Dispute, disagreement and debate are the very stuff of academic activity. The problem arises when the language of the debate takes on a personal dimension and the authority that is claimed in arguing in favour of a particular position, approach or perspective becomes so entrenched that other voices are assigned to the margins. This paper reviews the origins and development of the exchange of views between competing voices in the interpretation of the importance and ‘meaning’ of the ritual textiles of the Iban of Borneo and whether or not they embody and express a language of symbols. It also comments on the attempt to explain the social importance of Iban weavers in terms of an evolutionary conceptual framework, based on the principle of sexual selection, which claims that historically the Iban focused their attention on the formation of relations between skilled weavers and renowned Iban head-hunters. This was to gain, so it is argued, a genetic-biological advantage, in Darwinian terms, in the struggle for ‘survival’, but more particularly for social status and prowess in a competitive and relatively egalitarian Borneo society. The paper then addresses a recent turn in the debate which raises issues about the nature of certain academic engagements, the different styles adopted in these engagements, the language used to establish academic authority, and the constant struggle in anthropology, and, in this case, with reference to Borneo, between those who claim to command the field of studies and those who have alternative views.
Keywords: Iban, Borneo, textiles, authority, ‘scientific ethnography’, evolution, synthesis, paradigm
Victor T. King is Professor of Borneo Studies at Universiti Brunei Darussalam and Emeritus Professor in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. He was formerly Executive Director of the White Rose East Asia Centre, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield (2006-2012). He has long-standing interests in the sociology and anthropology of Southeast Asia, ranging over such diverse fields as social and cultural change, development, tourism and heritage, ethnicity and identity, multidisciplinary area studies, and museum and photographic studies. Among his recent publications are an edited book, UNESCO in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspective (2016, NIAS Press, Copenhagen), and co-edited books on The Historical Construction of Southeast Asian Studies (2013, ISEAS Press, Singapore), Rethinking Asian Tourism: Culture, Encounters and Local Response (2014, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle), Tourism and Monarchy in Southeast Asia (2016, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle), Human Insecurities in Southeast Asia (2016, Springer, Singapore), Borneo Studies in History, Society and Culture (2017, Springer, Singapore), Tourism and Ethnodevelopment: Inclusion, Empowerment and Self-determination (2018, Routledge, London and New York), Indigenous Amazonia: Regional Development and Territorial Dynamics: Contentious Issues (2020, Springer Nature, Switzerland), and a four-volume reader, Tourism in East and Southeast Asia (2018, Routledge, London and New York). His recently published papers have appeared in the journals Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia; South East Asia Research, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Current Issues in Tourism, Journal of Human Security Studies, Suvannabhumi: Multi-disciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Research, Asian Journal of Tourism Research, and Pertanika: Journal of the Social Sciences and Humanities. His co-edited book Tourism in South-East Asia (1993, Routledge, London and New York) has been re-issued with a new Preface (2019).