Iban Studies: Their Contributions to Social Theory

Iban Studies: Their Contributions to Social Theory and the Ethnography of Other Borneo Societies

Reprinted From The Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, Volume III, Joanne and Vinson H. Sutlive, General Editors. Kuching: Tun Jugah Foundation in cooperation with the Borneo Research Council, Inc. Pp. 741-85, 2001.

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University

The unique and vital culture of the Ibanic speaking peoples has been remarked upon and written about ever since they were first encountered by travelers to Borneo. Their ‘unassailable confidence has made them venturesome and optimistic, the most aggressive of the peoples native to Borneo’ (Sutlive 1988:1–2). Sather (1994a:26) comments: ‘From the time of their first arrival in western Sarawak, the Iban established themselves as the most aggressive of all inland peoples of Borneo… a vigorous, self-confident people, warring among themselves and with others, as they advanced territorially across the whole of western and central Sarawak.’

This uniqueness of culture and optimistic vitality have brought researchers from around the world to study Ibanic society and culture, not only to make an ethnographic record for posterity but also to learn what contributions a study of their society and culture would make to social theory. More recently, Iban people themselves have turned to this study, individuals such as Benedict Sandin, ‘foremost authority on the history and culture of his people’ (Pringle 1970:xiii) and former curator of the Sarawak Museum; James Jemut Masing, translator of Iban Gawai; Peter Kedit, later on also a curator of the Sarawak Museum; and Datuk Puan Sri Empiang Jabu and Datin Amar Margaret Linggi, authorities on Iban weaving. While Iban society has now been the most carefully and fully documented of any society in Borneo, which has made major contributions to social theory, there is still much to be done.

Furthermore, because of this extensive study, Iban society now provides the model, the background phenomena, on which all other ethnographic inquiries of Borneo societies can proceed. Iban research has informed the discussion of many theoretical issues in anthropological inquiry, particularly those dealing with the structure of cognatic societies, i.e., societies without any form of descent group. Thus, Iban culture forms the fundamental grounds against which other cultures are compared in order to elicit cultural information and to test hypotheses in social theory.

It is impossible to cover the whole corpus of the vast literature on the Iban peoples in this review. Consequently, this review focuses on those Iban studies that have made a contribution to social theory and the ethnography of other Bornean societies. I will also indicate where more research is needed to complete the record. The review will address issues in the following areas where Iban studies have made and can make further contributions to social theory: (1) Social organization and the nature of cognatic societies; (2) The cultural ecology of swidden agriculture; (3) The analysis of land tenure; (4) The nature of egalitarian society; (5) Ethnogensis; (6) Gender studies; (7) Warfare, headhunting and the expansion of the Ibans; (8) Religion, ritual and symbolism; (9) Oral literature; (10) Regional variation in Ibanic cultures; and (11) Problems of social change.



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