Ecological anthropology of households in East Madura, Indonesia

W.G. Smith

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU



This dissertation is the result of diachronic and comparative anthropological study of rural households in Northeast Madura, Indonesia, carried out on eight separate visits between August 1985 and March 2009. The aim is to bring time-structured data to bear on key questions regarding the evolution of this rural community. My initial research from 1985 to 1987 focused on animal husbandry, household budgets, and time allocation, subjects central to Madurese society that had not been studied since well before Independence. I was interested in understanding more about Madura’s high levels of poverty and notably how sedentary villagers could raise cows using a cut and carry mode of fodder collection in a savannah ecosystem prone to drought and without the benefit of communal grazing lands. The early focus on animal husbandry immediately expanded to cover all productive activities, which in turn raised questions about the value of children.

A fertility study was undertaken to confirm what seemed to be unusually low fertility rates in comparison with other parts of Madura and Indonesia. The incoming data from the time allocation study provided a wealth of new questions on household consumption and expenditures, inter-household and inter-generational exchange, and social organization. Patron-client ties, high levels of violence, political, religious and secular networks and growing cash-cropping provided additional focus for intermediate trips to the field and a long-stay in 1995-1996. The study follows the comparative and diachronic research strategy advocated by many ecological anthropologists since Julian Steward.

The ecological setting was a harsh one; the interrelationships people entertained with nature appeared to be complex and evolving. It appeared that Madurese agricultural ecology, household economy, fertility, religious practice, interpersonal violence, and other aspects of life would be better viewed as parts of a mutually-interacting system than as discreet elements detached from each other. The thesis adopts a problem-oriented perspective to build an explanatory framework for some of the critical questions regarding Madurese society. For example, I wanted to know what was keeping the Madurese poor, whether the well-known practice of racing bulls in pairs, and competing pairs of cows in beauty and agility contests had other functions in the society, and why Madura was considered a violent society.

Historical research provided depth to the analysis to complement a set of one hundred case studies of violence collected in 1995-1996. Detailed analyses of the Madura cases, and the experience of violence in Kalimantan, presented elsewhere, are complemented by the findings from this study of household dynamics and the challenges its members face. For the roots of Madurese violence are found in the critical violent responses people on the edge of poverty can sometimes make when other avenues of redress are blocked.

My overall objective is to tie together the specific ecology of the study village, the productive system, the economic challenges and the often dramatic social insecurity to the development, maintenance and transmission of household units over time. In trying to resolve each of the questions, the mechanism and the processes involved are equally, if not more important than solving the different conundrums that motivate the search in the first place. I found that the understanding and explanation of these Madurese cultural phenomena and processes were most parsimoniously advanced by systematic reference to material factors, processes and contingencies, and moreover that Madurese sentiments, values, ideologies and conceptual schemes were largely determined by these material constraints.

The ecological approach (including such variants as cultural materialism and human ecology) having often been the subject of considerable controversy in Anthropology over the years, particularly in my home country of France, I devoted a great deal of the Introduction (Chapter One) to explicating the research strategy’s theoretical underpinnings, and notably to addressing the contentious issues of functionalism, teleology, system and holism.

In Chapter Two, “Historical Ecology of Madura and Gedang-Gedang,” I discuss the ecological and historical context in which Madurese communities on the island and in the local area of the field site village developed, particularly in light of the demands placed on rural communities by colonial and elite governments through taxes and forced deliveries. One of the effects of this structural violence, colonial wars and security force recruitment was the creation of the image of the violent Madurese, one that they are still trying to shake off. This and the agro-ecological system of maize cultivation and animal husbandry in a savannah ecosystem contribute to the organization of village communities characterized by dispersed settlement of households and household clusters and the development of self-help social institutions.

Chapter Three, “Organization and Exploitation of Domesticated Nature” explores the various ways that villagers in Gedang-Gedang and the subdistrict Batuputih perceive and exploit their natural environment. Modalities of access to land are first discussed before examining ways in which locals conceptualize the plant and animal resources at their disposal, and the various uses to which they are put (in appendices). Plant and animal taxonomies are found to be pragmatic and utilitarian, a departure from early ethnoscience theorizing but congruent with more recent formulations. The rest of the chapter deals with the basic income-generating occupations available to villagers, calculating for each the returns to labour with the help of time allocation data and extensive interviews. An effort is made to chart diachronic trends, and show how access to certain high-earning activities is unequal.

“Social, Political and Religious Dynamics” (Chapter Four) presents the household concept used in this study and the composition of Gedang-Gedang’s conjugal units and the households they form based on a shared hearth. Religious and ritual structures and practices provide a glimpse of the institutions of social interaction that rhythm daily life in the village. Transitions occurring in the political arena are charted including changes since Reformasi. The chapter ends with an extended discussion of social control, first within the family, then within the wider community. Control is found to be exercised most strikingly, both in the village and in the town of Sumenep, in the practice of demanding and offering work through asymmetrical exchange, though most exchange is symmetrical between equals.

Chapter Five on “Households and Process,” deals with households, the location where adaptation takes place in concrete and observable ways. The goal in this chapter is to make the most of the longitudinal and comparative perspectives provided by the research to see through the analysis of actual cases how households develop over time, how they reproduce themselves, and how resilience and vulnerability can come to characterize them at different stages in time. Simple dependency ratios and consumer-producer values for 44 households are plotted over the 24 years of the study to demonstrate the low overall rates found for most households in Gedang-Gedang, with occasional high rates a sign of poverty or crisis. Household consolidation or fission appears usually to be caused by economic and reproductive (child-raising) factors, though in not a few instances conflicts, exacerbated by economic and other inequalities, play a role. Households are plotted on time scales showing progression (or regression) of landholding and livestock over time, and divided into groups of wealthy, poor, or “have enoughs.” The analysis then shifts to examining individual household histories to obtain a more palpable idea of how they develop in specific directions over time. Among the generalities that can be drawn is the importance of labour, particularly the retaining of one’s child in the tanèan and the obtaining of a son- or daughter-in-law that will augment the household’s productive capacity. This ability to retain children and attract their spouses is one that is not equally shared; wealthy households are usually favoured in this regard.

Food and other consumption and exchange data augmented with interview data pointed to important variations in nutrition over the yearly agricultural cycle. Exchange of food and other resources in Gedang-Gedang appears to serve principally to cement social relations among kin and neighbours, or to compensate for work done. The data from Gedang-Gedang points to highly symmetric exchange practices, except in the case of “work for food,” religious and ritual exchange. Lifecycle exchanges have the effect of smoothing over the otherwise significant perturbations in the day to day lives of families when members enter and leave the household, be it the result of marriage, birth or death. As it constitutes a form of exchange, the institution of raising prime cows and bulls for competitive purposes is treated in this chapter, highlighting the positive feedback from these sports to village animal husbandry. In concluding the analysis of individual household economic trajectories, Marten Scheffer’s model of the poverty trap (Scheffer 2009) was readily applicable.

My presentation of Gedang-Gedang households concluded with Chapter Six on “Fertility.” The data showed very low average fertility for Gedang-Gedang in comparison with other villages studied with similar methods in Madura and Java. The conclusions and indicators from the fertility study in Gedang-Gedang strongly validate the findings of Benjamin White’s well-known study of high fertility in the village of Kali Loro, Central Java, though the contexts differ in key respects. I conclude that the particular ecological and economic context of Gedang-Gedang encourages women to self-regulate fertility rather stringently. The salient elements of this context are the relative paucity of income-producing employment for children, the small size of landholdings, and the particular constraints of cut and carry cow husbandry.

In evaluating the hypotheses initially enunciated at the beginning of the study in light of the data collection and analysis it is found that:

- Differential adaptation of village households can be accounted for in large part by theories and principles from general ecology. This provides validation for the use of ecological models in anthropology;

- Different limiting factors in each part of the village are responsible for different economic adaptations, which evolve as opportunities change;

- Time allocation and the use of time-structured data provide information about the behaviour of households and individuals that is not obtainable from classical ethnographic methods, and that has important implications for comparative studies of the value of children;

- The poorest households are usually unable to obtain the credit necessary to engage in high risk but potentially high return occupations such as tobacco planting but some poor and almost all other villagers in appropriate agricultural zones do accept high risk under certain circumstances as the only way to obtain high income. Risk avoidance explains the refusal of villagers to plant high yielding varieties of maize;

- The propensity of Madurese on the island of Madura to engage in violent interpersonal attacks is best understood in relation to struggles over material resources;

- “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer” as a general trend is validated for the village, and the reasons are linked to initial conditions of wealth to a much greater extent than to other personal traits.

Providing diachronic and comparative data from a rural Indonesian community, the study contributes to supporting general ecological theories. The study concludes that ecology and anthropology may well work better conjoined than either of them does alone.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Niehof, Anke, Promotor
  • Goudineau, Y, Promotor, External person
Award date25 May 2011
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789085859338
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • social anthropology
  • agricultural households
  • rural areas
  • ecology
  • rural society
  • environment
  • human behaviour
  • farming systems
  • villages
  • indonesia
  • madura
  • fertility

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