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Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 79, Number 4, Fall 2006
pp. 777-782 | 10.1353/anq.2006.0051

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In many ways, this is an exemplary book. It has a sharp focus and a clear aim; it has a fascinating and original story to tell; it is narrated in a style not unlike that of a detective novel; it is written in beautiful, clear, jargon-free English; and finally, it is in the best traditions of collaborative and interdisciplinary social science. In other ways though, it is somewhat disappointing, especially in its neglect of the work of many other anthropologists who have researched in Bali over the last two to three decades.

The story it tells is a complex one, and concerns the millennia long evolution of Balinese wet-rice agriculture. In an earlier book, Priests and Programmers (Princeton University Press, 1991) Lansing set out to describe irrigation organization and farming activities using computer modelling. In the present book, this project is taken much farther and in new directions. One of the initial questions was whether the network of irrigation associations (the subaks) could self-organize. This is an important question because there has been some debate as to whether irrigation was centrally controlled by rulers or decentralized and controlled by the local subaks. In other words, was this intricate and interconnected system of dams, channels, tunnels, temples, etc. established by top-down rule or by bottom-up processes? And if the latter, what was the nature of Balinese rule and governance? Moreover, if the subaks self-organized this must have entailed cooperation of a democratic and egalitarian kind, something for which other important village associations are noted. But Bali is also famous for hierarchical institutions such as caste. So what is the nature of the relationship between hierarchy and equality? Such a question requires in-depth study of how actual subaks are run and to what extent in their meetings they discuss more than simply the ecological issues (water, pests, fertilizers, etc.) that affect rice growing. Are there social and cultural themes that need to be taken into account to explain the variations in subak performance and harvest yields?

These are some of the issues that Lansing and his collaborators (ecologists, computer scientists, archaeologists) set themselves to study. An early chapter goes through the archaeological evidence and concludes that farmers must always have cooperated at local levels. As population grew and more land was brought under cultivation, irrigation networks increased in number in such a way as to allow as many people as possible to obtain optimal water conditions. Rulers did not control this process, it is claimed, but merely offered encouragement through tax incentives.

The following chapter explains why farmers cooperate, which is a more complicated issue than at first appears. Even though water is often in short supply, those at higher altitudes allow sufficient water to flow to the fields of those lower down the slopes, thus depleting their own supply, because if they did not, pests would become a problem in the lower fields and subsequently invade those higher up. What is at the heart of this ecological and social system is the network of water (subak) temples. These temples provide a framework for neighbouring subaks to share information on a wide variety of issues and act as a "coordination device, enabling subaks to behave like agents in a complex adaptive system" (87).

Chapter 4 tackles the problem of why cooperation sometimes breaks down within subaks, and finds that the causes of this are not usually agricultural but rather about social status. Caste hierarchy permeates most aspects of Balinese life. However, subaks are associations where ideally caste is put to one side and the associations are run on broadly democratic and egalitarian lines, and everyone appears to understand that this gives the best agricultural results. However, the conclusion to a number of studies of the governance of subaks showed that even the strongest and most democratic of them might easily slide either into authoritarian rule or into chaos, usually because of inter-caste rivalries or witchcraft. Given that the advantages of democratic rule were obvious to all, Lansing muses as to why there has been no Balinese version of Plato debating the competing merits of democratic and aristocratic government. At this point, he introduces...