Caged in on the Outside: Moral Subjectivity, Selfhood, and Islam in Minangkabau, Indonesia
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272pp. July 2014
Caged in on the Outside: Moral Subjectivity, Selfhood, and Islam in Minangkabau, Indonesia
Author: Simon, Gregory M.;
Caged in on the Outside is an intimate ethnographic exploration of the ways in which Minangkabau people understand human value. Minangkabau, an Islamic society in Indonesia that is also the largest matrilineal society in the world, has long fascinated anthropologists. Gregory Simon’s book, based on extended ethnographic research in the small city of Bukittinggi, shines new light on Minangkabau social life by delving into people’s interior lives, calling into question many assumptions about Southeast Asian values and the nature of Islamic practice. It offers a deeply human portrait that will engage readers interested in Indonesia, Islam, and psychological anthropology and those concerned with how human beings fashion and reflect on the moral meanings of their lives.

Simon focuses on the tension between the values of social integration and individual autonomy—both of which are celebrated in this Islamic trading society. The book explores a series of ethnographic themes, each one illustrating a facet of this tension and its management in contemporary Minangkabau society: the moral structure of the city and its economic life, the nature of Minangkabau ethnic identity, the etiquette of everyday interactions, conceptions of self and its boundaries, hidden spaces of personal identity, and engagements with Islamic traditions. Simon draws on interviews with Minangkabau men and women, demonstrating how individuals engage with cultural forms and refashion them in the process: forms of etiquette are transformed into a series of symbols tattooed on and then erased from a man’s skin; a woman shares a poem expressing an identity rooted in what cannot be directly revealed; a man puzzles over his neglect of Islamic prayers that have the power to bring him happiness.

Applying the lessons of the Minangkabau case more broadly to debates on moral life and subjectivity, Simon makes the case that a deep understanding of moral conceptions and practices, including those of Islam, can never be reached simply by delineating their abstract logics or the public messages they send. Instead, we must examine the subtle meanings these conceptions and practices have for the people who live them and how they interact with the enduring tensions of multidimensional human selves. Borrowing a Minangkabau saying, he maintains that whether emerging in moments of suffering or flourishing, moral subjectivity is always complex, organized by ambitions as elusive as being “caged in on the outside.”

Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory Series
“Simon’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on the Minangkabau. He offers a dynamic view of how Minangkabau people negotiate the contradictions and tensions they experience in everyday contexts and provides an excellent exposition of the concepts of social integration and individual autonomy. By bringing Islam into the larger conversation about moral subjectivity, he demonstrates how people engage with and make use of Islamic values in their daily lives.” —Evelyn Blackwood, Purdue University

“Combining rich and humane ethnography about Muslim life in Minangkabau with careful, jargon-free, and always lucid discussions of debates within and beyond anthropology concerning morality, the self, and subjectivity, this book will greatly enrich our understanding of Southeast Asia, Islam, and the study of religion more broadly.” —Magnus Marsden, University of Sussex

“Greg Simon has greatly advanced the burgeoning study of subjectivity and morality in this lucid and compelling book. In it, he integrates personal cases and a subtle portrait of the world of Minangkabau to reveal the myriad ways that individuals creatively cope with the existential dilemmas of their everyday lives. No anthropologist has done it better.” —Charles Lindholm, Boston University
Author: Simon, Gregory M.;

Gregory M. Simon has taught in the University of California, California State University, and California Community College systems. He holds a Ph.D from the Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego.



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