Land, Labour & Society in Aceh: Chandra Jayawardena’s unpublished fieldnotes

Author: Professor Kathryn Robinson, at the ANU. Professor Robinson is an anthropologist mostly focusing on social and gender relations in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. She has written this post to introduce us to an interactive online project  she is working on to share and find publication avenues for the works of the late anthropologist Chandra Jayawardena.

Editor’s note: This post is a little outside our usual mandate, but we are intrigued by the idea that Professor Robinson proposes. What would it mean to use field notes that have undergone no analysis? What is it like using the raw data of someone who can no longer have a say on how it is assessed? Anthropology is such an interpretive discipline, and given the long history of ethnographers returning to field sites already written about and coming to completely different conclusions than their predecessors, I think many of us would hesitate about how they might interpret the data of others. I think many of us would also hesitate to give our raw notes to others to interpret. Alas, Dr Jayawardena did not have the luxury of shaping this ethnographic ‘clay’ into a sculpture. As you read this blog, we encourage you to meditate on these questions.


Why publish someone else’s field notes? Is there any value in these ‘raw ‘ observations that have not yet been ‘massaged’ into ethnographic text?

Many anthropologists now archive their field notes, but that’s usually at the end of their careers when the notes have already been analysed and moulded into narratives by the fieldworker themselves. Sri Lankan-Australian anthropologist Chandra Jayawardena’s notes are beautifully crafted, accessible to readers, and encompass a wide range of topics. However, his untimely death in 1981, aged 52, meant that he only published two papers from this research (see Jayawardena 1977; Robinson 2004).

On Jayawardena’s notes

I considered writing the field notes into an ethnographic text, but I felt they had more value as original notes.  Rich ethnographic data always allows for the possibility of reanalysis and reinterpretation but in this case, the notes have only undergone the first ‘light’ step in analysis, of ordering into topics.

Ethnographic research by its nature produces historical records of moments in time.  This fulsome account of society, politics and religion in pre-conflict Aceh allows scholars and Acehnese alike to use the notes to craft their own analyses of the massive changes that have occurred in the ensuing decades. They also give direct insight into the scholarly practice of this significant post-colonial scholar whose powerful voice impacted the development of Australian anthropology.

Chandra’s scholarship was centrally concerned with understanding the roots of equality, especially of people caught in forms of exploitation of global capitalism.  He had participated in the struggle against British rule in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and his anti-colonial politics informed his scholarship: for his LSE doctorate he researched the Indian migrant workers in the sugar plantations of British Guyana.  

Legacy and interpretation

Appointed to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney in 1960, Jaywardena  began research on the descendants of the Indian indentured labourers of Fiji (fieldwork in 1962,1966,1968); and fieldwork in Aceh, the westernmost part of Indonesia  that reaches out into the Indian ocean (1964, 1972, 1973).

After his death, his widow, Yvette Jayawardena, found in his papers what she thought was the unpublished manuscript on Aceh. She gave it to me in in the hope that it could be published.

The manuscript, in fact, comprised photocopied pages of his handwritten field notes that he had ordered into topics. I found a handwritten outline of a book, entitled Land Labour and Society in Aceh Besar in his research papers that are archived at Macquarie University (where he had been appointed foundation professor of Anthropology in 1969).  It looked like the kind of note you write while sitting in a coffee shop, or in a boring university meeting. But the outline was congruent with the ways in which the Xeroxed field notes were organised.

Aceh has been marked by armed struggle, beginning with their long resistance to Dutch colonial rule. Perhaps it was this history of resistance that drew this anti-colonial actor to Aceh. Chandra’s concern with equality reflects a concern of the Acehnese which I have termed ‘vernacular humanism’.  In the period since Chandra’s fieldwork, Aceh has experienced an anti-central government revolt; military rule (DOM);and the devastating 2004 tsunami, which washed away thousands of lives, many villages and livelihoods.  This extreme event is credited with bringing the conflict to an end.

Making good use of Jayawardena’s notes

Jayawardena’s notes are useful for researchers and for Acehnese because they provide a historical dimension, for anthropologists and historians alike. They allow us to vicariously return to the ‘lost world’ of Pidie of the 1960s and 1970,  as a historical dimension to confronting complex issues in post-conflict Aceh, including contemporary political and social contestations about Aceh’s future. They have already been a resource by contemporary scholars of Aceh, and are being circulated among NGO activists. Publishing them online makes them readily available to a wide audience.

They also provide a model of field data collection for budding ethnographers.

In transcribing the notes, I kept all the identifying codes: the dates of entries and the topic headings but also the sequential numbers that had been stamped on each page.  On this website I have organised Jayawardena’s notes as topics under the chapter headings in the ‘found’ book outline. They can also be re-ordered according to date, to be read as if in the original field notes, in the chronological order in which they were written in the original notebooks.

The original notebooks and his other papers, including the Fiji research are archived at Macquarie University.

[Image by Sia Gam, Wikimedia Commons]

3 thoughts on “Land, Labour & Society in Aceh: Chandra Jayawardena’s unpublished fieldnotes

  1. Wow, thank you very much! This is very useful for me as a budding ethnographer. I’ve always been looking for example, I often wonder how other people write their fieldnotes. I think mine is very chaotic as compared to Jayawerdana’s. And he seems to not write about his own feelings, while I’ve written my feelings a lot in my fieldnotes.

    • Yeah it’s really interesting isn’t it, the different styles? Glad you enjoyed Nadya 🙂

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