Chapter 5. “All Threads Are White”: Iban Egalitarianism Reconsidered
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The representation of Iban society as “egalitarian” has stirred considerable contention. For most anthropologists who have worked with the Iban, the debate is a source of no little misgiving. On the one hand, competition and achieved inequality occupy a central place in Iban society. On the other, Rousseau’s (1980) view that an “egalitarian rhetoric” masks hereditary leadership and a tripartite system of stratification (1980:57) is based upon a profound misreading of the Iban ethnography (cf. Freeman 1981).
My purpose in this paper is essentially to move the debate from its present impasse by introducing two additional dimensions. First, I have sought to relocate the analysis of relations of egality and hierarchy within a wider field of action, stressing the significance of external relations in generating inequality within Iban society. I have also tried to show how cultural understandings shape and give cognitive meaning to the existence of both equality and inequality. Secondly, I have sought to highlight the role of ritual, particularly in giving social expression to hierarchy. Not only does ritual sponsorship provide the chief means by which personal achievement is translated into social ranking, but ritual practice also gives concrete shape to Iban constructions of hierarchy, representing them, as we have seen, as a recreation of the unseen world of the gods, spirit-heroes and the dead.
My main argument here is that Iban society is most usefully seen — not as unequivocally “egalitarian” — but as structured around an articulation of principles of both “egality” and “hierarchy”, with relations of equality predominating internally — especially within the local longhouse community — in adat and relations within the family and between kindred and affines — while hierarchy is externally derived and, as a rule, valorized within a larger regional society through major ritual gatherings or gawai.
While it tends to be assumed that the stratified societies of Borneo evolved from more egalitarian ones, an assumption linked in some instances to the tendency, noted at the beginning of the paper, to “naturalize” equality, seeing it as socially anterior to hierarchy, it is quite possible that Iban “egalitarianism” represents a recent and highly specialized development, evolving historically as a successful adaptation to a regional system of inter-tribal raiding and trade. Along these lines, Gibson (1990:141) has suggested, more generally, that the frequent absence of formal hierarchy among inland shifting agriculturalists in insular Southeast Asia represents a defensive response to lowland and coastal states.
All these societies represented specialized adaptations to the regional political economy. All lack instituted hierarchy. The extreme emphasis on individual autonomy and rejection of super-household authority evident among them must be seen as a rejection of the political values of their predatory lowland neighbors. Far from constituting primordial classless societies, they must be seen as political groups which have been able to maintain significant degrees of autonomy only by developing special social mechanisms for evading control by the lowlands.
The situation among inland shifting agriculturalists in Borneo is far more complex than represented by the examples that Gibson uses for these generalizations. Here many inland groups did in fact develop instituted stratification, with the role of the upper stratum closely linked to leadership in war and control over external trade (cf. Morris 1980). In contrast, the Iban social system, combining initial equality with achieved, ritually valorized ranking, is closely bound up, as I have tried to show in this paper, with a markedly successful adaptation, as vigorous predators, within a wider inter-regional economy of trade, conflict and migration. In this regard, there is some merit, I think, in Rousseau’s (1980:60) suggestion that a major difference between the “stratified” Kayan and the “egalitarian” Iban was historically that Kayan “structures of exploitation” were internal, existing between the strata comprising Kayan society, while among the Iban “exploitation” was directed externally, at outsiders.
In this connection, we might speculate, I think, that relations of internal equality contributed to the major advantage that the Iban enjoyed in their competition with other “tribal” groups in western Borneo, namely their ability to maintain a high degree of cultural homogeneity in the face of territorial expansion and the extensive incorporation of captives and other outsiders through marriage and adoption. Hierarchy, at least in pre-state societies, tends to foster cultural differentiation and, in Borneo, as Brown (1973b) has shown, it often leads to the genesis of ethnic and subethnic divisions, while egalitarianism tends, by contrast, to be assimilative, breaking down such divisions. In this respect, egality very likely contributed to the powerfully assimilative nature of traditional Iban society. At the same time, Iban society, existing as it did historically in a social context of warfare and trade, also incorporated ritual elements of hierarchy, rewarding, within this context, those who excelled at gaining mastery over the external world. Thus personal achievement was linked through ritual to the common interests of society at large, ensuring that those who succeeded did so in ways that perpetuated the Ibans’ predatory advantage over their neighbours.
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Ritual and Hierarchy References