Excursions with the Anthropology of E. Douglas Lewis

by Julian C.H. Lee (Volume editor) John M. Prior (Volume editor) Thomas A. Reuter (Volume editor)
Monographs 362 Pages
Series: Asian Thought and Culture, Volume 74

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Trajectories: Excursions with the Anthropology of E. Douglas Lewis
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Prologue: ‘The Adroit Hunter’—Memories of a Friend, Tribute by a Close Collaborator
  • 1. The Place of Non-Place in Bugis Ritual: Ethnographically Interrogating the Distinction of Modernity and Supermodernity
  • 2. The Ambivalence of the Ancestors: Interpreting the Rite of Tu Dhe’u in Palu’e Based on the Scapegoat Theory of René Girard
  • 3. A Look at Early Austronesian Society in the Light of the Ko’a Social Order
  • 4. Ngadha House Society Origins: The Miniature Evidence
  • 5. ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’: Genres, Themes, Patterns: Teasing out a Possible Macro-Structure in The Stranger-Kings of Sikka
  • 6. The Disappearing of a World Religion: Reflections on Ancestor Religion, Dualism, and the Deeper Significance of the Austronesian Approach to Life
  • 7. Identity and Precedence in Transformations of Sikkanese Societies: The Case of the Ata Krowé
  • 8. Myths of Origins of Rice in Flores, Eastern Indonesia
  • 9. Aspiration, Opportunity, Sufficiency: Applying Anthropology to Aid and Development in Sikka
  • 10. From Ethnography to Rhetoric Culture Theory
  • 11. On the Origins of Culture and Change: Stochastic Processes in Malaysia and South Africa
  • 12. The Great Confabulation: Bearing the Brain in Mind when Considering the Formation of Narratives
  • 13. Cultural Reason and Discovery
  • 14. An Ecology of Steps to a Mind
  • Contributors
  • Series index

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The creative fashioning of good ethnography is anthropology’s highest aspiration and greatest achievement. Theoretical disquisitions within the field have, at best, a half-life of ten years. By contrast, good ethnography is anthropology’s long-term contribution to the continuing and future understanding of humankind.

E. Douglas Lewis has made a major ethnographic contribution to anthropology—or rather a succession of such contributions: first with his superlative, People of the Source, then with his ethnographic film, A Celebration of Origins, made with Tim and Patsy Asch, and most recently with The Stranger-Kings of Sikka. All of these works offer a profound focus on a particular region on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia.

As an ANU PhD student, Douglas Lewis began his fieldwork in the Sikka Natar area but soon shifted to the nearby domain of Tana Wai Brama in Tana ‘Ai. There he did his main research for many years. However he was able to return his attention to Sikka proper and to work with remarkable local collaborators, first with M. Mandalangi Pareira in the production of a Kamus Sara Sikka and then with Oscar Pareira Mandalangi in the editing of the Hikayat Kerajaan Sikka based on local historical manuscripts.

Through this engagement, Douglas Lewis was eventually able to produce a significant ethnography of Sikka based on its history and local narratives. As a result, his corpus comprises two distinctive ethnographies focused on two related populations of the Sikka region. His career’s work is informed by a remarkable combination of ethnographic, linguistic and historical analysis.

This volume, put together by his students, friends and colleagues, represents a recognition of Douglas Lewis’s achievement. It is an acknowledgement of his intellectual influence and the close collegial cooperation he has maintained through his research and teaching. The contributions to this ← vii | viii → volume are as varied and diverse as has been Douglas Lewis’s contribution to the field.

The volume’s editors, Julian C. H. Lee and John M. Prior introduce Lewis’s work, pointing not just to his stellar ethnography but his important teaching over many years at Melbourne University. This is followed by a revealing tribute offered by his colleague and collaborator from Sikka, Oscar Pareira Mandalangi and thereafter five valuable ethnographic vignettes from fellow anthropologists in homage of Douglas Lewis’s work. Greg Acciaioli writes on ‘The Place of Non-Place in Bugis Ritual’ and Paulus Budi Kleden on ‘The Ambivalence of the Ancestors’ among the people of Palu’e off the north coast of Flores. Michael Vischer looks at possible forms of early Austronesian social organization in the light of marriage and exchange among the Koa, a population of one of the domains of Palu’e while Olaf Smedal considers the ‘House’ as a social category among the Ngadha of Central Flores. David Butterworth examines concepts of identity and precedence among the Krowe who define themselves as one of the distinctive populations of the Sikka area.

Another five essays take a different turn. John Prior reconsiders possible internal structures in the Hikayat Kerajaan Sikka; Thomas Reuter reflects on the deeper significance of the Austronesian approach to life; Justin Wejak looks at various myths of the origin of rice on Flores; while Edgar Myer examines the process and prospects of aid development in Sikka. All of these contributions are solidly in keeping with the traditions of engagement with the societies of eastern Indonesia with which Douglas Lewis has been intimately associated.

Five additional essays extend these ethnographic perspectives, each considering aspects of Douglas Lewis’s views on culture. Ivo Strecker discusses a conceptual frame for a culture of rhetoric, with ethnographic illustrations from among the Humar of Ethiopia; Sylvia Seldon and Julian C. H. Lee apply Lewis’s idea of cultural processes in connection with their researches in South Africa and Malaysia. Pertinently, in a separate essay, Julian Lee uses his Malaysia ethnography to consider the interactionist paradigm for understanding culture that Lewis derived, in part, from the work of Derek Freeman. Finally, as a suitable conclusion to the volume, Juan F. Dominguez examines notions of rationality that he formulated in his PhD thesis written under Douglas Lewis’s direction.

As a suitable conclusion, and remarkably in a volume of this kind, is an essay by Douglas Lewis himself, in which he sets out to introduce his current thinking about issues in Anthropology. ‘An Ecology of Steps to a Mind’ is a mature essay, which invokes the memory of Gregory Bateson, and situates Douglas Lewis on a similar intellectual pathway to Bateson, exploring his ← viii | ix → ideas of neuro-anthropology and the nature and processes of cultural conception. This is the kind of serious contemplation of an intellectual trajectory that every senior anthropologist should be urged to write as personal comment on his career. The essay is worth the value of the volume.

What marks the contributions to this volume is their diversity; however, they share a common thread: all of them trace ideas to a single source—to the research and teaching of E. Douglas Lewis. In this volume, Douglas Lewis can be proud of the support and admiration of his colleagues. ← ix | x →

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The editors wish to note that the presence of the chapters in this volume was made possible by the generous support of an array of institutions. We must thank the School of Global, Urban and Social Sciences, RMIT University, whose Research and Innovation Committee and Dean, David Hayward, made a generous contribution to the publication costs, as did The University of Melbourne (through a grant to Thomas Reuter). Likewise making a vital contribution was the Centre for Global Research, RMIT University, whose Director, Damian Grenfell, was able to support this publication which features the work of Julian C. H. Lee, who is on the Centre’s Executive Committee, and Adjunct Professor E. Douglas Lewis, who is a member of the Centre.

At the beginning of the journey that lead to this text was a workshop held in Jakarta, which is described in the Introduction. Funding for that was provided by Lee’s former institution, the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University, which enabled the translation of much of the present text English into Indonesian. The editors wish also to thank Lawrence Hambach who translated Paul Budi Kleden’s contribution from bahasa Indonesia to English, and to Caryn Lim for the editorial assistance she rendered to the volume. Oscar Mandalangi’s Prologue was translated by John Mansford Prior. ← xi | xii →

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The contributions to this volume are responses to the work E. Douglas Lewis, an anthropologist whose ethnographic work on Eastern Indonesia is well respected by those working that field, but whose other thoughts on a diverse array of subject matter are often less well-known. The contributors to this volume recognised that, in addition to making important contributions to ethnological research in Eastern Indonesia, Lewis has also been wrestling with some fundamental issues relating to the understanding of human society and the human condition. These grapplings have led Lewis to attempt to draw together often diverse fields of research in pursuit of a richer understanding of key issues in the study of humankind.

A perusal at Lewis’s published works indicates that he has maintained his long-standing interest in the district of Sikka, the language of which he learned during his doctoral research, which in turn enabled Lewis to publish a Sikkanese-Indonesian dictionary with a frequent collaborator, M. Mandalangi Pareira, the father of Oscar Mandalangi, who has provided a prologue to this volume. Owing in part to mutual interest in Eastern Indonesia, to date much of Lewis’s work has been published by the publishing arm of KITLV (Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde; The Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies). Thus, his two sole-authored ethnographic books have both been published by the KITLV Press while a many of Lewis’s numerous articles have appeared in the journal Bijgraden to de taal-, land- en volkenkunde (aka the Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia). In addition to the long-standing interest in Indonesian studies at Universiteit Leiden and KITLV, Lewis’s work has been located by James J. Fox as being part of the ‘Leidse Richting’ (Leiden Direction or School) of anthropology (in Lewis 1988, 29). While it is beyond the scope of this introduction to describe the Leidse Richting ← xiii | xiv → (see instead de Josselin de Jong 1977), Lewis’s first monograph featured anthropological analyses that some might regard as ‘structuralist’, but others familiar with the Dutch anthropology that preceded the Levi-Straussian structuralism would recognise as of the Leidse Richting (see Fox in Lewis 1988, 29).

As part of the holistic descriptions of the societies that he investigated, Lewis has paid significant attention to conducting rhetorical analyses of ritual language. However, particularly in the 2000s, his interest turned to a set of written documents, his analysis of which resulted in his 2010 book, The Stranger-Kings of Sikka. This book describes and contextualises a collection of important documents produced in the early twentieth century by two of the first literate people on Flores, Dominicus Dionitius Pareira Kondi and Alexius BoEr Pareira. These documents describe some of the history, geography and ritual language of Flores.

Although Lewis has gained a reputation for his meticulous fieldwork and his expertise on the ethnology, language and ritual of Eastern Indonesia, less widely known are the other areas upon which Lewis has dwelt in other less formal fora. These interests are diverse and Lewis’s thoughts have often been largely expressed in discussions with peers and students and in forums such as lectures at the University of Melbourne, where he was employed from 1989 to 2010. They include questions relating to education and pedagogy, literacy and memory, ritual and culture change, evolution and the brain.

The latter were discussed particularly with students inside and out of the classroom. For many years Lewis offered at the University of Melbourne a subject called ‘The Evolution of Consciousness, Language and Mind’. In this thirteen-week long subject, students, of which Lee was once one, read as many as five of the latest neuroscience books, such as Gerald Edelman’s Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992) and Merlin Donald’s A Mind So Rare (2001). And in the mid 2000s, Lewis supervised the PhD studies of Juan F. Domínguez D on this subject. In 2009, Domínguez D, Lewis and their collaborators Robert Turner and Gary Egan published two co-authored papers with him (Domínguez D et al. 2009a, 2009b), which remain, prior to this volume, Lewis’s only published reflections in the field of what might now is recognised as neuroanthropology (Downey 2012).

For Lewis, the term neuroanthropology designates a ‘new science that draws, inter alia, on evolutionary biology, neuroscience, memetics, cultural anthropology, semiotics, linguistics and neurolinguistics’ (cited in Domínguez D et al. 2009a, 139). Because the central nervous system mediates human behaviour, a simultaneous appreciation of both neuroscience and the social ← xiv | xv → sciences should not only be possible, but also yield fruitful insights into our understanding of society and the human condition. Lewis’s contributions have been recognised by those interested in this emerging field including Paul Mason, co-founder of the blog Neuroanthropology.net, who noted in 2008 Lewis’s role in the ‘formation and development of Neuroanthropology’ (Mason 2008).

In discussions relating to the various fields of inquiry that have engaged Lewis, both colleagues and students have felt that there were fundamental issues being addressed. These ideas have gone on to influence their own work and thinking. The present volume seeks to demonstrate some of this influence in the array of areas in which Lewis has engaged. However, it is also the case that Lewis himself recognised that the process of grappling with and reconciling his interests in fields as diverse as ethnology and neuroscience was not complete. Further work was required to unify these areas of investigation. This present volume also seeks to address this.

In 2011, four of those who have been influenced by Lewis met in Jakarta to discuss the scope and purpose of what has become the present volume.1 It was noted that an array of contributions by those who have had meaningful connections with Lewis and his work could serve as a means of bridging some of the gaps in Lewis’s ideas and which he had himself not been able to bridge to his own satisfaction. (Lewis has observed to Lee and others that the connections between his interest in the brain and his ethnographic work were not yet clear to him.) To do this, the contributions would need to reflect the diversity of Lewis’s interests so that, when brought into proximity, their common resonances—or perhaps their harmonies and counterpoints—might be better perceived. We wanted this volume to assist in the drawing together of diverse fields of inquiry, to assist Lewis in finding that connection that he had thence not made, and which would bring his interests, which are as diverse as culture change and neuroscience, into coherence.

Just as the contributors have found their engagement with Lewis productive, it was hoped that Lewis might be assisted in addressing a key problem of his own through this ‘conversation’. Hence, the final piece in this volume is by Lewis himself who, when presented with the other chapters that make up this volume, accepted the offer—or the challenge—to use the occasion to move towards reconciling his diverse interests—in particular with respect to issues relating to culture and the role of neuroscience and biology in the anthropological understanding of human behaviour. Readers of this volume, I think, will find that this challenge has been met. ← xv | xvi →


It may be worth noting that many of the contributors to this volume came into contact with Lewis during his tenure as lecturer in anthropology at the University of Melbourne. He was appointed by Professor Peter Koepping in 1989 and served there until his retirement in 2010. During this time Lewis taught undergraduate and postgraduate students subjects relating to ethnographic film, introductory anthropology, religion, kinship and social organization, and fourth year Honours seminars, in addition to the evolution course noted earlier.

Before joining the University of Melbourne, Lewis served as a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University (1986–9) and the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now known as Curtin University; 1984–6), and held an array of fellowships at institutions including the Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University; the Department of Anthropology, the University of Southern California; the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences; Instituut I Sosialanthropologie, University of Bergen; and Trinity University (USA). He now holds an appointment as a Senior Research Associate at the Candraditya Centre for Research on Religion and Culture, Indonesia. In 2013, he was appointed Adjunct Professor in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Australia, and in 2015 became a member of that university’s Centre for Global Research.

In interviews Lee conducted with him in 2013, Lewis describes two key events that led him to the study of anthropology. Despite showing early academic promise at school, he was as an undergraduate at Rice University (in his words) ‘a diffident student’. However, his curiosity was piqued and his efforts focused when he stumbled upon anthropology while walking past a lecture being delivered by Edward Norbeck. The hook was set, so to speak, upon his reading of Claude Levi-Strauss’s book Triste Tropiques. Despite Levi-Strauss’s own disinclination towards fieldwork, the descriptions of encounters with unfamiliar peoples in Brazil spoke to Lewis’s adventurous inclinations. And whereas Lewis’ previous focus as an undergraduate on philosophy sought to address fundamental questions relating to human existence through the application of introspective reason, anthropology appeared to address the same questions through comparisons between and the experiences of people in other societies.

Thus, he completed his Bachelor’s degree majoring in anthropology at Rice University, at which Lewis took subjects by Steven A. Tyler, whose interests in rhetoric and language have continued to echo in Lewis’s work, including through Lewis’s participation in the international Rhetoric Culture Project.2 Later Lewis completed his Master’s degree at Brown University in ← xvi | xvii → the same field, where he completed a minor thesis based on fieldwork in Terengganu, Malaysia, under the supervision of William O. Beeman.

In 1977, however, Lewis accepted a scholarship to conduct his PhD research at the Australian National University under the supervision of James J. Fox, who himself had recently moved from Harvard University to accept a professorial fellowship there. Soon after arriving in Canberra, Lewis began his fieldwork on Eastern Indonesia, where Fox had done his research on the island of Roti focusing on ritual language. Lewis began his work on Flores in the coastal village of Sikka before moving into the eastern mountains of the regency of Sikka to conduct his ethnographic study of the Ata Tana ‘Ai (the ‘People of the Forest’). It was his study of the Ata Tana ‘Ai that formed the basis for his ethnography People of the Source: The Social and Ceremonial Order of Tana Wai Brama on Flores (1988) and the prize-winning3 ethnographic film he made with the Aschs, A Celebration of Origins: The Gren Mahé Rituals of Tana ‘Ai.

Lewis was not the first anthropologist to undertake fieldwork on Flores, nonetheless he brought with him two singular qualities that have proved crucial in his findings. As he himself relates, two years prior to his arrival, Lewis read Robert Barnes’s Kédang: A Study of the Collective Thought of an Eastern Indonesian People. This was the first full-length, modern ethnographic study of an eastern Indonesian society, and so, neglecting all other work for a week, Lewis read it ‘two or three times from cover to cover’.4 Lewis acknowledges Barnes’s thesis as ‘a landmark in the history of eastern Indonesian ethnology’. Nevertheless, while living in Flores he came to realise that Barnes had reconstructed an ideal social, cosmological and cultural system from the past, blithely ignoring the fact that the people he researched had long been converted to Christianity. Lewis himself did not undertake this kind of reconstructive ethnography (‘salvage ethnography’); he listened carefully while observing closely the entire living culture, however ancient however modern, whether indigenous or Western, primal or Christian.5 The other crucial element characteristic of Lewis and his research is the deep appreciation he shows for the people among whom he lived and worked. From his very first encounters, Lewis regarded his Florenese interlocutors as equals; unsurprisingly over the years he became a true friend to many. Lewis knew that ‘entering another’s garden’ demands respect and humility. Hence empathy imbued his creative academic acumen, allowing Lewis to obtain vital emic insights from his informants which he subsequently redescribed in clearly ordered systems of their own making. This empathetic insertion into the peoples’ lifeway drew Lewis to go beyond generally accepted positions, whether regarding the non-dualistic leadership of the Sikka rajadom (Lewis 2010), to take just one ← xvii | xviii → example, or to his describing the taking on of multiple religious identities neither as syncretism nor sequential conversion, but rather as ‘an accumulation of religious practices in order to cope with quite different needs and diverse networks’ (Lewis 2012).

Lewis’s best known scholarly contribution is probably related to his development of precedence theory in Austronesian ethnography. In the first chapter of an edited volume entitled Precedence: Social Differentiation in the Austronesian World (Vischer 2009), Fox notes that the concept of precedence in anthropology serves to order social relationships in a given society so that people are located in orders of precedence where some categories of person are ‘anterior’ or ‘superior’ to others, for example ‘“elder” > “younger”, “first-born” > “last-born”’ (Fox 2009, 1).

While Fox notes that the idea of precedence was not new to anthropology, he goes on to say that Lewis ‘was the first to apply the concept of precedence in a systematic fashion to a specific ethnographic community, the Ata Tana ‘Ai of central east Flores’ (ibid., 2). Thereafter, ‘Following on Lewis’ initial study, a succession of doctoral theses produced in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies [at the ANU] in Canberra resulted in a series of publications, all of which utilized the concept of precedence in the analysis of a specific society in eastern Indonesia’ (ibid., 3).

However, whereas the volume on precedence acknowledges Lewis’s theoretical contributions with respect to Austronesian anthropological research, the present volume seeks to draw on the wider ambit of Lewis’s work with a view to helping to make some of the connections that Lewis was himself taking steps towards. To that end, assembled here are an array of papers by colleagues and former students of Lewis that address both his diverse interests and the task at hand in this volume.


As noted earlier, the purpose of the project of which this volume is the product was to enable Lewis to develop his ideas about the questions he has been grappling with. To that end, the contributors to this volume have sought to engage with Lewis’s work on Eastern Indonesian ethnography (Vischer, Prior, Butterworth and Smedal), ritual and religion (Acciaioli, Reuter, Budi, and Wejak), language and rhetoric (Strecker and Prior), the culture concept (Seldon and Lee), development (Myer) and the link between culture and the brain sciences (Lee and Domínguez D). Thus, the chapters reflect, it is hoped, the scholarly milieu in which Lewis has moved and through which he might clear a path connecting the seemingly disparate issues of concern here. For the purposes of the publication that the reader now holds, the editors ← xviii | xix → have assembled the chapters so that their subject matters move (roughly) from the ethnographic towards the neuroanthropological, via investigations relating to ritual, religion, language and culture change. Contributors include those who are Lewis’s peers, those who were once his students, and also those who may be considered senior to Lewis.

The reader will find that the path that Lewis has trodden has been illuminated by his reflections on his own journey through anthropology and some significant issues in the study of our species. Approaching the right answers means knowing the right questions, and among Lewis’s strengths—known amongst those who know him—is articulating the questions that need responding to and identifying bold and gainful connections, relevancies, and lines of inquiry to advance our understanding of the human condition, and the disciplines dedicated to its study.


1. Those in attendance were John Mansford Prior, Thomas Reuter, Richard J. Sutcliffe and Julian C. H. Lee. That workshop was made possible by research funding from the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University, at which Lee was a lecturer at that time.

2. See www.rhetoricculture.org


This volume engages with the work of E. Douglas Lewis, who has made major contributions to the understanding of Eastern Indonesia, ethnography, culture, and religion, as well as a neurobiologically informed anthropology. Lewis’ work on the Ata Tana ‘Ai (People of the Forest) of Flores has long been regarded as a seminal work on culture and society in Eastern Indonesia. His ‘precedence theory’ became highly influential among anthropologists in their interpretations of other social groups in the region. In this volume, however, a group of scholars influenced by his work undertake diverse and thought-provoking excursions from Lewis’ work, shedding light on his insights on subjects ranging from Eastern Indonesian ethnography, to theorizing culture change, to development, and to the nascent field of ‘neuroanthropology’. Of particular note, this book also features an extended contribution by Lewis that is, as Professor James J. Fox notes in this book’s foreword, ‘the kind of serious contemplation of an intellectual trajectory that every senior anthropologist should be urged to write’.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2016 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XXIV, 360 pp., ill.

Biographical notes

Julian C.H. Lee (Volume editor) John M. Prior (Volume editor) Thomas A. Reuter (Volume editor)

Julian C. H. Lee is Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at RMIT University and an Executive member of The Centre for Global Research. He is the author of Second Thoughts: On Malaysia, Globalisation, Society and Self (2015) and Policing Sexuality: Sex, Society, and the State (2011) and editor of Narratives of Globalization: Reflections on the Global Human Condition (2016). John M. Prior is Senior Lecturer in the post-graduate programme at St. Paul’s Institute of Philosophy (STFK), Ledalero where he is also editor of the Institute’s journal. He has written over 200 articles and book chapters and authored and co-edited some 40 books, including Menjebol Jeruji Prasangka: Membaca Alkitab dengan Jiwa [Breaking Through Barriers of Prejudice: Reading the Bible with Soul] (2010) and Church and Marriage in an Indonesian Village (1988). Thomas A. Reuter is Future Fellow of the Australian Research Council, located at the Asia Institute of The University of Melbourne. He was President of the Australian Anthropological Association (2002–2005) and served as Chair of the World Council of Anthropological Associations. He is the Senior Vice-President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences and on the advisory board of Future Earth (Asia). He is the author and editor of numerous books including Averting a Global Environmental Collapse: The Role of Anthropology and Local Knowledge (2015), Sharing the Earth, Dividing the Land: Land and Territory in the Austronesian World (2006), and The House of Our Ancestors: Precedence and Dualism in Highland Balinese Society (2002).


Title: Trajectories