1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Dissertation Defense: Marginal Centers: The Culture of Local Politics in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia


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This dissertation examines the constitution of some of the local political voices that have emerged in the wake of Indonesia’s democratizing and decentralizing reforms. Since the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian “New Order” regime (1965-1998), the Indonesian state has been rapidly and radically restructured, with most governmental authorities devolving from a centralized national bureaucracy to over 380 district and municipal governments. These reforms make additional provisions for the popular election of chief executives in each of these regional governments. Against this political backdrop, Marginal Centers examines the concrete events—the stump speeches, spectacular feasts, and off-stage politicking—that translate national policies into an on-the-ground reality.

I focus on the first-ever election of chief executive of a new democratic constituency in the highlands of central Flores. Candidates in this election were faced with the problem of communicating with a newly constituted voting public. In the absence of viable mass media outlets, several candidates chose to punctuate key moments in their campaigns with large-scale ritual performances ostensibly aimed at venerating ancestral figures. In the chapters of this dissertation, I show how these aspects of “local custom” (adat), including ritual language, exchange, and ritual performance, were mobilized to establish a candidate’s legitimacy. Drawing on linguistic and ethnographic data collected over a three-year period leading up to the election, I argue that the production and circulation of political voice in a decentralized Indonesia is crucially mediated by culturally specific understandings of place. This research contributes a fine-grained ethnographic perspective to scholarship on Indonesia’s ongoing political transformation, showing that aspects ofIndonesia’s “revival of tradition” are intimately linked to the newly localized conduct of electoral politics. More broadly, this dissertation speaks to recent discussions on the continuing relevance of ritual as a medium for communication in modern societies.

Brooks Hall Conference Room, 2nd Floor

Event Date: 
Thursday, 10 May 2012 - 11:00am to 1:00pm
Speaker: 
Adam Harr
Speaker Title: 
Ph.D. Candidate, Linguistics & Sociocultural Anthropology
Event Type: