Monday, July 10, 2006

Dual Organization and Recursion (Glossary)

Every society has some aspects of dual organization, but Austronesian society has long been recognized has having pervasive dualism that appears rooted in Proto-Austronesian culture.

As such, Austronesian societies have long served as the model for study of dual organization and recursive dualism phenomenon.

Linguistic reconstruction indicates that early forms of dualism may have been cerntered around marital and in-law relationships, but there is also evidence of early links with funerary and ancestor worship practices, social stratification, political organization, etc.

Across the River

The Proto-Austronesian word *hipaR meaning both "sibling-in-law" and "across the river" indicates the important geographic component of Austronesian dualism.

Water boundaries marked either by rivers or sea shores divided moieties.

Among many Oceanic peoples, the word vaka and its reflexes can mean both ship and clan/political group indicating the importance of interisland moieties.

A village or township may be divided into two different districts with each side sharing district membership with other divided communites on the same side of the river. In such cases, the geograpical division of the community can also relate to division in function.

For example, one side of the river may be centered on the chiefly, political or military functions of the community. While the other side may be more linked with spiritual and funerary rites. One side may have a "wife-giving" modality, while the other has a "wife-receiving" mode.

It may be this early geographical division using water boundaries gave rise to the sea-land dichotomy mentioned in many studies of Oceanic societies. In every example of a dual-organized community, one should have one side of the community across the water associated with political authority, the so-called "stranger king" (to the other side).

This might explain why in modern Austronesian-speaking societies, one often witnesses exaggerated or completely fictious claims of foreign descent used as a method of trying to climb the social ladder. In such instances, there must be a perception of coming from a society that ranks on the "noble" side of a dual relationship.

The dividing line

In the classic case of Austronesian dual organization, even with the most complex and myriad social divisions, it is possible to divide everyone into two major groups. All people in the society can trace their descent to one of these two groups.

Furthermore, with each division there is potentially a sucessive redivision inherent in the divided groups. This division can continue perpetually.

One of the best examples of this was brought forth by J.J. Fox in a study of dowry gift exchange on the Indonesian island of Sumba. Fox used the term 'recursive complementarity' to describe the potentially perpetual division of dowry gifts into male and female categories.

The female gifts were given by "wife-giving" moieties while the male gifts were given by "wife-receiving" moieties.

Fox noted that a similar scheme could also be found in ancient China:

This feature of recursive complemnatirty is not unique to eastern Indonesia. It is the basic idea underlying the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. As Maureen MacKenzie has pointed out to me, Joseph Needham (1956: pl. 16) has reproduced a "segregation table" of the Book of Changes deriving form the twelfth century that essentially parallels my diagram of exchange goods on Sumba. As Needham notes: "Yin and Yang separate, but each contains half of its opposite in a 'recessive' state, as is seen when the second division occurs. THere is no logical end to the processes but here it is not followed beyond the stage of the 64 hexagrams."

Trunk and Tip

The prevalence of spatial and chronological division based on the imagery of "trunk" or "base," and "tip" or "top," in Austronesian cultures has been widely studied in the relevant literature.

Homes are often aligned according to precedence in the bilateral kinship system. Precedence is generally dictated by seniority in both time and place.

Among the Toraja of Sulawesi, the traditional houses themselves are seen as members of dual pairs. The Toraja house faces north directly opposite its 'spouse' ((tae' balinna), the barn, which faces south.

These pairs of houses and barns as well have dual relationships to other houses in the division according to precedence or other factors.

In Austronesian systems of recursive dualism, precedence and rank are determined by the nearness to an 'origin' point in both time and space.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Almagor, Uri David Maybury-Lewis (editors). The Attraction of Opposites, University of Michigan Press, 1989, p. 46.

Hoskins, Janet. The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives on Calendars, History, and Exchange, University of California Press, 1997.

Howell, Signe and Stephen Sparkes. The House in Southeast Asia, Routledge (UK), 2003.