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I welcome Michael Heppell’s considered response to my article on ‘Claiming authority’ and the opportunity to clarify some of the issues. There are many which require further debate, but limitations of space permit me only to draw attention to those of most importance. I accept that there is a need to clarify what is meant by ‘authority’, and I agree with Heppell that this term is subject to misinterpretation. However, my main objective was to investigate claims to authority within the realm of academic argument and discourse. In this connection, I am particularly concerned about Heppell’s use of the word ‘abuse’ and his comments on my imputed interpretation of Freeman’s actions and motivations. I must reassure him that I did not allege that Freeman committed ‘abuses’ of his academic authority. This is a misreading of my evaluation of Freeman’s exemplary studies of Iban society and culture, for which I have provided frequent and positive appreciation. Nor did I imply or propose directly that Freeman, in his responses to his critics and those whom he considered less than authoritative, exerted a ‘malign’ influence in that his actions ‘distorted or misrepresented aspects of Iban culture or did harm to other anthropologists’, or that Freeman was bent on ‘actively discouraging a scholar from working with the Iban’. This is an unreasonable distortion of my argument. Nowhere in my article did I use those words or suggest that Freeman was attempting to exclude other anthropologists from research on the Iban, or ‘harm’ them.

My comments were directed to the arena of academic discourse and Freeman’s style of argumentation and approach to these encounters. Therefore, Heppell is mistaken in supposing that I thought Freeman was on some kind of extended and ‘malign’ campaign (or a real-life ‘war’) to exclude researchers from a physical and socio-cultural domain or territory, actively attempting to prevent them from undertaking research among the Iban. Heppell has failed to understand my purposes because of his misunderstanding of basic concepts, categories, and the nature of academic ‘study’: on Sarawak Iban; the necessary credentials to study an area of scholarly interest; the nature and style of academic debate; the concept of the ‘interactionist paradigm’; the matter of evidential relevance; and the interpretation of textile designs and patterns.

He is wedded to a Sarawak-dominated Iban template, hence his comments on the irrelevance of populations related to the Iban in Kalimantan, like the Mualang. He then reveals his preoccupation with fieldwork credentials by noting that I am an outsider, ‘who has not studied the Iban’; that in the Iban context, I dare to write on the Iban ‘without direct knowledge’ of them; and, in having to meet the academic credentials that Heppell requires, he states that ‘King has none’. He adds that I only ‘stayed for two weeks at an Iban longhouse just above Lubok Antu’ (in fact, I stayed for four nights). His notion of ‘study’ is inadequate. He omits to say that I spent over a year in the first half of the 1980s and a further extended period in the 1990s undertaking team research, in the company of Iban fieldworkers, on development projects and environmental change among Sarawak Iban and other indigenous communities, and published over 20 papers on these projects, two with a senior Iban academic. I have supervised and externally examined some 12 postgraduate theses, either specifically on the Iban or which contained substantial case material on them (four of them undertaken by Iban). Does this mean I have not ‘studied’ them?

He dismisses the other case studies in an equally cavalier fashion: John Smart is ‘without direct knowledge of the Iban’; then, ‘It is doubtful that Jensen did any dedicated anthropological research of the Iban’; and, finally, Rousseau, ‘whose fieldwork was with the Kayan’. These issues of dismissal were one of the reasons for my investigation of Freeman’s and Heppell’s style and approach in academic discourse. If we take these comments to their logical conclusion, it would be very difficult for the majority of anthropologists to state something about a particular society where he or she has not undertaken a particular kind of field research. In any case, Heppell offers no comments on my central intellectual concern, which focuses on academic argumentation and our approaches to it. It was for this reason that I included the Needham-Freeman encounter. Heppell sees it as ‘irrelevant’, because it is not focused on the Sarawak Iban and because he misunderstands my purpose in including Needham’s material on the Penan and Orang Asli.

Heppell’s understanding of Freeman’s concept of paradigm is inadequate. Of course, Freeman did not carry around in his head a coherent, integrated ‘interactionist paradigm’ and apply it holistically to case material, nor did Heppell. But Freeman did apply elements of it as he was developing the paradigm to counter Franz Boas’s and Margaret Mead’s ‘cultural determinism’. Freeman was in search of a pathway to a new paradigm by identifying the ‘significant anomalies’, in a Kuhnian sense, in established anthropological approaches and the need for the gradual accumulation of knowledge to replace them. Heppell should consult Freeman’s list of published works. Heppell credits me with devising ‘an interactionist paradigm’ which comprises ‘a catch-all of a number of disciplines’. This was not of my making. It is not my ‘interactionist paradigm’, because it was taken directly from Freeman’s reference to the disciplines and subject areas which, of necessity, must be included in the development of his paradigm.

If Freeman was not attempting to apply an interactionist paradigm then how does Heppell explain the change in Freeman’s approach to his Iban material in his two papers ‘Shaman and incubus’ (1967) and ‘Severed heads that germinate’ (1979), or Freeman’s public lecture at the ANU, titled Paradigms in collision (1992), or his volume of essays Dilthey’s dream: Essays in human nature and culture (2017), which gives expression to well over 30 years of his work in the field of socio-cultural biology? Heppell, with reference to Melvin Konner’s work on evolution and childhood development, suggests that this is an example of an ‘interactionist paradigm’ and that Freeman would have approved. True, evolutionary biology formed a central plank of Freeman’s work, and certainly this evolutionary perspective was a focal part of what Freeman was attempting to achieve. However, Freeman was in pursuit of the grand synthesis in which evolutionary analyses also required recourse to a range of other natural and human science disciplines and subject areas (hence Heppell’s inappropriate reference to ‘a catch-all’) which would help explain human nature, culture, and behaviour.

There is, then, the issue of symbolism in the interpretation of textiles. Again, I did not say, nor did Gavin, that Freeman was wrong in his interpretations of more recently produced cloths. Heppell makes the point that his analyses are supported by Iban who have written on the subject. He quotes at length Vernon Kedit’s interpretation of symbolism; so, is this Kedit’s interpretation and/or one elicited from informants, and in what contexts of enquiry? And how does Heppell square his own interpretations of symbols with those of Alfred Haddon and other evolutionists? There are certainly elements in Heppell’s publications which suggest that he does support some of Haddon’s conclusions. Again, with reference to Traude Gavin’s work, it illustrates Heppell’s misunderstanding of the complex concept of ‘symbol’ and Gavin’s interpretation of it.

Let me repeat that in my article I am referring to Freeman’s domain or terrain and the exclusion of others in the context of intellectual encounter and discourse. Hence, I present four case studies which Heppell judges to be irrelevant because he does not appear to understand why I am using them. In his ‘chain of actions’ or, worse still, ‘chain of alleged abuses’ with which he characterizes my four ‘incidents’, they are precisely his inventions, not mine. There is no chain of actions (and reactions) other than in Heppell’s imagination. He constructs a chain-like framework, then demolishes his own construction to his satisfaction.

What holds the ‘incidents’ together is a style and approach to academic discourse and argumentation. One of the assumed links which he argues is defective is my apparent allegation that Freeman was guilty of ‘abuse’. In this connection, for example, he presumably does not understand that Freeman’s response to Rousseau’s article is partly metaphorical, pitched in terms of a Kayan-Iban encounter; Freeman did not mean that he was determined to exclude Rousseau, as a Kayan specialist, from undertaking research on the Iban, but to challenge his intellectual presence in the anthropological study of the Iban. Rousseau had no plans to undertake research among the Iban. Furthermore, Freeman’s criticisms of Needham are hardly designed to exclude Needham from pursuing research on the Iban (the papers are not about the Iban). Moreover, Freeman’s critical review article of Jensen’s book directs itself primarily to Jensen’s ethnographic omissions and interpretations and was not designed to exclude Jensen from access to the Iban; Jensen had already undertaken his research on Iban religion and published his book on the subject. The Smart-Freeman exchange was concerned with interpretations of cognatic social organization; Smart had no intention of visiting Borneo. If, as it appears, Heppell has not understood the main concerns of my article, then he is arguing against something that he has falsely imagined. He charges me with failing to provide evidence of individuals being excluded from undertaking research on the Iban or being frightened off, or suffering, or being ‘harmed’. I do not supply evidence, because there is none, and that was not what I was arguing.

The other imagined links in the so-called ‘chain’ that Heppell mistakenly discerns are equally invalid. My critical comments and the four ‘incidents’ were not presented to argue that Freeman committed ethnographic errors and ‘distorted or misrepresented aspects of Iban culture’. My case was based on issues of interpretation, emphasis, and omission, not ethnographic error, distortion, or misrepresentation. Another imagined link is that I argue that Freeman was developing an interactionist paradigm; Heppell suggests that there is no paradigm or even the working development of one. His denial should be weighed against the evidence provided in over 30 years of Freeman’s publications and research from the mid- 1960s onwards. The final link in the imagined chain is evidence of Freeman’s legacy in the work of Heppell. Again, I am referring to a style and approach to academic argument which captures both Freeman’s and Heppell’s discourse; it also encompasses the significant overlap between Freeman’s and Heppell’s interactionist concerns (evolutionary processes, sexual selection and mating, genetic endowment, ‘survival [and success] of the fittest’, aggression and competition, and the capacity for choice); and, finally, certain of Heppell’s interpretations of Iban weaving and its cultural productions in terms of symbolic meaning.

Heppell’s grasp of the nature of academic discourse is unsatisfactory, in my view: he refers to my cases as ‘incidents’ or ‘situations’, not as intellectual engagements that are processual and from which we (hopefully) can learn something of value. He then assumes he has broken and dismissed my ‘chain’ of ‘incidents’ as irrelevant and unsupported. He continues to maintain that those who have intruded into the intellectual domain of Iban studies lack the scholarly credentials to do so (in that they have not undertaken dedicated field research among the Iban).

In conclusion, I wish to reassure Heppell of my positive assessment of Freeman’s scholarly achievements and my recognition of his extraordinary skills as an ethnographer, while also proposing that some of his work merits further reflection, qualification, interpretation, and elaboration. Though I have made some critical interventions in my article, I acknowledge the contribution that Freeman and Heppell have made to our understanding of Sarawak Iban culture. There is no allegation of ‘abuse’, ‘malign’ influence, the discouragement of scholars from working among the Iban, and possibly doing ‘harm’ to other anthropologists, nor that Freeman’s research was ‘not in the best interests of the study of the Iban’. This is either a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding of what I have argued.

Victor T. King

Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam



Freeman, Derek (1967). ‘Shaman and incubus’, The Psychoanalytic Study of Society 4:315–43.

Freeman, Derek (1979). ‘Severed heads that germinate’, in: R.H. Hook (ed.), Fantasy and symbol: Studies in anthropological interpretation, pp. 233–46. London and New York: Academic Press.

Freeman, Derek (1992). Paradigms in collision: The far-reaching controversy over the Samoan researches of Margaret Mead and its significance for the human sciences. Canberra: Australian National University, Research School of Pacific Studies.

Freeman, Derek (2017). Dilthey’s dream: Essays in human nature and culture. Canberra: ANU Press. [Originally published in Canberra by Pandanus Books, 2000 and 2001.]

Reply Michael Heppell

It is good that Professor King has set the ledger straight with his emphatic acknowledgement of Freeman’s ethnography. Particularly helpful is Professor King’s clarification that there was no chain in the sequence of five issues in his article ‘Claiming authority’. The first three (King 2017:83) were Freeman’s demonstration of authority, his establishment of a lineage of authority, and his development of an interactionist paradigm. The final two (King 2017:95) were ‘Freeman’s lineage of authority and his interactionist paradigm [which] have since been continued in the work of one of his former doctoral students, Michael Heppell’. Also helpful were the observations that Freeman ‘did not carry around in his head a coherent, integrated “interactionist paradigm” ’, but applied elements of it in his work; that I misunderstand the concept of ‘interactionist’ paradigm; and (King 2017:95) that Freeman’s interactionist paradigm has since been continued in my work.

On the question of authority in King’s original article, my response was to suggest that reliable ethnographic data are the bedrock of good anthropological debate. Such data enable scholars who have not studied a people to engage in a debate and develop their own theories and insights for the broader study of humankind. Introducing and trying to provide life support to fanciful data by way of introducing agnatic kin to the Iban ‘kindred’ and fictitious classes to an egalitarian system tend to lead to futile discussions.

Reliable data also include accurate renderings of what a person has written. Without that foundation any ‘academic discourse’ starts with misleading assumptions, because many readers are likely to be unfamiliar with the source material. Unreliable data are difficult to deal with, because most readers quickly get bored with repetitive statements of ‘that is not what I wrote’. For example, King, in the first paragraph of his response, writes: ‘Nowhere in my article did I […] suggest that Freeman was attempting to exclude other anthropologists from research on the Iban.’ Yet in his article (King 2017:107), he wrote, ‘Freeman became identified with the Iban and he defended his close bond with them by attempting to exclude others from his domain’; and (King 2017:96), ‘His [Heppell’s] position is clearly […] following Freeman [emphasis mine], to exclude unwelcome intruders from the Iban anthropological domain.’ Another example is the frequent references King (2017:96, 97, 101, 106) made in his initial article, with a further mention in his response, to my use of the Spencerian concept of the survival of the fittest—except I have never mentioned this. Nowhere, in either of my books on Iban weaving, do I mention ‘survival of the fittest’. The concept hardly accounted for young bachelors going off on dangerous raids while the non-adventurous remained ‘at home’, nor is it applicable to the two non-bellicose Bidayuh groups with whom I carried out fieldwork, which survived successfully in a very remote part of West Kalimantan. Even on inconsequential matters there are issues, such as King’s correction that he only stayed four nights at a longhouse just above Lubok Antu, rather than the two weeks I noted. Yet in his monograph on the Maloh, he wrote (King 1985:VII): ‘We spent […] two weeks in an Iban longhouse in the Lubok Antu area of Sarawak’, and eight pages later (King 1985:7) he repeats this. I can understand how, over time, two weeks can become a fortnight and a fortnight can become ‘four nights’ (or the reverse), but it is small wonder that there are misunderstandings.

The lack of a consensus on reliable data also bedevils the understanding of Iban textiles. It discourages progress on what should be the next stage in their exposition and is an important issue for anthropologists interested in women’s studies. The next stage would be to explain an area of Iban religious experience that Freeman could not interpret to his satisfaction. This was the ability of all women and a select few men to project their souls into the supernatural world of spirits and other numinous entities and capture or retrieve them. The very few men who did were shamans. On reaching the pinnacle of their profession, they transformed themselves to appear and behave as women. On these soul-journeys, weavers engaged with the spirits, ‘captured’ them, and rendered a representation of them in a cloth design. This leads us to a very simple equation. If these representations were not symbols, the weavers’ souls did not engage in these journeys.

In the sights of those who support the idea that Iban textual design is decorative is an Iban, Vernon Kedit. As mentioned in my earlier response, Gavin (2015:32) wrote that Kedit provided improvised interpretations of motifs. Kedit (2017) has recently published an article analysing the motifs on three sungkit cloths. King questions whether the analysis is Kedit’s interpretation (code for ‘improvised interpretation’) and/or one elicited from informants. Such a query is not normally addressed to a Western researcher. Kedit anticipates King by naming his informants (all accomplished weavers) and the information provided by each one. On one cloth there were four figures, but only two were named by Kedit based on the information he received. The other two were not named, because no one could identify them for certain. Next, King asks ‘in what contexts of enquiry’ did Kedit receive this information? Again, Kedit anticipates King, describing his methodology, which was the same as that used by Gavin. He had the advantage of knowing all of his informants intimately and working closely with them to learn about the cloths that they and his extended family had produced.

In conclusion, what has this ‘academic discourse’, however unsatisfactory, revealed about authority? King admits Freeman must have had some. He makes a detailed claim of his own. But there is still no mention of the Iban.

Michael Heppell

Independent Researcher, East Hawthorn, Australia



Gavin, Traude (2015). ‘Communication’, ASEASUK News 58:26–35.

Kedit, Vernon (2017). ‘A chief’s caveat, a rajah’s gift, a museum’s treasure: Journey of a 19th century Iban textile called a lebur api from Borneo to the British Museum’, Borneo Research Bulletin 48:210–35.

King, Victor T. (1985). The Maloh of West Kalimantan—An ethnographic study of social inequality and social change among an Indonesian Borneo people. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.

King, Victor T. (2017). ‘Claiming authority—Derek Freeman, his legacy and interpretations of the Iban of Borneo’, Bijdragen 173:83–113.

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