My scientific life
has been an extended journey in the search for culture-free, scientific
methods for mapping the socioculture systems of nonwestern peoples.
In my graduate studies I was concerned that ethnographies were highly
permeated with the biases and worldviews of the ethnographer, and
the use of a theme to portray the sociocultural system was highly
selective and representative of the interests of the ethnographer
and was not replaceable.
In my attempts to develop more scientific methods, I have focused
largely, but not exclusively, on the Rungus Momogun of Sabah, Malaysia,
and have been involved in recording their traditional sociocultural
system and in understanding the pernicious effects of social change.
In developing culture-free methods, much of my work has been directed
towards the property systems that are located in the economic domain
and the religious domain. Methods that produce data that are faithful
to the indigenous society are critical to understanding and dealing
with such property systems. Unfortunately, so much of the literature
and discourse on property rights, particularly land tenure, are
clouded and distorted by western ideas of ownership.
As a result, in this journey I have been constantly appalled by
the ignorance of indigenous systems of land tenure and resource
use by agents of western expansion, and we should not exclude a
number of anthropologists and other social scientists from this.
Members of colonial governments, commercial enterprises, development
agencies and post-colonial elites have taken actions that have almost
universally destroyed the indigenous systems of land tenure and
resource use. And they have blithely ignored the social consequences
and costs that result from this, costs that will continue long into
the future to harry the economic growth of the country.
This journey actually began way back in the dark ages of my teens,
unbeknownst to me at that time. Then I was engaged in reading about
the Plains Indian societies and how their social organization, property
systems and spirits were destroyed. I was disgusted by the arrogance,
ignorance and cupidity of American citizens that resulted in the
loss to these Indian tribes of their land rights and resources.
This was done in some of the cruelest ways that now would be considered
major violations of their human rights. The loss of indigenous resource
use through the predatory actions of western forces and the destruction
of cultures has consumed me since that time of my adolescence. And
in time it became a driving force behind much of my research.
I myself was raised on a farm. Consequently, as I began my research
career it was clear to me that ownership rights over land and other
resources were critical to the successful functioning of indigenous
agricultural societies. Boundaries are central to the management
of property systems. And these are culturally defined. But many
agents of change as well as anthropologists come from middle class
urban or suburban homes, and are therefore not exposed to the importance
of land and property boundaries to those using them. And they tend
to interpret boundaries in terms of their own cultural systems.
It was not, however, until I was engaged in field work in 1959-1960
among the Rungus people of northern Borneo that I was actually confronted
with the attempted thievery of land and resources of an unsuspecting,
dependent population by a dominant power and urban elites. At that
time a District Officer had unilaterally decided that vast tracts
of forests where the Rungus lived were not being utilized. To his
mind these areas were ripe for exploitation. He could not see that
the land/population balance was in a precarious state. This was
one of the many confrontations that made me realize that we needed
a clear, precise, and culture-free system for the discovery of the
incidents of land tenure and property relations, a system that would
not be tainted by the cultural biases and prejudices of researchers
and agents of change. If it were possible to develop such a system,
perhaps the land rights of indigenous peoples could be better protected.
In the process of devising such a system I have devoted much of
my research on the study of land and resource tenure not only among
the Rungus but also among other peoples of Borneo.
Thus, the goal of this work has always been that this effort would
protect the rights of indigenous peoples. By recording accurately
their systems of land tenure and resource ownership it has been
my hope that their rights would someday be recognized. And then
restitution would be made to those who have had their lands taken
away from them, as has been done in various places, as for example
in the case of the Indians in the State of Maine, U.S.A.
In addition my concern over the nature of property rights had
a more personal source. I grew up in a family whose members were
deft at ignoring their legal and moral duties and responsibilities
to others who were holding shared interests over property. This
was particularly salient when an opportunity arose for one,
or another, to increase his or her own interests at the expense
of the others. Boundaries were easily ignored.
Thus, I was sensitized early on to the importance of property
rights. But it was clear from this experience that in many instances
property was more than just rights and duties over an object. It
defines the personhood of an individual and becomes a critical part
of one’s defense mechanism when the appraisal of self is challenged.
Therefore, the analysis of property is not just concerned with rights
and duties but it goes beyond to have implications in the definition
To protect my interests in family property, I spent two years
in the internment camp of the Harvard Business School. There property
was a major focus and the amount of property owned was one of the
critical measures of a person. At first this appeared to be a detour
in my journey toward understanding the nature of property relations.
But it turned out to be otherwise when I returned to the study of
anthropology and began field work among the Rungus. What I had learned
about corporations and corporate behavior proved to be of considerable
use to me in discovering the actual nature of indigenous social
entities holding property.
I do not remember when I became aware of Hallowell’s article
on the nature of property relationships. Here the most psychological
of psychological anthropologists had written the foundational statement
on the analysis of property relations. Returning to the study of
anthropology after the Harvard Business School I was exposed to
his influence when I spent a year in graduate studies at the University
of Pennsylvania. When I migrated back to graduate school at Harvard
to continue my studies of anthropology, I brought with me much of
his thinking on a number of subjects, and this has continued to
inform my subsequent work.
There at Harvard I was deeply influenced by the approach of what
might be called the interaction school of Coon, Homans and Oliver.
I had previously studied with George C. Homans and Carleton S. Coon
as an undergraduate at Harvard. At that time Homans first introduced
me to the beauty and sociological relevance of oral literature through
an analysis of the Njáll’s Saga. And this eventually
led to the formation of the Sabah Oral Literature Project.
Carelton S. Coon has been a great influence on my thinking since
I first met him as an undergraduate, and then I was re-exposed to
his far-reaching intellect at the University of Pennsylvania. He
was the most exciting, dedicated, brilliant anthropologist that
I have ever met, whose breadth of knowledge and writings are to
this day incredible. In many ways I look fondly back to him as a
model of the anthropological life. I was particularly taken with
his text on Principles of Anthropology written with Elliot Chapple.
The failure of British social anthropologists to appreciate the
observational procedures developed by this school at Harvard to
delineate the interacting social groups contributed to their puzzlement
over the nature and analysis of cognatic societies (see Appell 1976a).
But the interactionist school was lacking in one aspect. I was vaguely
uncomfortable with this, for reasons that I only later discovered.
That was, it ignored the jural realm. But this disregard for jural
relations is typically a cultural trait of Americans doing research
as opposed to that of the British. The Americans with their ideology
of freedom are more concerned with the opportunity system; the British,
on the other hand, were more interested in the jural realm and the
constraints on behavior. Consequently, I had felt uncomfortable
with completely giving over my field work procedures to the interactionist
This realization of the limits of the interactionist approach
began when I was at Harvard. I was dissatisfied with the use of
the terms corporation and corporate group in anthropological discourse.
I wrote a paper dealing with the jural nature of this problem and
suggesting a new approach based on jurality. But this was dismissed
I left Harvard for a research scholarship in the Department of Anthropology
and Sociology, School of Advanced Studies, The Australian National
University. There I was able to work further on the jural nature
of property systems. I had been deeply impressed with the brilliance
of Derek Freeman and his groundbreaking analysis of Iban society,
a cognatic society. At Harvard I had never understood unilineal
social organization. And David Schneider gave me my lowest mark
ever in my graduate career in his course on unilineal organization.
So working with Freeman and coping with cognatic social organization
was very enticing.
Furthermore, Harvard at that time was expecting its graduate students
to develop or enlarge on a grand theory of some kind. I was at a
loss in this. To me ethnography was the goal. The recording of indigenous
societies and cultures was one of the founding pillars of anthropology,
which has since then been ignored. However, I believe that it is
critical both to theory and to indigenous peoples so that they can
design their own futures (AFUAR 1997).
I believed and still do believe in grounded theory. That is, good
theory rises from the results of ethnographic research, and then
of course past ethnographic research provides clues, concepts, ideas
to test against new ethnographic research. In other words as a graduate
student I was a naive empiricist who believed in immaculate perceptions.
However, as the result of the errors I subsequently found in Borneo
ethnography, and the work of Bennett (1946) on the cultural contamination
of research in the Pueblos by anthropologists, I grew to realize
that the concepts that we bring, the tools of our research are critical
to elucidating the indigenous distinctions. Too often in research
“believing is seeing” (Christensen, St. James and Foster
1996). This problem of cultural contamination as a result of the
presumptions we bring to our research is no more clearly illustrated
than in the misuse of the theory and concepts of what has been called
At the Australian National University working with British trained
social anthropologists I was exposed to a social analysis that focused
on rights and duties. I was also exposed to the writings of the
Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Melbourne, D. P.
Derham, whose analysis formed a critical part of my thinking on
The Australian National University in the late 1950s and the 1960s
was an intellectually exciting and challenging place. I met a number
of individuals who greatly influenced my thinking.
Professor Derek Freeman, a most exceptional and brilliant man,
guided my research in Borneo. To him I owe a great debt for preparing
me for field work and overseeing it. However, on my return to write
up my results, his interests took him elsewhere. Professor John
A. Barnes oversaw the preparation of my dissertation and challenged
A Research Fellow at the ANU at the same time was Dr. Masri Singarimbun,
now deceased. His deep moral character and ironic humor was contagious.
I have owed him a great debt for his friendship that it is not possible
Also at the ANU was an anthropologist who has influenced my thinking
since I first met him, Dr. Anton Ploeg. He had originally studied
law before going on to graduate work in anthropology. This led him
to pursue research in Irian Jaya, which has remained his central
interest. Dr. Ploeg’s intellectual inquisitiveness has stimulated
me ever since. We now hold almost yearly informal symposia of two
or three weeks talking about anthropological matters, and these
represent a mirror of the stimulating seminars that used to be held
in the Anthropology Department at the Australian National University.
His field of expertise is the ethnography and history of Irian Jaya.
This background and his research there provide an important contrast
to my work and resulted in important contributions to the understanding
issues in Borneo anthropology. The debt I owe him for his intellectual
stimulation and support is enormous.
In 1971-1972 I spent a year in Denmark at the Ethnographic Institute
of the University of Aarhus as a visiting Professor. In Denmark
I met another individual who has also had a deep impact on my thinking,
Poul Mohr, Cand. Jur. Poul Mohr was then Deputy Director of the
Scandinavian Institute for Asian Studies. He is a scholar of jurisprudence,
linguistics, and early Chinese literature and language. Since 1971
we have carried on a continuous discussion on legal matters and
property rights, and at one time held several lengthy discussions
on these matters in various informal seminars. His stimulating intellect
has provided me with many insights and useful approaches to my own
I had first met Benson Saler as a graduate student at the Department
of Anthropology, the University of Pennsylvania, before I returned
to Harvard. Our friendship continued when in 1968 I transferred
my research project to Brandeis University where he was teaching.
I am deeply indebted to him for the many discussions on theory,
anthropological inquiry, and the problems of life.
Dr. Robert Hunt, of Brandeis University, has provided me with
much stimulus in the study of property, as it also became an interest
of his. His analytical mind is a constant challenge to me to get
Dr. Nitish Jha, of Brandeis University, occupies a unique part in
the development of my thinking on property relations. Nitish studied
property relations in a Balinese irrigation society. Prior to his
field work, after his field work, and during the writing up of his
dissertation, he and I were in constant discourse on the nature
of property systems and the problems of adequately describing the
extraordinarily complex and multifaceted forms of property rights
in the Balinese case. He was one of the first to agree with me on
my analysis of the failure of common property theory, which gave
me the impetus to continue.
I am indebted to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology,
Institute of Advanced Studies, The Australian National University,
which supported field work among the Rungus during 1959-1960 and
1961-1963 as well as the preliminary analysis of my data. I am also
indebted to the National Science Foundation (Grant GS-923), the
American Council of Learned Societies, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation
for Anthropological Research, Inc., which have provided support
during various stages of the analysis of my field data and my writing.
The National Science Foundation also supported further research
in Borneo among the Bulusu’ in 1980-1981, and the Ford Foundation
provided a supplemental grant for that work. The Halcyon Fund has
been particularly generous and supportive of my research and writing.
To the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis University I am
particularly grateful for putting up with my work all these years.
And as for my wife of 47 years, Laura W. R. Appell, without her,
this work never could have been accomplished. I have depended on
her deeply for companionship during arduous periods of field work,
while writing up data, and while facing the storms of intellectual
challenges. She also has served as a check on my thinking, my writing,
and the analysis of our data. Laura furthermore has participated
fully in research among the Rungus and the Bulusu’ as well
as in the continuing analysis of our data. Rungus religion, with
the exception of certain aspects of the agricultural ceremonies,
lies in the hands of Rungus females, and without her help it would
have been impossible to gather data in this realm and the behavior
of women, for which she was primarily responsible.
To my daughters, Laura Parker Appell Warren, Amity A. Doolittle,
and Charity Appell McNabb, I am deeply grateful to them for accompanying
us into the field, for helping in the collection of field data,
for their interests in our efforts to record Borneo cultures and
societies, and for supporting our efforts to protect the rights
of indigenous peoples, including recording their systems of land
tenure as a means to these ends. They have been with us during these
intellectual and actual journeys, which has been a great pleasure
1997 Anthropologists’ Fund for Urgent Anthropological Research
Third Annual Report. Phillips, ME: AFUAR.
Appell, G. N.
1976 Introduction. In The Societies of Borneo: Explorations in the
Theory of Cognatic Social Structure, edited by G. N. Appell. Special
Publication 6. Washington: American Anthropological Association.
Bennett, John W.
1946 The Interpretation of Pueblo Culture: A Question of Values.
Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 2, 4:361-374.
Christensen, Jane C., Renwick St. James and Alandean Foster
1996 The Voyage of the Basset. Artison, New York: The Grenwich Workshop,