George Walford: Observations

Nigel Barley’s personal observations lead him to a refreshingly astringent view both of anthropological cliches and of lay misconceptions.

Members of the profession disapproving of something encountered in the field risk charges of ethnocentrism; not so if they express delight in it, although this response shows just as much lack of proper detachment. [1]

Laypeople holding up headless communities as a model for us to copy tend to present them acting as units, taking the needed action at the right time without need of direction. Barley has found them rather allowing important public affairs to drift until circumstances compel action or, sometimes, until the moment has passed and nothing can be done. (He finds it comforting that this method often works well). [2]

In our own culture, although gifts carry some obligation to reciprocate, it often remains vague, and this endows societies in which gifts play a larger economic role with an aura of pleasant informality. Actually, in such societies, gifts become hard to distinguish from payments. Barley reports an Indonesian funeral at which a man (who had the job of recording gifts) explained: ‘When there is a festival in their village we will give these things back.’ Barley continues: ‘Everyone gives. Friends give. Children give. They must give buffalo if they want to inherit rice-fields. No buffalo, no fields.’ [3]

Rural Indonesians visiting London could not understand social security; people receiving money from the government must surely be wounded ex-soldiers. And the disrespect shown towards politicians would have got them jailed at home. [4]

Barley brought a group of Indonesian craftsmen to build a decorative rice-barn in a London museum; two of them quarreled and stopped speaking to each other. For once the hopelessly romantic Western view of Third World people produced a good effect, one visitor remarking on the wonderful spirit of cooperation that enabled these people to work together without the need to exchange a word and hoping that the British would follow suit. [5]

[1] Barley N. 1986 Plague of Caterpillars London: Viking 102.
[2] ibid 141.
[3] Barley N. 1988 Not a Hazardous Sport London: Viking, 116.
[4] ibid 183.
[5] ibid 188.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.