The Institute for Intercultural Studies


IN THE FIELD: A Revolutionary New Methodology - Mead and Bateson in Bali
20 September 1936
By Gerald Sullivan

Mead medicating the feet of a young child held by her father, Nang Karma.
30 September 1936

Gerald Sullivan is the author of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Highland Bali: Fieldwork Photographs of Bayung Gedé, 1936-1939 which includes more than 200 photographs from that period.

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson arrived in Bali in March 1936. With the assistance of Walter Spies, they began to seek out a preliminary fieldsite. By the end of April, Mead and Bateson had decided to take up residence in Bayung Gedé: "our village, way up in the mountains, a lovely self-contained square village." Mead and Bateson had already attended a variety of ceremonies and dance performances which, as Mead put it, were "high spots [which] together form a sort of pattern of the [psychological] potentialities of Balinese culture." They hoped Bayung Gedé (low and dour by Balinese standards they thought, a dorpsrepubliek or village republic sufficient unto itself according to Mead and Bateson's ex-patriot interlocutors) would provide the keys to the pattern. Once they understood Bayung Gedé, they could move on.

So conceived, the village was an admirable location. It was apparently physically isolated, well up and then off an overly steep back road across the mountains. It was also apparently, at least initially, a socially isolated, largely in-marrying, home to roughly five hundred people, and yet, annoyingly, possessed of its own customs.

Bayung Gedé had been near the epicenter of a large earthquake in 1917. Many of the walls which had previously surrounded individual houseyards and a number of temples had been severely damaged. The temples had been rebuilt; many of the houseyard walls had been replaced with woven fences. These fences gave the village a unique appearance; they also allowed the ethnographers to walk past many houseyards, see what was happening within and proceed on without having to stop and engage in the delicacies of Balinese politesse.

Most important, Mead could easily observe the range of social interactions between persons of all ages and gather, thereby, the "pattern of the potentialities of Balinese culture."

Mead set out to use the methods she had already developed. By late August, Bateson was free to explore the uses of photography and cinematography. They were also increasingly aware of the assistance their aide-de-camp, I Madé Kaler, could render. After some partial experiments, they began to improvise a set of methods incorporating the work of all three people on 20 September 1936. The accompanying, previously unpublished photographs were taken that afternoon. Mead's notes described elements of the interaction of several related adults and children. Madé Kaler's text recounted a conversation about the re-founding of one of the local temples.

Nang Karma holding his daughter and her brother.
30 September 1936
It quickly became clear that Bayung Gedé was not as socially isolated as had been supposed. The community formed the center of what now might be called a ritual domain and was then occasionally described as a set of mother-daughter villages. Mead and Bateson's local interlocutors were aware of these inter-communal relationships. Not long after Mead and Bateson moved to Bayung Gedé, a priest from one of these communities, Katung, initiated a re-vitalization of shared ceremonial; the people of Bayung Gedé and Katung were not related, but the gods of their main temples were respectively mother and son. Somewhat later the people of Sukawana, center of another important highland ritual domain, visited Bayung Gedé to perform shared ceremonies; the people of Katung attended. The temple Madé Kaler discussed on 20 September, while located in Bayung Gedé, was not so much affiliated with the village as with two significant extra local groups: the Pasek Kayu Selem and the Pasek Gelgel. The priest of the great, near all-island water temple in the crater lake, must be a Pasek Kayu Selem; this group claims to have resided in Bali before the coming of the noble houses of the southern lowlands. The Pasek Gelgel have long been servants of the most noble of those houses: the royal house of first Gelgel and now Klungkung. Mead and Bateson's papers, especially Madé Kaler's texts, contain much information about these, and other, extra-village connections. Bateson's census also shows that the community was organized into a number of overlapping temple congregations, none of which were mutually exclusive and none of which were co-extensive with the population. Agricultural lands belonged to the deities of various of the temples; the houseyards belonged to the god of the main village temple.

In some important ways little is likely to have changed in Bayung Gedé. The electronic revolutions of radio and televison and the lure of tourist money are not absent, yet the village looks much the same. The main road still passes over the mountain by another route. The population has grown, but not likely doubled. The patterns and practices of ceremony change when the gods suggest and allow such changes.

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