AnthroFlash Aotearoa: Graeme MacRae introduces a new ASAA/NZ series

Anthropology and Humanism is an interesting journal – a small space in the system for ways of thinking and writing on the margins of the academic mainstream. A recent issue has a special section of what they call “Sudden Anthropology”: very short pieces of writing about how anthropology works, especially in those moments when insight comes like a flash - out of the blue – or maybe when it doesn’t.

Some of us think it might be nice to do something similar here too. To get us started, here is one of what I call “postcards from the field” that I send intermittently to students, colleagues and friends. We invite you send us yours - 1000 words max – short, sharp and focused – a postcard if you will, but with an anthropological message. Send it now ... or you’ll have to read more of mine.

Tracksuit Bureaucracy

Graeme MacRae, 2016

We always need something from government departments, but with Indonesian bureaucracy there is no such thing as a free lunch. A few days ago I went to the town/city where the government offices are. I went to three in a row but nobody I was looking for was there. This was not surprising, but a little disappointing because I can usually count on a strike-rate of at least one-in-three. So I had to satisfy myself with a few shops, including the airless and chaotic Javanese supermarket and my favourite sarong-shop, run by a Muslim family whose ancestors came from India over a hundred years ago.

I promised to phone first next time, but the best strategy is to just turn up again, as early as possible. The senior staff may not have arrived, but neither will they have found excuses to escape the office.  So I tried again today, dressed in my tidier-than-usual office-visiting clothes. Friday is physical exercise day, which they do together first thing then spend the rest of the day in their tracksuits - a welcome relief from their usual too-tight military-style uniforms.

At the Department of Culture, I want to find out about (lack of) progress with implementation of the World Heritage sites under their jurisdiction. Ibu Dayu, after months of avoiding me, now greets me like an old friend, tells me things I already know, then ushers me in to see the head of department. I always thought she was afraid to tell me anything without his approval, but now I know he just likes meeting foreigners. He is wearing his ritual regalia, perhaps because his part in the morning exercise is limited to raising the flag or making the speeches. He looks less sinister and predatory than usual – almost like a teddy bear, and he too greets me like an old friend. After discussion of the differences between the weather in NZ and Bali, he answers some questions without telling me much. As the novelty wears off, he returns behind his huge desk to read his newspaper and fiddle with his phone, while Ibu Dayu chatters happily but equally insubstantially in response to my questions. I leave knowing I haven’t missed anything exciting.

The Department of Communications is just a few doors along. I want to find out about what they are (not) doing to support local initiatives to fix Ubud’s out-of-control traffic/parking problems. Needless to say the head just went out ten minutes ago and so did his assistant in charge of traffic. But at least I have some symbolic capital to start from, because I knew his father years ago, back when he was a minor “king” but is now retired to become a kind of holy man despite perilous frailty of body and mind. The young ladies behind the counter look so much less officious in their dark blue tracksuits, that I try not to laugh when they tell me to phone next time.

The Department of Tourism is around the corner, almost opposite the market and just before the wonderful new roof that shades the parking area along one side of the main street. Here the tracksuits are baby blue and my helpful but loquacious friend happens to be loitering in the front yard. He has been promoted and now has his own office near the front door. But instead of giving me the routine statistics as he usually does, he says I now need an official letter. 

Tourists staying the night anywhere have to be reported to the local police, and for years I used to just go to the police station, drink sweet coffee and answer trivial questions until they gave me the big disintegrating book in which they kept their monthly summaries. I would take it across the road to photocopy then bring it back. One day there was a new chief – of the (more common) sinister/predatory kind. He wouldn’t let me see anything and wanted to know all sorts of things about me. I haven’t been back since and that was when I started going to where the statistics end up.

Now there is a problem here too.  I’m not sure why – it is virtually public information and it ends up in the public domain soon enough. We go to see his superior who explains that they get into one kind of trouble if they give information out too freely, and another kind if they withhold information. So they live in fear of telling anybody anything without formal approval.

We all had proper research permits for our PhD research, but now most of us work in a somewhat grey area of blind eyes turned and unwritten agreements.  But the net is tightening, for the bureaucrats themselves and we are all starting to feel the effects.  The basic logic is hard to disagree with – that researchers, especially foreign ones, should conduct research that has benefits for Indonesia, in partnership with local institutions. But the practicalities are another story – if we followed them to the letter, no research would happen at all.

He asks me what I think about tourism in this area. I tell him fairly obvious things about green, shady, pedestrian-friendly, eco-friendly environments being what foreigners like and, because of their rarity in this part of the world, that they could even become a tourist attraction in themselves. Their eyes light up – maybe this is what they want to hear – maybe such pearls of wisdom are what foreign researchers are useful for. We part on good terms and on the way out, my friend gives me a single sheet of paper with the simple statistics I wanted in the first place. Next time I must remember my tracksuit.

Dr Graeme MacRae is a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology at Massey University's Albany campus. His research explores the intersections of human society/culture with environment/ecologies by way of technological interventions, such as architecture/urban design/landscape, agriculture, waste management, disaster recovery. He works mostly in Indonesia (especially Bali) but also in India. He blogs about his research at