Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Highland Bali by Gerald Sullivan

In 1936 anthropologists Margaret Mead (1901-1978) and her husband, Gregory Bateson (1904-1979), moved to Bali and stayed for three years. Soon after their arrival, they retreated from the island’s lowlands, the focal point of scholarly and tourist activity, to the remote village of Bayung Gedé in Bali’s central highlands. Although they wrote relatively little about their work in this small community, which Mead called “our village, way up in the mountains, a lovely self-contained village,” they did leave behind a remarkably rich and extensive photographic record of their time there.

At the time, Bayung Gede was as simple a village as they could find, allowing them to learn as much as possible about the underlying patterns of Balinese life without having to begin their studies in the more complicated and ceremoniously elaborate communities of southern Bali. Its inhabitants were upland agriculturalist, peasants who maintained their own distinctive customs. For example, unlike the Balinese of the lowlands, the villagers do not cremate their dead but bury them.

Mead had over a series of field trips from the late 1920s through the late 1930s, become a student of the various ways in which different groups of people raise their children. Influenced by many notable scholars and scientists of her day, including John Dewey, Ruth Benedict and Erik Erikson, she postulated that just as the childrearing practices of various groups differed from one another, so too the resulting character of the adult members of those groups would also vary from one group to another.

Mead set out to prove that the way a particular group of people – in this case, a primitive homogenous community on Bali – raised its children consistently yielded more or less a unique a specifiable and socially identifiable character. She sought to find the relationship between the habits and behavior of infants – suckling, sleeping, sphincter control, etc. – and the behavior of adults. For instance, Mead found that the Balinese male child was treated as a sexual object which resulted in emotional frustration that is perpetrated by their elders. In an effort to mold their behaviors, Balinese mothers habitually warn their children of dangers, chosen at random and without concern for relevance – “Fire!” “Snake!” “Feces!” “Scorpion!” “White Man!” “Tiger!” She also found evidence of mothers’ “emotional disassociation” towards their children.

This emotional distance, Mead’s most famous and controversial observation, manifested itself in the way that Balinese “are physically active but affectively passive.” In her letters to colleagues, Mead contends that adult Balinese have no responsiveness at all to human beings. In fact, they are the least responsive people she had ever known, simply refusing to perceive of any intrusive fact by closing their eyes and saying, “I don’t understand.” She maintained that the purpose of this emotional non-responsiveness was “to keep the peace among the 800,000 people on this little island.”

The main body of Gerald Sullivan’s book are 200 selected black & white photographs that Bateson took between 1936 and 1939, the vast majority never before published. In the substantial introductory essay, the author uses excerpts from Mead and Bateson’s field notes and correspondence to illuminate their ethnographic work. Tracing the project from its inception in their proposals to the publication of the anthropologists’ work, Sullivan shows how they used the photographs both as supplements to their written observations and as important elements in their theoretical arguments. Finally, Sullivan explores what the photographs reveal-independently of Mead and Bateson’s project-about the Balinese character for the contemporary viewer.

What is the most unusual and unconventional about Bateson’s work is the methodological and analytical importance that he gives photography in the study of anthropology. Using his photographs as notes in the place of illustrations, his aim was to make cinematographic records of “gestures, postures and movements expressive of emotion.” For the time, this was a remarkably prescient discussion. Bateson brought to the field both a Leica camera for taking still photographs and a motion picture camera. Although his photos were not meant to be aesthetically pleasing, many are nevertheless quite beautiful. Having used substandard cinematographic equipment, his motion pictures are less so.

A fact that is not generally known or acknowledged is that when Mead and Bateson were in Batavia in 1932, they hired I Made Kaler, a diligent young Balinese who spoke five languages, including “some 18,000 words in English, although he had never before met a native speaker of English.” He became their indispensable secretary, language teacher, fellow researcher and general aide-de-camp throughout the whole span of their on-site field research. He conducted his own interviews in Balinese, posing his own as well as specific questions suggested by the two anthropologists. Kaler’s own running field texts were to make up a substantial portion of the study’s field notes. The efforts of all three supplemented each other. Mead considered Kaler a “tireless perfect machine” and his ethnological work “better than most graduate students.”

Many everyday objects – furniture, articles of clothing, architecture, offerings made to spirits and ceremonial accoutrements – are clearly and immediately identifiable in the Bali of today. I visited Bayung Gede several years ago, and I could even recognize the village’s layout with rows of houses on the slope of a hill and house yards enclosed by rickety fences. Dwellings pictured were more rudimentary than nowadays with shingle roofs. Only bamboo, mud bricks, grass and stone were used in construction. Every household implement was made of clay or woven material. Villagers appear dirt poor and scantily clad in ragged clothing in spite of the cool weather of the highlands. Mead under a floppy sunhat and Bateson’s unused movie camera and tripod can often be spotted in the corners of a number of photos.

The images all together spontaneously capture the everyday lives of the men, women and children of Bayung Gedé, their homes and temples, the tending and raising of children, attitudes towards the human body, ways of learning, the experiences of boys and girls as they grow into adolescents and how they interact with their parents and other adults. Homebuilding and agricultural techniques, dance performances, life cycle and funerary ceremonies and many other fascinating details of village life not featured in Mead and Bateson’s publications are also amply illustrated. The photographs depict half-clothed natives with unabashed expressions in moments of intimacy, vanity, buffoonery, changing moods, all revealing the interpersonal behavior of upland Balinese.

During the 12-year period that Bateson was married to Mead, his collection of 25,000 photographs taken in Bali stand out as among the most famous ever taken in anthropological field studies. Among all the illustrious photographers who chronicled Bali, Bateson is also the most significant photographer of Balinese highland communities and one of the first to pioneer the usefulness of photographs as memory aids to field notes, as invaluable anthropological and ethnographic tools and as a means to elucidate for others what he and Mead had witnessed.

Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Highland Bali: Fieldwork Photographs of Bayung Gede, 1936-1939 by Gerald Sullivan, University of Chicago Press 1999, ISBN-13: 978-022-638-4344, hardcover, 248 pages, glossary, notes, reading list, bibliography, index, dimensions 22cm x 24.5cm.


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