Curriculum Vitae
  Biographical Statement
  Patron's Medal
  Pictures of Fieldwork
Current Projects

Property Systems


Sabah Oral Literature Project

  Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research
  Fund for Urgent Anthropological Research
  Borneo Research Council
Selected Articles
  The Dusun Languages of Northern Borneo

The Health Consequences of Development

  Iban Studies
  Teaching Anthropological Ethics
  Complete Bibliography
  Theoretical Issues in the Study of Cognatic Societies
  Emergent Structuralism and Agency
  The Rungus Momogun of Northern Borneo
  The Bulusu' of East Kalimantan
Research of Family Members
  Laura W. R. Appell
  Laura P. Appell Warren, M.Ed.
  Amity A. Doolittle, M.E.S., Ph.D.
  Charity Appell McNabb


Biographical Statement

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 of personhood.

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 approach.

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 by Homans.
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 the “commons.”
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 social organization.
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 my thinking.
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 to repay.

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 work.

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 it right.
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 for us.


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, Inc.