reform movements at the same time tended to restore a pride in native cultural values and thus could be viewed as a prelude to the growth of nationalism.

Modern organizations and nationalism. The next stage in the emancipation movements was to adopt a new principle from the Western world: the usefulness of modern organization. The impossibility of attaining their ends by individual achievement in the face of institutional barriers and other frustrations compelled the southeast Asians, whose main asset vis-à-vis the colonial powers was their number, to discover the meaning of collective action. The history of the emancipation movement can be written largely in terms of the activities of all kinds of organizations. Trade unions multiplied to emancipate the urban laborer and the plantation coolie from the excessive power of his foreign employer, who also combined forces in trusts and syndicates; traders’ organizations tried to break through the monopoly of foreign groups, among whom the traditional “sworn brotherhood” type of organization also gave way to more modern ones; farmers’ unions fought the oppressive power of the landlord; women’s organizations aspired to emancipation from traditional male domination; youth organizations fought traditional authority. And all these movements, most of them predominantly urban centered, more or less combined into one broad nationalistic organizational frame to fight the colonial authority.

The weakening of colonial authority as a consequence of the Japanese conquest and occupation of practically the whole territory of southeast Asia (with the exception of Thailand, where, however, the Japanese influence was also strongly felt) boosted the organizational forces of the peoples of southeast Asia so as to give them a victory shortly after the war over nearly all the area.

But the victory won was still far from complete. The newly independent states of southeast Asia face many of the same problems confronting other new nations in other parts of the world.

Structural weaknesses of the new states. The first weakness relates to the role played by organizations and collectivities in the new setting. During their common anticolonial struggle the national elites were more or less unified. After independence, however, opposing organizations began to fight for supremacy within the new structure. The new societies recognized achievement as a criterion for social status in only a limited sense. Ascription by membership in a collectivity, such as the political party in power, was in many cases more effective in securing a foothold in the new bureaucracy, belonging to the “ins” or to the “outs” a much more important criterion than individual merit.

The organizations struggling for power more often than not are based on distinctions rooted in tradition, such as religion or ethnic group. Competition on an individual basis, considered a precondition for progress by nineteenth-century liberalism, is being replaced in the present world of southeast Asia by competition on a group basis, which is usually fiercer than individual competition.

Furnivall’s dream that national independence would bring an end to the frictions he considered related to pluralism ([1948] 1956, p. XII) has not come true. He believed that if the racial groups concerned would develop common values, in a national setting, tensions and frictions would lessen. In fact, however, greater cultural affinity, brought about by modern educational and economic forces, may foster communal strife by stimulating competition on a group basis (Wertheim [1964] 1965, pp. 69–70; Freedman 1960).

Group competition seriously endangers the efficiency that is so much needed in the new southeast Asian states in its neglect of the capacities of those who do not belong to the group and even by attempts to oust those against whom the group solidarity is directed—as, for example, the Indians from Burma. A schism produced by such interorganizational competition may affect the whole society and even penetrate the countryside. Robert Jay (1963) described in detail the mounting cleavage between the pious santris, combining forces in Muslim organizations, and the common villagers with secular and syncretistic orientations (abangan), mostly under the influence of communist unions, in an area in eastern Java.

This phenomenon of mounting dissension is still more serious if it is related to the second basic problem of the new southeast Asian states, which involves their changing economy. These nations, like most Asian nations, are situated in an area where the main activities in the economic field traditionally have been conducted under the aegis of government. It is unthinkable that in these countries, where an indigenous tradition of private enterprise is all but absent, and in the largely monopolistic arena of the world economy, economic development could be achieved under a system in which private enterprise would hold pride of place (Geertz 1963a, p. 131). The new governments have each to develop a bureaucratic structure and a dynamic spirit capable of fulfilling the immense task of getting modern development under way in an economy kept backward and one-sided throughout the colonial period. These tasks, incomparably more arduous than those that had previously confronted the colonial governments, require a unified effort.

Unfortunately the formation of a modern bureaucracy finds serious obstacles in the numerous remnants of a past patrimonial bureaucratic structure (Furnivall 1958, pp. 130–132; Corpuz 1957, pp. 214–230, 243–244). The cohesive force of the urge for modern nationhood in several cases was strong enough to secure a political and military victory against the former colonial power. In many instances, however, national consciousness and the dynamic support of the national government have not been developed sufficiently to perform the Sisyphean task of economic upbuilding in peacetime. All types of particularistic loyalties, such as allegiances to one’s kin, ethnic group, or former guerrilla associates, frequently transcend the sense of a quasiuniversalistic allegiance to the national state. Hence the repeated incriminations of corruption and nepotism, which in several cases are due to a conflict of loyalties still rooted in the traditional past. Neither democratic institutions adopted from the West nor military rule seems to provide a propitious atmosphere for dynamic endeavors of such a magnitude that they hold out the prospect of lasting results.

Economic backwardness and rural unrest. The most serious drawback in the development of the new states is that even though emancipation in the social and political field has made some progress, emancipation in the economic field is still in its beginnings. To do away with the remnants of the colonial economic structure appears to be much more difficult than getting rid of its concomitants in the social and political field. Industrial development in nearly all the southeast Asian countries is still very weak, except possibly in North Vietnam and to a certain extent in the Philippines and Singapore, where some progress has been made since the end of World War II. Urban centers have grown steadily, but generally they still present the unbalanced character of the colonial period, with the possible exceptions of Singapore and Hanoi. The problem of population increase is all but unmanageable in the already densely populated irrigated rice areas, including Java, parts of Luzon, and the Tonkin delta. The disguised unemployment typical of these irrigated areas also spreads to the cities, where huge numbers of migrants from the countryside have to look for employment as house servants or to cater to casual customers as small hawkers or pedicab drivers.

Despite halfhearted attempts at land reform, in most countries of southeast Asia landlordism is on the increase and rural unrest is assuming ever greater proportions. This unrest is no longer under ineffective religious leadership. The peasantry, stirred by rising expectations and unfulfilled promises during the independence struggle, is being organized according to well-devised principles of efficient political organization, though for the moment the movement is not always unified.

If Malaysia presently appears fairly prosperous and less exposed to rural unrest, it is due largely to the abundance of land and to the retarded development of the various emancipation movements in that country.

It is unfortunate that more certain knowledge of the achievements in North Vietnam, where a most interesting experiment in economic development is being made, is not widespread. It would be most interesting to know to what extent the collectivization of agriculture, combined with rapid industrialization, presents an alternative to the many abortive attempts at economic development undertaken in other densely populated countries or areas of southeast Asia.

The remnants of eminent domain. There is, finally, one more problem that touches upon the issue of emancipation. The struggle for economic emancipation may also be viewed in the light of the struggle of the peoples of southeast Asia against foreign domination, which after formal independence assumed largely an economic shape. The preponderance of British interests in Malaysia and of American interests in the Philippines and South Vietnam may still be considered a heritage of the colonial period.

These economic interests are also the main incentive for the political and military involvement of both world powers in the southeast Asian world.

Still, the real influence exerted by the Western world in southeast Asia is becoming more and more marginal, thus resembling the period of the first contacts of the Western adventurers with the southeast Asian world. It seems appropriate to remind the reader of the warning by Owen Lattimore:

… the European powers, and America as their partial heir, hold only a doubtful control of territories in Asia. All that they really hold is a string of bases around the rim of Asia. They have fallen back to the footholds and toeholds from which the European marauders and adventurers of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries began their empire building. … Wherever the frontier of power touches populated territory, people—which means politics—have become more important than garrisons. (1949, pp. 45–46)

Or, if in an encyclopedia of the social sciences a quotation from a theoretical sociologist is more appropriate than one from an area specialist: “Before the end of this century, probably every vestige of European eminent-domain in Asia will have vanished. But whether it will be relinquished peaceably or will go down in blood and flame depends on whether European power-holders can adjust their ideas to the realities of to-day and to-morrow” (Ross [1920] 1938, p. 543).

W. F. Wertheim

[Other relevant material may be found inBuddhism; Colonialism; Hinduism; Islam; Modernization.]


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