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Oceania Newsletter 15, March 1995


Jan van Nieuwenhuijsen

Last year the Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Nijmegen invited a number of Dutch anthropologists and linguists to discuss the possibility of applying the so-called FAS approach -- the Leiden method of comparative research -- to New Guinea. So far Indonesia is the only area that has extensively been studied by the adherents of this approach. The seminar was held on August 29, 1994, in Nijmegen. Some fifteen scholars participated, most of whom also presented a summary discussion paper.1 As not all the participants fully endorsed the FAS approach the discussions centred as much on the concept as such, as on its possible application to New Guinea. Hence first of all a brief note on the concept at issue.

FAS stands for Field of Anthropological Study. This concept was initiated under the name Field of Ethnological Study in the mid-1930's by J.P.B. de Josselin de Jong (called JPB for short), at the time professor of ethnology at the University of Leiden. He defined fields of ethnological study as 'certain areas of the earth's surface with a population whose culture appears to be sufficiently homogeneous and unique to form a separate object of ethnological study, and which at the same time apparently reveals sufficient local shades of differences to make internal comparative research worthwhile'(1977:167-8).

JPB concentrated his pioneering efforts on the Malay Archipelago and on the basis of the then available anthropological studies he came to the conclusion that the societies in that area had a structural core of four social phenomena or core elements, namely an asymmetric connubium, double descent, socio-cosmic dualism, and a remarkable resilience towards foreign cultural influences. In his seminar paper on the history of this concept, and analogous concepts, Jan Avé remarked that JPB's field of ethnological study was meant to be a working concept for future research, focused on a distinct territory with objective cultural elements that together constituted a common cultural background pattern. Within this territory we find a mosaic of cultures, each of which could most fruitfully be studied against the background of this common pattern.

Since its inception the concept of the field of ethnological study has undergone a number of changes, mainly as a result of a switch to structuralism. The concept was also renamed and the notions of 'structural core' and 'core elements' were dropped and replaced by 'basis of comparison' and 'basic elements'. The initiator of these changes was JPB's successor P.E. de Josselin de Jong. He developed the original notion into a strategic concept that enables us to study related cultures as structural variants linked by transformations.2

The presentations and discussions on the FAS concept 'as such' -- and that often meant 'as applied to Indonesia' -- centred around the following issues: the basic elements (their nature, status, number, relevance, interrelationship), the scale of comparison, the boundaries and intermediate zones, the relationship between language and culture, the difference between culture area and FAS. All these issues surfaced in the presentations and discussions dealing with New Guinea as an FAS.

In a keynote paper Lex van der Leeden stated as his opinion that New Guinea -- possibly as part of a larger Melanesia -- is positively to be regarded as an independent FAS. And when it comes to the point New Guinea is more closely allied to an Australian than to an Indonesian FAS. Van der Leeden put forward as a hypothesis that a New Guinea FAS can be characterised by the following set of basis elements, adding that the set is susceptible to extension and stressing that not so much the single elements are at stake as the set as a whole.

The elements are:

Reflecting on the views of Van der Leeden on these five elements, as well as on the many and often detailed comments made by the discussants, would carry us too far. We confine ourselves to a few remarks on the second element 'ceremonial exchange of valuables in abundant quantities', as Van der Leeden considers this element as dominating the others. Apparently one element is more basic than the other. In his discussion paper Anton Ploeg expresses serious doubts about Van der Leeden's wording of this element as in New Guinea ceremonial exchange does not exclusively manifest itself as exchange of material things (pigs, shells, cloth) and certainly not always in abundant quantities. If basic elements are abstractions and do not necessarily manifest themselves in every society belonging to the FAS in question, why, then, not define this particular element as a tendency that will be realised under certain conditions?

According to Albert Trouwborst, this element is formulated in too general terms. Of vital importance is the specific elaboration of this element in this particular FAS-area. Ton Otto stressed the crucial importance of 'exchange' in defining groups and their relations to one another. Jelle Miedema focussed attention on the prestige value of certain goods and especially on the Kain Timur system in the Bird's Head area and its intertwining with bride price system and 'big man'-complex. He concludes that the criterion 'abundant quantities' does not sufficiently mark ceremonial exchange in New Guinea as a basic element. The whole matter boils down to the often posed but so far unanswered question of the degree of specificity necessary in defining basic elements. Participants agreed that further reflection on this problem is badly needed.

Which basic elements are missing in Van der Leeden's outline? Anton Ploeg would like to see the tribal character of the West Melanesian societies incorporated as a basic element of a New Guinea FAS. Also the preoccupation with fertility, especially human fertility, as elaborated in a great number of rituals. Ploeg also pointed out that none of the basic elements mentioned is associated either with economic life (e.g. the intensification of production) or with power and authority. He considers this a shortcoming. Ton Otto also paid attention to the political sphere when stating that at least one element must be connected with common political types (great man, big man, chief), in any case with the underlying principles (among others knowledge, entrepreneurship and heredity). In addition he considered it important that new, widely diffused cultural concepts and models be included in the framework of comparison. Ad Borsboom first presented an overview of the development of the concept of "field of ethnological study" and then focussed on systems of exchange in Aboriginal Australia as compared with exchange systems in Melanesia.

Referring to Van der Leeden's own understanding of the crucial importance of interpersonal relations in New Guinea, Jan Pouwer suggested adding this feature to the list of basic elements, provided that the concept 'individual' be X-rayed in an epistemological - ethnographic way. As themes for intercultural comparative analysis he also mentioned specific conflict relations (e.g. between siblings) and permutations of gender relations, of sexuality, and of life and death.

Finally, Jelle Miedema drew attention to three social phenomena closely bound up with different spheres of life and with other elements, namely systems of war and interpersonal struggles, migration and pacification (in the broadest sense of the word, including for example bonds of friendship between great/big men).

It was generally felt that in the FAS approach the historical as well as the political dimension are neglected. Especially Toon van Meijl, Albert Trouwborst and Ton Otto emphasized this point and they recommended when further developing the New Guinea FAS to take these dimensions fully into account.

The seminar has definitely not spoken the final word in regard to the matter of a NG FAS, but many building blocks have been provided by the participants, far more than this summarized report may lead the reader to believe.



1) The participants in the seminar were: Jan Avé, Ad Borsboom, Frans Hüsken, Lex van der Leeden, Toon van Meijl, Jelle Miedema, Jan van Nieuwenhuijsen, Ton Otto, Jos Platenkamp (Germany), Anton Ploeg, Michael Prager (Germany), Reimar Schefold, Albert Trouwborst, Leontine Visser, and Bert Voorhoeve. Patrick de Josselin de Jong contributed a paper but was unable to attend.

2) For further information on the FAS concept and of PE's way of looking at it, as well for a critical comment by Jan Pouwer, the reader is referred to the titles mentioned at the end of this report.


Josselin de Jong, J.P.B. de, 1977, 'The Malay archipelago as a field of ethnological study'. In: P.E. de Josselin de Jong (ed.), Structural Anthropology in the Netherlands. A Reader, pp. 166-82. The Hague: Nijhoff. (KITLV, Translation Series 717; first published 1935).

Josselin de Jong, P.E. de, 1980, 'The concept of the field of ethnological study' in: James J. Fox (ed.), The flow of life; Essays on eastern Indonesia, pp. 317-26. Cambridge/London, Harvard University Press.

Josselin de Jong, P.E., 1984 (ed.) Unity in Diversity; Indonesia as a field of anthropological study. Dordrecht/Cinnaminson: Foris. (KITLV Verhandelingen 103).

Pouwer, J., 1992, Fizzy; Fuzzy; FAS?; A review of Leiden labour. In: Canberra Anthropology 15 (1), pp. 87-105.

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