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Squat Toilets and Cultural Commensurability: Two Texts, Plus Three Photographs I Forgot to Take

Abstract: This essay invites reconsideration of what makes a particular site, experience, or activity ethnographically significant. It calls for a closer accounting of the lowly bathroom as a window into cross-cultural interaction, ethnographic experience, and the problem of cultural commensurability. It argues that the everyday world of regular bodily functions has as much to tell us about cultural difference as the elaborate rituals that typically consume the attention of ethnographers, particularly Indonesianists. Indeed, it concludes that while one favorite site of anthropological analysis — rituals, ritual meals in particular — highlight cross-cultural similarities, more mundane sites — such as the bathroom — underscore cross-cultural differences. Both are important functions of anthropology at the turn of the century.

Recently I spread out on a table the prints from some two dozen rolls of film I shot while doing research for a year in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Pictures of friends aside, it is striking that nearly all of the photos are of “major” events: rituals, processions, elections, monuments, landmarks, and mosques. There is very little in those prints that captures what it was like to live in Indonesia for a year, very little that represents the memories I carry in my head of the days making up that year. It reminded me of a highlight reel, with none of the texture and substance that comes from watching an entire event. I began to think of the many photographs I never took but wish I had. Three such imaginary photographs come immediately to mind: the frustratingly-dimly lit bathroom in my host-families home where I did my best to shave and wash for months, one village’s color-coded map of the birth control techniques used in each household, and the diagram and instructions of how to use a modern flush toilet from a hotel in which I stayed.

This essay invites reconsideration of what makes a particular site, experience, or activity ethnographically significant. It calls for a closer accounting of the lowly bathroom as a window into cross-cultural interaction, ethnographic experience, and the problem of cultural commensurability. It argues that the everyday world of regular bodily functions has as much to tell us about cultural difference as the elaborate rituals that typically consume our attention. In fact, as a site of analysis bathrooms are a more instructive index of cultural frontiers and more reliable indicator of how far we have traveled from our own cultural moorings. These photographs-never-taken are my point of departure, but we begin with the attention Indonesianists pay to rituals as staged and extraordinary moments.

Being There as Dinnertime Rites

Analysis of major life-cycle rites is an ethnographer’s staple. Numerous ethnographies try to convey what it is like to live out a life in societies distant and different from our own. In Clifford Geertz’s memorable phrase, they hope to capture in words that others can read the sense of “being there” by examining, describing, and explaining such defining moments as birth, initiation, marriage, and death. These ritualized moments become our guide to another world. They are practices so dense with meaning that they seem to offer a condensed snapshot in which the entirety of a society’s culture is brought together into a single focus. One difficulty – for of course as we have seen there are many – is in the notion that a society can ever encapsulate its culture in a ritual, however dense. Another is convincing readers that your ethnographic description and interpretation is accurate, that you were able to “gain entry” into another culture. For a generation of Indonesianists, the handbook for how to accomplish this has been Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures.

The Interpretation of Cultures sits on my shelf, a well-thumbed bible. Its dutifully researched, carefully crafted essays offer models, cautions, and food for thought that have inspired countless American fieldworkers traveling to Indonesia. Since reading Geertz, I have noticed that a familiar plot structures many ethnographies (cf. Clifford 1986). Following a tried and true formula, innumerable chapter 1’s contain an account of the ethnographer’s first weeks that goes something like this: an initially bewildered and lonely anthropologist unexpectedly has a sudden experience beyond their control after which they are accepted by natives as a friend. Assured of the expertise of the writer, readers can safely accept what follows as the account of an “almost-insider.” Clifford Geertz’s description of how he and his wife came to be accepted by Balinese in just such a fashion is paradigmatic.

Early in April of 1958, my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident, in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study. A small place, about five hundred people, and relatively remote, it was its own world. We were intruders… nonpersons, specters, invisible men.

After ten frustrating days of being ignored, the Geertz’s got caught up in a police raid on a large cockfight taking place in the village. Running like everyone else, they ducked into the courtyard of a compound on the heels of a Balinese man.

As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves.

As a policeman marched into the yard and demanded to know who these outsiders were, to their astonishment the Balinese man they had followed proceeded to explain who they were (American anthropologists), what they were doing (studying Balinese culture), and why they were there (to write a book telling Americans about Bali). He added that they had been there all afternoon, drinking tea and talking about Balinese culture. With this unexpected show of fellowship, the Geertz’s were now accepted as part of village life.

The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and most especially, amusement… Getting caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid is perhaps not a very generalizable recipe for achieving that mysterious necessity of anthropological field work, rapport, but for me it worked very well. It led to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It gave me the kind of immediate, inside-view grasp of an aspect of “peasant mentality” than anthropologists not fortunate enough to flee headlong with their subjects from armed authorities normally do not get (Geertz 1973: 412-6)

This tale frames Geertz’s discussion of the cockfight as the central text with which to read Balinese culture and promises the reader that he can rely on the analysis that follows. Yet, the key element in this display of acceptance and unity, as any Indonesianist could tell you, is drinking tea. Drinking tea is a ubiquitous feature of any social gathering from one end of the archipelago to the other, and one whose etiquette is fortunately easy to master. Indeed, the importance of eating and drinking in other cultures is a well-worn topic in the ethnographies of many societies. Everywhere, it seems, and in an astonishing variety of forms, breaking bread functions to establish a sense of unity and communal meals act as theaters to construct, display, and negotiate social relations. Which brings us to that quintessential communal meal in Indonesia, the Javanese slametan.

Indonesianists searching for a point of entry into cultural systems across the archipelago are advised to take careful notes about ritual meals. At the beginning of The Religion of Java, Geertz (again!) described the Javanese slametan as “the basic core ritual” which lies “at the center of the whole Javanese religious system” (Geertz 1960: 11, 14). In his description and unraveling of its significances, Geertz provides a virtuoso account of the slametan as it offers Javanese an unrivaled opportunity to reflect on and speak about their social, cultural, religious, and political world. It is an impressive display of what, borrowing from Gilbert Ryle, he called thick description, the anthropologist’s effort to interpret their subject’s interpretation of what they do and what it means (Geertz 1973).

This thickly-described ritual meal is a primer of how to do fieldwork in Indonesia, a sort of Idiot’s Guide to Ethnography. Other rituals are possible foci as well – weddings are one subspecies in this genus – but nothing is as thick as communal feasting. They are rich, fertile, complex, nuanced, contested, constructive, reflective. Meals offer the ideal window, portal, lens, key, or point of entry – the choice of metaphor is yours – that allow ethnographers to begin to understand, make sense of, and navigate unfamiliar cultural terrain.1 In understanding such an essential feature of another culture, we also come away with an invigorated and heightened appreciation of our own. This, we are told, is what ethnographic fieldwork is ultimately all about: the opportunity to make sense by making the strange familiar and the familiar strange (and hence the brilliance and usefulness of Horace Miner’s short 1956 essay “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”).

Reading Geertz and similar authors (T. H. Breen, Inga Clendinnen, John and Jean Comaroff, Greg Dening, Robert Darnton, and Rhys Isaac among them) before traveling to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia to begin my investigation of Makassarese conceptions of history, I had high hopes of finding just such a key that would unlock the secrets of Makassar’s past. Years later, I’m still looking.

How did Makassarese conceive of their past and the culturally vital activity of making sense of that past and transmitting it to the future? What helped them represent the past to themselves? Where was the Makassarese cockfight? Where was my cat massacre? There were rituals aplenty, literally dozens of meals and weddings among them, but they were not as thick as I anticipated. Am I just a poor ethnographer? Frustrated here, I looked in the natural world for metaphors of roots, trees, and branches, in the culturally and economically significant activity of weaving and cloth, and in the sailing, voyaging, and traveling for which Makassarese are known. I found plenty of metaphors, but no “master key”, no single activity, preoccupation, or way of behaving that seemed to poignantly and effectively capture something essential about Makassar.

But the question I ask is whether the thick communal meal or any equivalent ritual occasion is indeed the best window into another culture. We can note Renato Rosaldo’s remark that thickness and significance are not the same. Advocating a move from “depth” to “force”, Rosaldo asks, “The notion of force, among other things, opens to question the common anthropological assumption that the greatest human import resides in the densest forest of symbols and that analytical detail, or ‘cultural depth,’ equals enhanced explanation of a culture, or ‘cultural elaboration.’ Do people always in fact describe most thickly what matters most to them?” More bluntly, Rosaldo states that “Rituals do not always encapsulate deep cultural wisdom” (Rosaldo 1989: 2, 20).

The occasion for Rosaldo’s realization that rituals can be red herrings, was the need to grapple with powerful emotions of anger and grief following the death of his wife Michelle while doing fieldwork in the Philippines. Rosaldo’s experience is certainly not common, but it signals the importance of emotions experienced that often disappear when ethnography becomes monograph. For myself and others I have talked to, the common bond between ethnographers in Indonesia is frustration. Doing fieldwork is hard simply because you are in an unfamiliar, strange culture. We read those first chapters with empathy and a flood of similar memories, but also with a wink and a nudge at the contrived happy ending achieved so miraculously, necessarily, and easily. They are literary constructions which, though not untrue, neglect, dismiss, and filter the vast majority of the experiences in which we came to understand the society in which we lived. To be specific, it neglects bathrooms, and it is to this mundane activity that we now turn.

Being There in the Bathroom

The other well-thumbed book on my shelves before I began fieldwork in South Sulawesi was John Wolff’s three volume Beginning Indonesian Through Self-Instruction. Used by nearly all Indonesian language instructors in the United States, its dialogues and exercises are drilled into the impressionable minds of a generation of Indonesianists. It is said that some Indonesians can instantly tell an American who studied the “blue books” because of the standardized sentence patterns and formulaic conversations we use instinctively. In this sense it is at least as significant an ethnographic variable as The Interpretation of Cultures.

Each lesson in Beginning Indonesian Through Self-Instruction contains conversations on practical matters (“renting a room”, “at the immigration office”, “visiting a friend”), followed by exercises, cultural notes, grammatical explanations, and readings. One lesson that made a particular impression on me, and the one that concerns me here, had a reading innocuously titled “Experiences in Jakarta” (Wolff 1984, III: 368-71).

As I translate it, the reading begins “In Jakarta many strange experiences take place. For example, there was a wealthy businessman visiting Jakarta for the first time.” The reading goes on to relate how the businessman, an Indonesian from a small city outside the capital, stayed at the most expensive hotel in Jakarta. His room was so lavish that he felt uncomfortable sleeping in the luxurious bed, and the next morning a hotel servant found him sleeping on the carpeted floor. By now the businessman is revealed as a country bumpkin unaccustomed to modern conveniences despite his fortune. Indeed, in the reading’s next section the businessman faces off with modern plumbing for the first time.

After the businessman woke, he went to the bathroom. There he turned on the faucet while standing naked under the shower head. Suddenly hot water shot out forcefully. Only hot water came out, because it was only the hot water knob that he turned. Because he was slow to turn the knob, the water became steadily hotter. Due to his confusion, he did not get out of the bath quickly. His body was sore and his skin looked red all over. Finally the businessman jumped out of the bath and did not dare continue his desire to bathe.

Later in the reading the Indonesian meets an American businessman who speaks Indonesian and they become friends. Exchanging experiences, the American describes his first visit to an Indonesian bathroom. The bathroom of his hotel was very simple: “There was only a tall square tub that could be filled with water from a faucet. If you wanted to bathe, you had to use the ladle placed there.” Not knowing what else to do, and even though the tub was tall, small, and square-shaped, he tried to bathe as he did in America.

Naked he got into the tub and tried to immerse his body in the water. Because of the size of the American businessman’s body, and also because the tub was rather small, he had a hard time getting himself out of the tub. He then began shouting to call the servant. The servant arrived and entered the bathroom. When he saw the American businessman, the servant began to roar with laughter. Only with the help of the servant could the American get out of the tub. [Telling the story later,] the American joined in laughing together with his friend, remembering his experience at the Hotel Duta Indonesia.

The reading is on the one hand a practical caution about how to use the Indonesian bak or tub, which you stand next to (not in) while ladling cold water from the bak over your body. Indonesians find the notion of resting your body in dirty water, or making others who come to bathe after you use your dirty water, comical, mildly disgusting, and an endless source of amusing skits in television shows and movies involving muddled Westerners. In this vein, the reading uses humor to soften the blows of culture shock. It also teaches American students studying Indonesian to be prepared to laugh good-naturedly at their impending faux pas, modeling a mode of slightly self-deprecating behavior that Indonesians appreciate and that will stand them in good stead when they arrive. This story can thus be read as a painless rehearsal for the minor and amusing mishaps that always accompany crossing cultural boundaries. But it can also be read as an indicator that bathrooms and everyday bodily practices are an illuminating way of indexing cultural difference and perhaps even represent the point at which acculturation becomes nearly impossible.

Being plied with an inexhaustible supply of sugary snacks wrapped in banana leaves, drinking innumerable glasses of sweet tea, and even eating those salty dried fish whole really is not too difficult. Once you’ve explained that Americans can eat rice, no ritual meal is a problem. But most Americans reach their personal limit of cultural flexibility in the Indonesian bathroom. Many are they who have faced their first squat toilet in the dead of night with an apprehension that may fade over the months, but never disappears entirely. Here too there is only a ladle, with no toilet paper in sight. A survey of American anthropologists under hypnosis would surely reveal that after months or years in Indonesia the majority still carried tissue paper or visited a hotel or restaurant with modern plumbing when needed.


The contrast I am drawing here is the serious drama of ritual meal versus the lonely bewilderment of bodily functions, and what I am suggesting is that an embodied, “lived” sense of cultural difference is more effectively sought in the mundane practices normally considered too trivial or irrelevant to the weighty matters of anthropological inquiry and understanding. In challenging the notion that ethnographies, like cultures, have a central “core” best understood by ritual analysis, the bathroom emerges from the shadow of dramatic performance.

For the American women I have talked to the challenge is greater than it appears to be for men. “There’s no tissue, no trash can, and nothing flushes,” was one woman’s brisk summary. “You have to carry soiled tampons out into the kitchen, the most public room in the house.” For those habituating themselves to the awkwardness of using a squat toilet and the novelty of the bak, these are at least dilemmas faced in private. Ultimately more disturbing is the dramatically altered boundary between public and private bodily functions.

There is a whole range of bodily practices deemed “private” in American society that are far more public in Indonesian society. It is for this reason that I count among the photographs-never-taken from my fieldwork a large map that adorned the wall of a small eatery or warung in South Sulawesi. I saw immediately that it was a map showing each house in the village, and that the houses were color-coded. Yet the key in the corner of the map was difficult to read because there was so much unfamiliar vocabulary. Then I realized each color represented a particular form of birth control, and the map revealed publicly who was using which reproductive technology. Somehow those terms never made it into Beginning Indonesian Through Self-Instruction, though perhaps they should!


I suppose this scene could be read as an invasive technology at the disposal of the government’s Family Planning Program agents (slogan: “two is enough!”) hoping to pressure Indonesians into compliance by strategically deploying statements from a discursive archive evidencing yet again the imbrication of power and knowledge. However, I later became aware that anything related to birth control, menstruation, and reproduction was, at least in this part of South Sulawesi if not across the archipelago, talked about by Indonesian women with a relaxed ease that American women initially found surprising or even disturbing. Such boundaries are not easily relaxed, particularly in the realm of everyday life. Deeply ingrained in our daily practices and rarely the subject of reflection, these bodily practices become established to the degree that we forget they could be otherwise. While ritual meals of course differ from culture to culture (how could they not?), as do so many aspects of what makes a society seem noteworthy, interesting, and remarkable, we rarely consider the quotidian habits of everyday life a site for ethnographic reflection.

This is especially true because, as the reading about the rural Indonesian facing modern plumbing suggested, bathroom alienation works both ways. In what may seem comical to Americans, particularly Americans who have never faced a bak or squat toilet, some Indonesians confess to perching themselves on the toilet seat and using it as if it was a squat toilet. So too I was struck by the separate multi-step instructions for men and women, with an accompanying diagram, explaining how to use a flush toilet. Sitting versus standing, flushing, using tissue: it was all covered in matter-of-fact Indonesian. On one occasion a group of visiting Indonesians later confessed to leaving so hurriedly because after drinking so much tea they all had to go to the bathroom, but each was unwilling to be the first to use the flush toilet in our hotel room.


Maybe an effective way to appreciate that bathrooms can be as valid a site for ethnography as ritual analysis is to look more closely at some of the culturally-bound bodily practices we accept automatically. Consider the unwritten rules of American public men’s restrooms:

unless you have no choice, never select a urinal immediately next to another man
if someone is watching you, wash your hands before leaving
no waiting, lounging, or loitering
With apologies to Mary Douglas (1966), what bizarre preoccupations with purity and danger are evoked every day in public restrooms by following these unwritten (and unthought) rules?

Lest this cry of “more bathrooms! fewer meals!” seem extreme, or extremely odd, let me assure you that there is an ethnographic observation here. While eating is most often done with others, and in this communion creates a social bond, tending to bodily functions is most often done alone. This is true not only within cultures, but across cultural frontiers. Whether it is simply tea or other the elaborate preparations of a ritual feast, sharing food establishes a moment of sameness that ties ethnographer to the people he is studying, and through him links two cultures normally separate in time and space. While this is perhaps especially true of meals, the suspension of time and space they entail have long been recognized as features of rituals in general (cf. Eliade 1949). While not exotic (and certainly harder to get grants to study) the lowly bathroom is worthy of a place in ethnography precisely because its cultural variation problematizes the notion that what we call “culture” is the ephemeral and entertaining cloak under which we are all the same.

The odd thing is how this gets edited out of most ethnographies. While certainly we have moved beyond the positivist model of the absent and omniscient Anthropologist surveying all beneath his gaze in the ethnographies we write (cf. Clifford 1986), the anthropological experience of fieldwork remains at arm’s length. The ethnographers who engage in dialogue with their subjects often seem less real than those subjects. They remain disembodied rather than real people who suffer frustration and difficulty after those few introductory pages are past and anecdotes about “achieving rapport” narrated. Seeing more of the ethnographic experience can only heighten reader’s appreciation similarities and differences, subtle and gross, between cultures. While perhaps mundane in ways, is this not an ethnography worth reading as well as writing?


At the beginning of his magisterial Civilization and Capitalism, Fernand Braudel wrote that while the world of ideas from Voltaire’s time are not too distant from our own, “If the patriarch of Ferney invited us to stay with him for a few days, the details of his everyday life, even the way he looked after himself, would greatly shock us. Between his world and ours, a great gulf would open up” (Braudel 1981: 28). Indonesianists fascinated with ritual feasts such as the slametan, and who hope that by exploring the richness of such a ritual one can create a roadmap through another culture (even if they know how elusive this proves) would do well to ponder the place of the everyday – of how people look after themselves – in anthropology. Ultimately, the function of ritual analysis is to displace strangeness, to render it comprehensible. While the trappings and forms differ, we can recognize in the rituals of another culture many of the motives, behaviors, and interpretations that infuse our rituals. As Geertz writes of the Balinese cockfight in particular, and cultural analysis in general,

If, to quote Northrop Frye again, we go to see Macbeth to learn what a man feels like after he has gained a kingdom and lost his soul, Balinese go to cockfights to find out what a man, usually composed, aloof, almost obsessively self-absorbed, a kind of moral autocosm, feels like when, attacked, tormented, challenged, insulted, and driven in result to the extremes of fury, he has totally triumphed or been brought totally low (Geertz 1973: 450).

Cultural dramas as seemingly distant as Macbeth and a village cockfight are revealed as surprisingly similar. Indeed, the sense among Americans in particular that “underneath” a glittering surface of cultural differences, quirks, and peculiar expressions we are all “really” the same seems to be getting stronger all the time (cf. Marcus and Clifford 1986: 37-9). Ritual analysis, especially of something as universal as eating together, is bound to accentuate this suspicion of sameness. It can be argued that this is one of anthropology’s functions, and this argument is valid. But is this the most important role anthropology has to play in contemporary American society?

Bathrooms, on the other hand, accentuate otherness. Nowhere are we more different than in how we understand, surround, and treat bodily functions. In the bathroom, cultural difference is accentuated to the point where the specter of incommensurability arises. There is value in this, both pedagogically as we teach students about other cultures and in providing a check on the surety of our own interpretations. Alongside analysis of the dramatic, spectacular, and exemplary, we should make room for the unspoken and mundane, for photographs-never-taken. The decision to privilege rituals as the premier site of cross-cultural exploration is ultimately an arbitrary one worth reconsidering. The result is not only a truer rendering of the ethnographic experience, but a useful reminder of the dangers of confident assertions about others and a refusal of the too-easy conclusion that what they are up to is really not so different from what we are up to, that “what the devil they are up to” must remain irreducibly both strange and familiar.


1As should be clear by now, what I am arguing differs from the vast amount of ink spilled debating the nature of ritual or the interpretations made of rituals by specific anthropologists. For some of these debates as they relate to Clifford Geertz’s conception of ritual in particular, see Bell 1992, Geertz 1980, Pemberton 1994, Tambiah 1985, Woodward 1988.

Works Cited

Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. Vol. 1: The Structures of Everyday Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Allegory.” Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Eds. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge, 1996 [1966].

Eliade, Mircea. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Harper & Row, 1949.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

—-. Negara. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

—-. The Religion of Java. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Marcus, George E. and Michael M. J. Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Miner, Horace. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema.” American Anthropologist 58 (1956), 503-7.

Pemberton, John. On the Subject of “Java”. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Rosaldo, Renato. Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Tambiah, Stanley. Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Wolff, John, Dede Oetomo, and Daniel Fietkiewicz. Beginning Indonesian Through Self-Instruction. 3 volumes. Ithaca: Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program, 1984.

Woodward, Mark. “The Slametan: Textual Knowledge and Ritual Performance in Central Javanese Islam.” History of Religions 28, 1 (1988), 54-89.

Author: An Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Social Science at the University of South Florida, William Cummings has spent over a year conducting fieldwork in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. An ethnographic historian by temperament, he is the author of Making Blood White: Historical Reformations in Early Modern Makassar (forthcoming, University of Hawai’i Press) as well as several articles about the region. Currently he is doing research on tattooing and body modification as forms of historical expression.

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