The Niha are tireless orators, with festive payments the invariable topic. But what figures in speeches is not the enumeration of debts – the ultimate concern – but the ‘hearts’ of protagonists. Photo by the author


The emotional lives of others

On Nias island, the heart can be ‘squeezed’, ‘hot’, even ‘hairy’. What can anthropology say about unfamiliar emotional zones?

by Andrew Beatty + BIO

The Niha are tireless orators, with festive payments the invariable topic. But what figures in speeches is not the enumeration of debts – the ultimate concern – but the ‘hearts’ of protagonists. Photo by the author

In his classic thought experiment set out in ‘What Is An Emotion?’ (1884), William James, pioneer psychologist and brother of the novelist Henry, tried to imagine what would be left of emotion if you subtracted the bodily symptoms. What, for example, would grief be ‘without its tears, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breastbone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more.’ James’s resonant conclusion that ‘a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity’ launched a century of debate in which emotions have been dissected and analysed, modelled in the lab to determine causal sequences, and evoked in experimental subjects (mostly, obliging undergraduates).

The anthropologist comes at things from another direction. The problem of definition – of what emotions are – looks different if you start with the real-life episodes in which love, anger and sadness are embedded. And to James’s thought experiment, they can pose a rejoinder. Try to imagine an emotion without its cultural and social context – the warp and weft of its occurrence, its very form and meaning. What would be left? The mind stripped bare? The naked heart? Or nothing? If, like me, you spend time in places where emotional lives are quite different, the possibility of a standardised definition, a universal recipe for ‘anger’, ‘sadness’ and ‘love’, recedes still further. The very category of emotion starts to look shaky.

Consider the island of Nias, an outlier in the far west of Indonesia. In the 1980s, my wife and I lived there for two and half years, conducting fieldwork in the hilly interior. The toughest obstacle to settling in was not so much the tropical heat or the isolation of one of Indonesia’s poorest islands, but a set of distinctive, sometimes ill-humoured emotions, especially those clustering around gift exchange.

In almost every society, giving and receiving are actions braided with emotion. The matching of gifts with recipients, the need to reciprocate or repay, are delicate matters, rife with risk. On Nias, the presenting, claiming, outdoing and extracting of gifts is raised to a fine art, with a corresponding calibration of emotions. But the link between exchange and affect is often indirect, sometimes baffling. To the outsider, Nias presents a challenge at once conceptual and personal. Set foot in one of its gaunt hilltop settlements, with their tall peaked houses and gloomy paved squares, and you enter a different emotional world.

The Niha (which means both ‘people’ and denizens of Nias) live by slash-and-burn cultivation and pig herding. But what they live for – ruinously, as they freely admit – is feasting. Life is organised around vast blowouts involving hundreds of guests and the slaughter of pigs by the score (a tally under 40 is ‘minor’). Underpinned by a complex of emotions linked to gift exchange, the feasting round organises production and redistribution, integrating a prestige economy of indebtedness and obligation. (Sadly, since the 1990s, pig plagues, an earthquake, a tsunami and what passes for development have all but ended the feasting cycles.)

The dominant emotion – the one people talked about and surmised in others but rarely owned up to – was ‘painful heart’, a virulent brew of resentment, envy and spite. A great deal of life revolves around this sentiment, held to motivate sorcery, the sabotage of crops and the poisoning of fishponds. In a society configured by competition and prestige, ‘painful heart’ is the dark side of swaggering one-upmanship. The overlooked and eclipsed are the resentful counterparts and secret enemies of the feastgiver, the ‘big man’. They need to be pacified. My inaugural speech to the clans, ghostwritten by the village secretary and delivered over a battlefield of pigs’ corpses, ended with the ingratiating, if presumptuous, phrase: ‘There is no resentment!’ How could there be, when I had fed everyone? That was the simple calculation, measured out in meat shares, that inspired all feasting, from the glory days of headhunting and tribal wars, right down to debuts such as my own.

Besides being avid feastgoers, Niha are tireless orators, with festive payments the invariable topic. But what figures in speeches is not the enumeration of debts – the ultimate concern – but the ‘hearts’ of protagonists. Progress in negotiation is made through a meticulous anatomising of each group’s grievances and expectations, an accounting in which hearts are declared ‘squeezed’, ‘scorched’, ‘spotted’, ‘white’, ‘rotten’, even ‘hairy’, but always responsive to rivals’ tactics and vaunted feelings. Emotion animates and directs exchange. To plead (with agonised face) a ‘squeezed heart’ is to be trapped between two unyielding demands and to refuse both. To be ‘broad-hearted’ (hands spread wide) shows forbearance with difficult opponents. A ‘hot heart’ (stamping the floor) is a plain warning, forcing the foe to play dead, to cringe, to act ‘small-hearted’. What ‘hairy’ means I could never discover, but it signals bad feelings, an internal bristling that your audience would do well to consider.

The emotions of others, especially cultural others, always seem less complicated

There’s a grim pleasure in these idioms, a gloating pessimism. Who but connoisseurs of discomfort could have coined a phrase that means When your heart feels as though it has swallowed a ball of cat’s fur? Less a folk psychology than a form of emotional blackmail, a means of extracting more and conceding less, Niha rhetoric offers an oblique commentary on the promptings of the heart while registering a live feed of the balance of payments.

Readers of Edgar Allan Poe might recall his story The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), in which a dead man’s heart, beating aloud beneath the floorboards, haunts his killer. A Niha origin myth tells of a speaking heart that belonged to the First Man. Kept in a jar by his descendants, it nags them like a disembodied conscience. Tiring of the rebukes, they fling the jar away, letting it wash downstream, with its freight of wisdom and authority, across the ocean to the Netherlands – whence Dutch superiority as colonial power.

After the Second World War, the Dutch were driven out, and in 1949 Indonesia became independent. Myth passes to history. But the impoverished Niha never regained control of their affairs (in my time, they referred to the distant national government as ‘our rulers’). Only in their oratory have they retained any authority, the emotive power of the tell-tale heart.

What does that garrulous organ tell us today? It’s helpful, I think, to see the Niha as masters of manipulation. Unfamiliar with emotion theory, unread in Machiavelli, they have grasped – indeed personify – the fundamental point that ‘the heart has its reasons’, as the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it; that emotions are apprehensions of the world, designs upon it, as well as felt responses; that they are much more than feelings or mute reflexes. We know this too, perhaps – at least we know it of ourselves (the emotions of others, especially cultural others, are always less complicated). But the argumentative islanders show us something more. In its histrionic rhetoric and its bloody spectacle, Nias takes us into emotional zones at once alien and disturbing, chambers of the human heart – the painful heart – unexplored outside fiction or the stage. This is what ethnography can do.

Let’s take a breather from the field – as one must – and come up for air. Remind ourselves of the peculiar knot of problems that centre on emotion. Anthropology is a comparative venture but, with emotions, how do we know what we are comparing? Are the emotions we call ‘anger’ and ‘joy’ universals, or does every culture produce its own repertoire? Are emotions natural kinds, like species, or cultural inventions, like the ‘hairy heart’? Where, in a sequence of behaviour, do they begin and end? Are there a few basic emotions, of which the rest are variants? If differences are radical, how would we know anyway?

Psychologists and philosophers have devised varied answers to these questions, exhaustively plotting the interrelations of cognitions, feelings, scenarios and outcomes, but they are usually writing about Euro-American or Westernised subjects, people like themselves. As specialists in diversity, anthropologists are wary of generalisations about human nature. World ethnography abounds with examples of people behaving in ways that don’t quite fit our understanding of emotions. Not only do the situations that elicit particular emotions vary, as we might expect; not only do the forms of display differ, as any traveller knows. It’s more than that: human responses vary in ways that most emotion theories cannot readily handle. Here are half a dozen examples, some unfamiliar, others well-known:

  • The Chewong, a forest people of Malaysia, become dizzy if they find themselves acting with stinginess. Dizziness follows transgression of the rule of sharing, the supernatural sanction enforcing the rule taking immediate effect. Where we might prickle with shame, guilt or doubt, assessing the predicament in terms of self-worth and our standing with others, feeling bad about looking bad, Chewong don’t turn the perception of fault into an emotion. Instead, they get dizzy.
  • In a contrasting example, in which a physical sensation involves an affective response, the Bosmun of Papua New Guinea (PNG) experience hunger as an emotional state.
  • Reversing Bosmun cultural logic, among the Baining of PNG, ‘people left alone feel their loneliness as hunger’. For the Baining, food is associated with sociability. To be lonely is to be hungry.
  • The Waorani of the tropical lowlands of Ecuador react to death by snakebite with homicidal rage – not grief or horror. Here the thinking is more readily understandable. For Waorani, no death is ‘natural’; witchcraft is always to be suspected: who planted the snake? What’s strange is the immediacy of the rage reaction, which contradicts the expectation, widely assumed among emotion scientists, that serious loss automatically triggers sadness.
  • A different challenge is presented by the Tahitians, who reportedly lack a word or even a concept of sadness, and who meet loss with lethargy rather than grief.
  • Or consider the slum-dwellers of northeast Brazil who, seemingly indifferent to the universality of ‘mother-love’, selectively mourn their lost infants, letting the weakest die unlamented.
  • Back home, spare a thought for the modern traveller, who has supplied lawyers with a new form of mitigation, indeed a ‘new’ emotion – air rage – which, in its pressurised symptoms and distinctive causes, differs (forgivably so) from a terrestrial tantrum.

Faced with this sample of the unaccountable and incommensurable, you’d have to agree with Hamlet that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

These ethnographic curios (grossly simplified by compression) cast doubt on the supposition that, beyond our obvious cultural differences, what makes us similar – some would say, what makes us human is emotion. At some basic level, the cliché must be true. We can and do connect across cultural boundaries, responding to others’ smiles and tears without knowing their reasons. But most emotional episodes require narrative context to be legible, even in our own familiar circles. Arriving to laughter or frowns, we check out the backstory. Step outside into the wider world where codes and causes are different, hazard the wilder shores of Tahitian loss or Waorani rage, and you’re lost. Empathy fails. Where we’d least expect it, in the realm of emotion, the uniformity thesis crumbles.

How deep do differences go? Ways of thinking, acting and connecting with others are all inflected by culture, as fieldworkers have shown. But with a few exceptions, anthropologists have given less credence to radical differences in the emotional life, either taking emotions to be part of that biological endowment handed down by evolution or seeing them as culturally shaped variants of universal patterns, scripts in which some emotions are emphasised while others are downplayed. A simple example makes the point. The Utku, an Eskimo group closely dependent on one another for survival, obsess about anger, training their children to master it, straining to avoid it. Jean Briggs’s classic ethnography of the Utku is aptly titled Never in Anger (1970). Even the mildest displays of annoyance are deplored as ‘childish’. Briggs herself was driven from the igloo when she let her temper show. In our more competitive and self-assertive world, anger can be valued for its air-clearing honesty. Indignation is the fuel of protest, the banner of righteous rage. Such societal differences appear functionally appropriate, therefore readily understood. Emotions are tailored to culturally defined situations, behaviour managed, temperaments adjusted. But the psychological mechanisms remain the same.

This moderate relativism, widely shared across the human sciences and humanities, is backed by solid science. But it rests on a simplified view of emotional functioning that cuts out a lot of what makes up an emotion, which can, in turn, blind us to subtler differences of the kind that frustrate ethnographers in the field. Science generally works by classifying objects, identifying processes and components, monitoring interactions, and assigning causal priority. Emotion researchers investigate the criteria for emotion (what’s prototypical, where the boundaries lie); how appraisals of events relate to feelings; how feelings, in turn, embody evaluations, positive and negative; and they postulate common denominators for generic emotions – abstract scenarios, such as offence for anger, loss for sadness. Models often consist of diagrams with components in boxes, connected by arrows and feedback loops, with inputs and outcomes.

For anthropologists, the realist novel offers a better model than the lab

The exercise can be enormously helpful in clarifying processes and concepts. But torn from the living context, emotions are depleted of meaning and pragmatic function. What would my guilt be without my personal biography, the significant others I have wronged, my checkered past, my zealous superego, the gnawing feeling that keeps it in mind, the language of its articulation, or its Judaeo-Christian formation? In crucial ways, with consequences for action and expression, my guilt, your guilt and her guilt would be different. The details that emerge in a fuller account – the differences that make a difference – lie hidden in a method that sticks to common denominators. In my book Emotional Worlds (2019), I make the case that only narrative can capture the living complexity and offer an exact empirical account of how emotional episodes unfold, how they are experienced, what they do and mean. For anthropologists, the realist novel offers a better model than the lab.

Simulations of emotive events, word-sorting tasks (is boredom an emotion? Is rage a kind of anger?) and tests showing cross-cultural recognition of facial expressions do of course reveal a lot about cognitive mechanisms and the interplay of bodily systems. However, they omit the things that matter to us and that define the subjective experience: how it feels and what it means. In the jargon, they lack ecological validity. In the experience of love or regret, we cannot isolate the feeling from the conceptual structure or the tissue of relationships within which it unfolds. A natural emotion is not a machine we can dismantle to examine the parts, figure out causes and functions, then reassemble and activate. Not only because emotions unfurl in real time but because they are triggered, suffused and modulated by meanings and histories invisible to the scientific gaze.

For all these reasons – scale, intricacy, time-depth, contextual embedding – an anthropological approach to emotion cannot imitate the natural sciences but must stick to what it does best, which is to provide holistic but intimate descriptions rich enough to illuminate in cross-cultural perspective the processes taken to be common to our species as culturally endowed social creatures. No less important, it must remain open to other modes of being – strange emotional lives that might turn out to be more than mere variations on universal themes. Deciding in advance what emotions are or do won’t help.

Let’s come back to the Chewong, admirably described by Signe Howell in Society and Cosmos (1984) who lived with them in the Malaysian rainforest. One of Howell’s most striking findings was that the Chewong possess scarcely half a dozen words that refer to emotions (English has hundreds). Lacking terms for ‘think’ or ‘feel’ – an absence rare in world ethnography – they refer, when necessary, to states of the liver. (Whether that is actually equivalent to ‘think’ or ‘feel’ is moot.) A Chewong rendition of the Beatles lyric ‘She’s in love with me and I feel fine’ would go ‘She likes me and my liver is good.’

But what need, deep in the forest, for emotional display? Strong passions are always to be eschewed as dangerous – fear is the exception because fear eschews danger. Occasions for conflict are avoided (Howell never witnessed anger); bad things that happen are blamed on infraction of taboos; the opportunities for feeling emotion minimised. No greetings, then, or leave-taking. No grateful exchanges. Little mutual involvement. A jungle temperamentally cool, hedged with rules and taboos.

Fieldwork in rural Banyuwangi on the eastern tip of Java revealed another kind of sangfroid. If Nias was a rough passage, a baptism of fire, our two and half years in Java was a gentler sentimental education. In Java, the difficulty was one of recognition – how to tune into emotions faintly expressed and obscurely named. As in much of Southeast Asia (Niha would demur), emotionality spells weakness and vulnerability. A good deal of training goes into cultivating self-mastery, the dulling of strong feelings that might ‘lead to illness’ or madness. The point is not to suppress troublesome thoughts and feelings, storing up trouble, but to feel less, or not at all. Which requires a routine reframing of adversity, of loss and frustration, and avoidance of provocative situations.

In Emotional Worlds, I recount some enigmatic examples: a ploughman who maintains perfect composure after the poisoning of his buffalo; a village headman whose defeat in the mosque by zealots provokes illness, not shame or rage. Such cases require narrative depth to make sense. But everyday scenes are no less revealing of a subdued emotional style at once cultivated and habitual. Among practitioners of Javanese mysticism (a quarter of the adults in ‘our’ village), emotions are attuned to a universe governed by correspondences between the human microcosm and the visible world. Like Baruch Spinoza, the mystics regard anger and anxiety as futile responses to the world – misjudgments rather than brute reactions. But the ordinary unreflective villager makes similar adjustments. Not standing out, not speaking out, and an easy ‘letting go’ are all ways of regulating emotion and maintaining decorum.

Outside of folk dramas and frenzied games, which put onstage what is most dreaded off it, violent emotions are feared and mocked. Children who get angry or whine for attention are teased by their playmates. By age five or six, they have ‘learned’ and have ‘become people’. But infants, who are ‘not yet people’, are quickly rescued from anything like distress: ‘Their cries upset us.’ Our baby son was enchanted by a branch of red berries his ‘grandmother’ next door had given him, and became distraught when he had shaken them off. Moved by his cries, the old woman patiently tied the berries back on.

‘Are you sad he has gone, do you miss him?’ I asked; they had been close. ‘No, there’s no need,’ he replied

The handling of grief is particularly revealing. When the headman’s daughter lost her second child, who died suddenly aged two, it was six years before she and her husband felt able to visit his grave. They kept no photos ‘because we don’t want to think of him’. All of his things were removed by others and not returned so there’d be no reminders.

Another example shows a more easily achieved detachment. Slamet, a veteran nationalist and fierce anti-communist, had died after falling into a coma. Some attributed his illness to grief for his son who had died the year before. Others thought he was paying, in karma-like reckoning, for unexpiated crimes. His wife complained that he clawed the air in his sleep and was restless even in his coma. One of his followers visited him on his deathbed, and was startled when the comatose man sat bolt upright with glaring eyes. ‘I thought he was going to bite me,’ he said, imitating the ghastly face.

‘Are you sad he has gone, do you miss him?’ I asked him. They had been close. ‘No, there’s no need,’ he replied, his exact words meaning: ‘I have no further dealings with him.’ He had felt sad when Slamet was ill, but now it was over. It was as if the coma and the ghoulish awakening had broken the bond, the living affection. Emotion implies engagement. With a dead man, a ghoul, there could be no further dealings. This was hardly typical. Though each case was different – a story with unique characters and histories – ways of connecting and disconnecting were culturally patterned, comprehensible within a narrative.

Ethnography has no short cuts. But even a glimpse of the field indicates how an anthropological approach to emotion might differ from and complement other disciplines. Immersive fieldwork, the method of ethnography, is not an exact science. How could it be when you are part of the experiment, a living instrument, tooted and played upon by your hosts? But nor is it mere subjectivism or sophomore relativism, the position that anyone’s view of how the Niha operate, for example, is equally valid.

Where ethnography departs from an older-style positivist science is in grasping the essential fact that the significance of an emotional episode derives from a tangle of meanings that are cultural, interpersonal and pragmatic: meanings lost on the neutral, disconnected observer. To understand what people are about, what they are up to, what the stakes are, you need to shed the scientist’s white coat and go among them, sharing their sorrows and joys, experience their world from the inside. This is as time-consuming, inefficient and messy as life itself; but it pays dividends, affording insights barred to the cold instruments of science.