Tribal Politics in Borneo and Cambridge

Let me begin by explaining my title. Throughout 1971 and 1972, I lived in a remote longhouse community in central north Borneo, where I was conducting anthropological fieldwork. When I returned to Cambridge early in 1974 I resumed my position as a resident tutor at the cooperative house on Sacramento Street. Like all returning field-workers who have been through a painful process of adaptation to another society, I suffered several weeks of reverse culture shock. I no longer seemed able to function properly in my own culture. For a short while, my expectations of what people were going to do next and of what they expected of me were subtly out of joint. My colleagues seemed foreign to me, and I ventured to Harvard Square with trepidation. One place only seemed comfortable and familiar--the co-op house.

Initially I was content to enjoy the coziness of it all. But slowly I perceived that there was more to my ease than merely returning to a place where I had lived before. There are striking resemblances between the community I now found myself in and the one I had just left in far-off Borneo. A couple of examples will illustrate the varying levels at which I noted similarities.

When I attended talks in William James Hall, or gave them, I was disconcerted by the way one person spoke continuously. My vocal Berawan friends in Borneo never allow such a thing to happen; no one lectures them. I found myself aching to interrupt other speakers and tongue-tied when an audience stared mutely back at me. At the co-op, things were much more to my liking. Even at our most solemn corporate event--a full House meeting--it is hard for any speaker to hold the attention of the audience for long before suffering a barrage of interjections. In fact, these meetings are very like house meetings in that other community. There are the same shifting factions, the same tendency for issues to get mixed up with one another, and the same gradual exhausting progressions towards unanimity--or at least the suppression of contrary voices. As in Borneo, an ethic that everyone can and should have a say on everything goes with a subtle manipulation by influential people. One particular feature struck me; when a dispute between two entrenched factions cannot be resolved, an elaborate compromise is worked out and pronounced forcibly by the chairman of the meeting as the group will. Then the formula is ignored by both sides. Sometimes it seems that they are intentionally designed to be unworkable or unenforceable.

An example of a different kind. In Borneo, evidently, I had forgotten my manners. I helped myself to other people's cigarettes. I omitted "please" and "thank you" from my conversation and seldom said "good morning" or "hello" or even "hi;" instead I grunted. At the same time, I had developed a new awareness of body language, as it is called. I had made an adjustment to Berawan etiquette, and I found Bostonians childishly assertive and threatening in their posture and way of talking. No one acquainted with Berawan history, full of warfare and headhunting, could accuse them of being sissies, but I suspect that many Americans would mistake them for effeminate at first meeting. The co-op house members were easier to get along with on both these counts. They seemed unoffended by my abruptness and, in common with most students, I suppose, unconcerned with displays of machismo.

What is the reason for these resemblances between two communities apparently so different? The answer is that an underlying similarity of social structure produces similar patterns of behavior, and in what follows I shall try to show how.


The basic structural feature is a diffuse hierarchy of power. The Berawan often talk as if they have a rigid class system with endogamous social strata, as some of their neighbors do indeed have. But the terminology of class is only borrowed and hitched onto a system of rank, which depends primarily on standing within the community and hence allows considerable mobility. In Borneo, a geneology studded with famous men of past generations and free of slaves, known reprobates and the illegitimate, makes for an aristocracy. But if the individual fails to play a part in community affairs or drinks too heavily, his position is slowly eroded. Upward mobility is also possible within limits. The best families can only be those most directly descended from great ancestors, who are the object of a community cult. But in a large in-marrying population of only about 300, almost every family can claim a link to some great man with which to back a claim of superior respectability.

If an aristocracy is loosely defined, its powers are even vaguer. It orders people about infrequently and with care, citing the common good. The sanctions that it can mobilize are few. The great Berawan leaders of the past were obviously imposing characters who got their way by the supernatural and physical fear that they could motivate, rather than by appeal to any right of office. Nowadays people are less easily intimidated and the noble must rely on the social pressure of the community, and therefore he must be very plainly right. If not, his wishes are ignored. At meetings his opinions carry weight and he is usually the spokesman of the various factions, but nothing more.

The Berawan arrive at this fluid structure starting from a premise of aristocracy. The co-op house gets there from the other direction.

What gives the house its singularity on campus is that the members run everything: they buy their own food, do their own cooking and clean up after themselves. When it was originally founded in the early 1950s, scholarship policies at the University were less liberal than they are today and the purpose of the house was to provide a place for students who could not afford to live in the River Houses. From the beginning its members prized their independence and espoused a fierce egalitarianism. Over the years they have followed Bertrand Russell's precept that the first duty of the citizen is to distrust his leaders.

Nevertheless, there are leaders. Invariably they are drawn from among the older members, the elders of the community, who claim a superior understanding of the rules of the house and how they are to be construed. These rules were formulated, of course, to ensure impartiality and prevent abuse of power. But they also provide an opportunity for special expertise, in just the way that Berawan adatlaw is the preserve of the noblemen. Adat is a word meaning everything from religious observance to interpersonal etiquette. The co-op also has its adat, as is clear enough when one hears an older member explaining to new recruits the way things used to be done. An appeal is being made to our own cult of the ancestors. The older members, by telling this lore, claim moral descent from the great men and women of the past. To hear these greybeards tell it, one, two and three years ago people lived bolder and more romantic lives. As a resident of the house on two occasions separated by a couple of years, I have found it fascinating to watch the process of myth-making in action.

As do Berawan nobility, a die-hard house politician often lobbies for days before a controversial meeting. To get his way he must argue precedent and the good of the community. Let him only hint at the exertion of his own private will and he has lost.

The position of tutor at the house is very like that of the tua kampong in the village. The tua kampong is a government appointed headman. He is chosen for his presumed influence in the community but other criteria also enter into the choice, such as pleasantness of manner and perhaps the ability to write. The tua kampong is primarily an intermediary between the longhouse and an external political power that has no place in the traditional organization of Berawan society. The resident tutor at the co-op is likewise a representative of an outside and alien power, Harvard's housing system. The egalitarian ideology of the community has no place for him.

The weakness of the tua kampong's position is that he stands between two groups which may put conflicting demands upon him. To the government he is their man--they appointed him, after all. To the community he is their spokesman, against the administration if the need arises. A case in point was the recent development scheme proposed by government agencies for the Berawan. The Berawan did not like the scheme at all and expected the headman to speak out against it. The government officials expected just the reverse. They assumed that his duty was to wean the community out of its backward conservatism. As with the tua kampong, loyalty to the home community usually takes precedence. It is difficult to be at loggerheads with the people one interacts with every day. Confrontations with outside powers are sedulously avoided.

Occasionally a headman comes along who is adept at manipulating these conflicting forces. The trick is to utilize the threat of external power, which cannot really be mobilized by a humble village headman, to bring about his own ends within the longhouse. By failing to perform one of his trivial administrative functions, such as signing an application for a national registration card without which a man cannot get a job in a lumber camp, he can harass his opponents. Over matters of importance such as a land dispute, he may hold the entire house to ransom, if he is careful. But he must not overplay his hand. While gaining the maximum of moral leverage he must appear to pursue only the common interest. The external powers are much easier to handle, being remote. If the headman makes an occasional respectful visit to the district officer without having to be summoned first, then he will immediately make an impression as a cooperative fellow. Intending resident tutors take note.

The formal internal organization of both communities consists of a committee selected by the residents. The day-to-day running of the co-op is in the hands of four elected officers: the steward, whose job it is to buy food and arrange cooking, the job chairman who assigns cleaning duties, the treasurer and the president. The committee of the longhouse is selected by unanimous decision at a house meeting so as to represent every major faction in the village. There are no special portfolios. Instead, the committee jointly takes responsibility for corporate house activities. On major ritual occasions they must ensure that food is assembled for the throng and the proceedings are orderly. The great annual festival is called "cleaning the house," although the pollution removed at these ceremonies is spiritual rather than literal.