Rules without rulers?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Signe Howell. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.018


Rules without rulers?

Signe HOWELL, University of Oslo

Comment on Sahlins, Marshall. 2017. “The original political society.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 91–128.

Some texts that I read during my postgraduate diploma year in Social Anthropology at Oxford in 1975–76, have stayed with me ever since. Chief amongst these are Marcel Mauss’ The gift and Marshal Sahlins’ collection of essays published under the title of Stone Age economics (1972). They contributed to a fundamental change in my outlook on social and cultural life. My readings that year—which included Hocart, in particular his The life-giving myth and other essays ([1952] 1970)—resulted in my abandoning my original intention to study gender relations in an Arab country. Instead I experienced a desire to live amongst a small-scale society where the influence of Western ideas and practices had yet to be seriously felt. Romantic and naïve, perhaps, but that desire led me to the Chewong in the Malaysian rainforest and to the subsequent writings to which Sahlins refers. I am very honored that he has found my material and interpretations of interest, and thrilled that his suggestions have challenged me to rethink some earlier conclusions. In what follows, I will consider to what extent I agree and disagree. The focus will be on his argument that social orders such as that of the Chewong may be regarded as a “cosmic polity”: a state in which humans are hierarchically encompassed by superhumans with life-giving and death-dealing powers over them. In other words, he denies that these are egalitarian societies. His exposition is a brilliant venture into familiar territory.

I start with the quote from Hocart with which Sahlins begins his presentation; one that I have used several times myself: “How can we make any progress in the understanding of cultures, ancient or modern, if we persist in dividing what people join, and in joining what they keep apart?” ([1952] 1970: 23). How true, and yet how difficult it is at times to figure out what the people we study divide and join. To understand the wider implications of what we observe and are told in the field is the challenge. In matters of cosmology and metaphysics, our own basic assumptions [144]may hinder an appreciation of those ideas and practices that spring out of different ontological assumptions; indeed, whose modes of thought do not resemble our own. This is, of course, what anthropology teaches us to recognize, and to grasp the principles upon which others join and separate ideas is the aim of fieldwork. However, in interpreting, we need to keep in mind that many religious concepts are far from clear in our own traditions. What do we mean by gods and spirits, for example, and what about belief, soul, or sacrifice? How, then, to translate concepts and ideas about the invisible and metaworld that we encounter as theoretical and intellectual puzzles, but that are so real to those we study?

During my first fieldwork with the Chewong, I had to deal with such questions. I confronted a society devoid of the usual “pegs” that anthropologists are used to hang their interpretations on, such as a discernible kinship and classification system, observable rituals and ceremonies, and social or symbolic hierarchies and conflicts. Chewong social organization is marked by an absence of stratification, an absence of leaders, and even an absence of permanent group formations. In their social organization, their cosmology, their ritual, and their classification, the Chewong displayed a perverse tendency to ignore implications of potentially hierarchical differences. What emerged as important was a necessity to keep that which is different apart; to separate like from nonlike in a flat, nonhierarchical manner (Howell 1984). Whether because of this or not, Chewong social life displayed a remarkably peaceful coexistence in which cooperation, not conflict, characterized behavior (Howell and Willis 1989).

I struggled for a long time to make sense of what nevertheless clearly was a fully functioning social order. Hunting, gathering, and practicing a simple form of shifting cultivation were activities that could be, and usually were, performed alone. Chewong were extremely individualistic—they did what they chose to do without control from any other human being. At the same time, they were linked together through a shared cosmology that regulated people’s behavior. A number of rules guided the minutiae of daily practice which, I argued, demonstrated a profound moral responsibility for each other and the living environment that was their world. I called these rules cosmo-rules1 because they were grounded in their understanding of their cosmos and their relationship with the numerous beings that occupied it—the metahumans, as Sahlins calls them, or superhumans, as I called them—whose lives were intertwined with those of the Chewong. In my book based on my doctoral thesis, I wrote:

Through the medium of the rules the superhuman beings are drawn directly into the day-to-day life of the Chewong. The fact that the consequences of all breaches of the rules are administered by superhuman and non-human beings may account in part for the absence of a legal/political machinery among the Chewong. The rules inform the individual how to conduct himself or herself in order to pass through life in harmony. They are thus a means by which the individual is involved in the mechanism of order. (Howell 1984: 175, my emphasis)[145]

Having read Sahlins’ article, the question becomes to what extent that interpretation is sufficient. It is correct, as Sahlins says, that these superhumans, together with the world of conscious animals and plants, are in Chewong parlance “people like us”; a statement that leads most anthropologists into questions of animism. In fact, as my time with the Chewong progressed and I began to sense that I was grasping some essential aspects of their ontological understanding, animism increasingly entered my thinking. Owing to the recommendations of my supervisor Rodney Needham, I had read Lévy-Bruhl and Hocart before going to the field, and I reread them after my return. At a time when my contemporaries showed little interest in matters or “religion,” let alone animism, I found both writers inspiring. Of course, there was never any question of the Chewong representing a form of primitive mentality, but Lévy-Bruhl identified a number of puzzles that were extremely pertinent in relation to my material. Alien modes of thought and how to disentangle them without “dividing what people join, and in joining what they keep apart,” became of overarching importance.

I argued that the Chewong imagined a world predicated upon an existential unity of nature and culture, of humans, conscious nonhumans, and superhumans. Although I would still adhere to this view, I do recognize, as Sahlins notes, that the role of Tanko and the Original Snake (see below) constitutes a conundrum. However, these two are not alone. There are several other categories of superhuman beings that may cause illness or mishap as a result of individual deviations from a cosmo-rule. Repercussion sometimes affects just the transgressor or, as in the case of not sharing spoils form a hunt, the aggrieved person has an accident or becomes ill.

Apart from the many different superhumans, potentially any being or object in the Chewong environment might reveal itself as a conscious person—usually during a shamanistic séance but also in a forest encounter—and as such to have human form, which, to the ordinary human eye, falsely manifests itself as leaf-monkey, rambutan fruit, frog, tiger, or whatever. They are conscious rational beings. While their “cloak” (body) is species-bound as they move in the forest, when they take it off in their home settlement, which is just like a Chewong settlement, they stand forth in human form.2 As humans view the animal “cloak” as potential meat, so nonhumans see the human form or soul (ruwai) as meat.

Cosmo-rules create a moral universe. Humans, conscious nonhuman beings (animals and plants), and superhumans interact according to identical cosmo-rules within a bounded universe of relatedness. The relationship between species is symmetrical. As each species views the world according to the particular quality of its eyes, actual manifestations of the material world are species-bound.

On the basis of my understanding of these phenomena, I argued that repercussion for illegitimate behavior lay not in human jurisdiction, but in that of superhumans. This is the fact that Sahlins so interestingly has picked up, and on the basis of which he argues for a “cosmic polity, hierarchically encompassing human society” (p. 92). In so doing, he introduces the words “polity,” “political,” and, indeed, “hierarchy” to my analysis of “egalitarian societies,” concepts that I have avoided. “There are kingly beings in heaven where there are no chiefs on earth,” he further [146]states (ibid.). While I accept part of his argument, that Chewong social order may be described as political insofar as humans and conscious nonhumans interact according to the same sets of rules and that only some superhumans may exercise authority in particular cases, I am less willing to accept that there are any beings remotely like “kingly beings in [their] heaven.”

As Sahlins points out, the two immortal superhuman beings, Tanko and Original Snake, have power to cause devastation in the form of thunder, lighting, and flooding. However, they may only do so in response to the violation of some specific cosmo-rules, such as the mocking of animals. They cannot exercise any other form of control. It is difficult to argue that they are rulers of any kind, embryonic kings. Chewong fear them only when someone has broken the cosmo-rule that invokes their anger with its ensuing thunder and lighting. The fact that Tanko also is responsible for opening the way for girls to become pregnant is ontologically significant. Thus it is correct to state that without Tanko, no people will be born and, hence, there can be no society. This is an insightful and important observation, supporting the argument that “people do not control the essential conditions of their existence” (p. 117).

Rethinking my ethnographic material from a different analytic angle than I have previously done, namely the political, I agree that there is much that argues for classifying the Chewong as an example of “the original political society”—just as I earlier have characterized them as the original affluent society. I agree with Sahlins when he argues that something like a political state, in his terms, may be said to be operative in Chewong society and that of similar hunter-gathering societies in many parts of the world. When he boldly states that “something like the state is the general condition of humankind” (p. 92), my reaction is: maybe. I would say that society is the general condition of humankind. Perhaps it amounts to the same thing? But Sahlins has given me a slightly new perception of Chewong metaphysics. Whereas I was satisfied with analyzing the cosmo-rules as a sort of judiciary system lodged with superhumans whose authority was restricted to explicit transgressions, I now see that one might equally view Chewong metaphysical order as kind of political order. I nevertheless maintain that the relationship between humans and superhumans is predicated upon a profound encompassing value of equality. I am not suggesting that Chewong ideology lacks value, but that equality as opposed to hierarchy is the main structural principle in their ideology (Howell 1985).

Cosmos means order, the opposite of chaos. Humans everywhere strive for order—something Hobbes failed to see. Humans classify the world in which they live, and they live according to the emergent ordered social system. However, classifications need not necessarily be hierarchical. This I have argued is the case of Chewong social and symbolic classification (Howell 1984: ch. 9). Chewong enumerate and juxtapose elements in their (bounded) environment. All conscious personages, including nonhuman animals and plants and superhumans, engage in relationships that are morally constitutive both for individuals and for the whole. This holds the cosmos-society together. This enables the cosmos-society of “us people” to continuously re-create its future. As a cosmology in action, theirs may be thought of as, in Sahlins’ words a “cosmic syste[m] of governmentally” (p. 92).[147]


Hocart, A. M. (1936) 1970. Kings and councillors: An essay in the comparative anatomy of human society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. (1952) 1970. The life-giving myth and other essays. London: Tavistock and Methuen.

Howell, Signe. 1984. Society and cosmos: Chewong of Peninsular Malaysia. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

———. 1985. “Equality and hierarchy in Chewong classification.” In Contexts and levels: Anthropological essays of hierarchy, edited by R. H. Barnes, Daniel de Coppet, and R. J. Parkin, 167–80. Oxford: JASO.

Howell, Signe, and Roy G. Willis, eds. 1989. Societies at peace: Anthropological perspectives. London: Routledge.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age economics. Chicago: Aldine and Asherton.


Signe L. HOWELL is Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo. Her first fieldwork with the Chewong took place between 1977 and 1979 and she has made many subsequent shorter visits. She has also done fieldwork with the Lio in Indonesia. She has published extensively based on her two ethnographic experiences.


Signe L. Howell
Professor Emeritus
Department of Social Anthropology
University of Oslo
PO Box 1091
0317 Oslo


1. Sahlins refers to them as cosmic rules. This is not correct. Originally I did not qualify them thus, but did so subsequently in order to make the point.

2. A number of myths deal with such issues about encounters, even marriages, between humans and nonhuman beings wearing their animal cloak.