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Cultures of Democratization and Decentralization

Far-reaching “big bang” decentralization reforms in Indonesia and the Philippines have opened up a very dynamic field for studying changes in local service delivery, governance performance and power structures. More specifically research questions include the methodological intricacies of measuring these changes, processes of elite circulation, intergovernmental budgetary relations, civil-military relations at the provincial level and the reconstruction of local cultural traditions as a strategy of legitimizing claims for local leadership. The aim is to develop a theoretical model that captures the functioning of economic and political subsystems in their dual interaction with historical and cultural contexts through quantitative econometric analysis.
  1. The Rise of Oligarchy in Contemporary Indonesia: Case Studies of Local Governor Elections in North Sumatra and East Java in 2008
  2. Popular Historical Cultures in Indonesia: Current References to the Past in the Context of Democratisation and Decentralisation
  3. Decentralization and Public Service Delivery in Indonesia
  4. Making local governments more responsive to the poor: Developing tools and indicators to support sustainable livelihood under decentralization
  5. The Reconfiguration of Indonesian Decentralization: An Historical Institutionalist  Study on Intergovernmental Power Relations and Resource Allocation


Decentered Theatrical Performances in Cambodia and Thailand

Researcher: Eric Haanstad, PhD
Department: Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology
Funding: Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF)
Duration: 15 November 2009 – 14 November 2013


This project examines the decentralization and democratization of two major national theatrical traditions, Khon performances in Thailand and Lkhaon Khaol theatre in Cambodia, and to ethnographically place these performances into a cultural dialogue that transcends the categories of Orient and Occident.  To study, as Walter Benjamin suggests, the participatory and democratic role of performative expression, and the decentralization of deeply-nationalized Khon and Lkhaon Khaol performances requires first an ethnographic understanding of how they are centered in Thai and Cambodian National Fine Arts training and state theatre.  These performances are primarily for Thai and Cambodian audiences, on the stages of their respective National Theaters, and the performers are trained within strict theatrical traditions that invoke nationalized mythologies of monarchy, Hinduism, and competing conceptions of Thai/Cambodian identity.  The performances express the ongoing animosity between closely related Thai and Cambodian cultural identities making them statements about the national self as well as the foreign/Western Other.  As the first Westerner engaged in participant-observation of these two contested national theatrical traditions, studying the training and performance of Khon and Lkhaon Khaol within the context of the unprecedented royal transition in Thailand and continued political consolidation in Cambodia will chart innovative ethnographic territory.

To bridge the “twin pillars” of the Area Studies Group, this project concentrates on not only how these performances are decentered and democratized in a variety of Thai and Cambodian contexts (including to a limited extent tourist theatre as well as rural performances, media production, and other manifestations within popular culture), but also addressing Southeast Asian views of the West which go beyond Occidentalism.  By exploring the performencer’s and producer’s vision of the West, and the intended cultural messages behind these national theatrical spectacles and their decentered manifestations, the project will address literatures of both decentralization and Occidentalism.  Further methodological innovations make it possible to theorize beyond Occidentalism while exploring an emergent methodology of observant-participation.  With a methodological focus on participatory research, this project will transcend both the disciplinary fictions of the detached observer as well as Thai/Cambodian conceptions of “farang/barang”. With the methodological goal of creating, with Thai and Cambodian collaborators, decentered/democratized performances informed by Khon/Lkhaon Khaol as well as Western musical and theatrical traditions, the ethnography is inserted into a vibrant cultural dialogue between East and West that addresses the ongoing merger of these two constructed categories of imagined difference.

Popular Historical Cultures in Indonesia: Current References to the Past in the Context of Democratisation and Decentralisation

Project Director: Prof. Judith Schlehe
Assistant: Evamaria Sandkühler
Department: Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology
Funding: Research Project funded by DFG within the research group "Popular Historical Cultures"
Duration: 1 November 2010 until 30 September 2013


Spaces, media and meanings of the popular production of knowledge are by no means identical across the globe in times of globalization, but rather shaped by local, cultural and political factors. This project is based on the example of Indonesia. There, democratization, decentralization and Islamization are presently linked to volatile new processes of negotiation of cultural identities. Thereby, reference to the past plays an important role in creating identification and legitimacy. This goes not just for academic historiography and official memory culture, but equally as much for popular stagings of “traditions” and references to the past. Popularly displayed historical culture in Indonesia is reflected in various expressive forms of portrayal, the spectrum of which ranges from religious rituals to miscellaneous art genres to festivals, parades and heritage maintenance in both an urban and rural context. These forms will be examined and connected to questions of how, from whom and with which effects they are produced, expressed, propagated, experienced and related to ideas of past and belonging and to images of local distinctiveness and subsequent processes of inclusion and exclusion. The focus is thereby on the interplay of popular stagings and subjective understandings of the past as well as its everyday relevance. Particular attention will be paid to Indonesian youths and, moreover, ethnic Chinese. The project is based on ethnological field research on Java and Sulawesi.

The Rise of Oligarchy in Contemporary Indonesia: Case Studies of Local Governor Elections in North Sumatra and East Java in 2008

PhD Candidate: Panji Anugrah Permana
Department: Department of Political Science, University of Freiburg
Funding: Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD)
Duration: October 2009 - September 2013


After more than three decades of the New Order Regime, Indonesia has embarked on a range of political changes. One of the most crucial changes in the new democratic order is a far-reaching and radical decentralization scheme, by many scholars dubbed as the “big bang” decentralization. An important democratizing dimension of decentralization is the direct election of local chief executive through local elections since 2005. The preliminary observation shows that local established elites have been quite resilient and are still able to defend their elevated political role even under the new democratic conditions. Local elections have not produced new, alternative leadership out of the existing one. The gives rise to the question as to what extent local elections as an embodiment of democracy could be coupled with the rise of un-democratic forces such as political gangsters, local bosses, and political brokers? How did the predators and the old elites build their alliances, how did they adjust to the new democratic system and how did their coalition manage to succeed in electoral contestation? What are the consequences of these tendencies for the consolidation of Indonesia’s democracy? Drawing from democratic transition literature, decentralization debates, elite theory and patron-client research, this study seeks to identify the dynamics in elite competition and elite circulation at the local level. Empirical research will be conducted through comparative method in two provinces (North Sumatra and East Java). The study promises novel empirical insights into a study about significant relevance for the consolidation of Indonesia’s fledgling democracy. 


  • Anugrah Permana, Panji (2017): Local Elite Adjustment in Indonesia’s Democratization: Case Studies of North Sumatra and East Java, 1998-2013. PhD diss., University of Freiburg

Reframing Modernity in Contemporary Indonesia; An Ethnographic Study of Ideas on ‘Center’ and ‘Periphery’ on Sulawesi and Java

PhD candidate: Vissia Ita Yulianto, M.Hum
Department: Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology
Funding for field research:
Field research period: 15 July 2010 - 29 April 2011


This project intends to investigate how modernity interacts with local practices – or rather how local agents interact with modernity – and will explicitly examine how contemporary Indonesians perceive and act themselves into their cultural existence. The intended fieldwork areas are Yogyakarta, a centre of progressive student activism on Java, and Manado, a Christian region on Sulawesi. The main focus will be on Manado/Minahassa on Sulawesi as it offers a focus on a significant region outside the Indonesian “centre” constituted by the island of Java, which has long been the centre of political policy making and modernizing influences. At the same time, Manado has a distinct history of modernization and political autonomy, and currently is responding to global influences, seemingly distancing itself from Java and the Indonesian capital. These factors suggest that an ethnographic investigation in the regions may offer new and different insights not only into current changes occurring in Indonesia but also into broader theoretical issues.

The project will identify specific social groups across sections of social strata in both rural and urban contexts in Java and Sulawesi. The main research questions are:

1. What do research participants regard as “Self?” Which significant “Others” do they identify? What is the primary focus for those concerned with foreign influence?

2. How do people see the “Foreign?” And how is it connected to everyday actual behavior?

3. What operates as the Indonesian “Centre” in framing the attitudes of research participants?

4. What is seen as modernity? How is modernity characterized? What is seen as the western, eastern, and global world? What is the perceived relationship between the West and modernity?

5. How do people discuss modernity? How does the discussion differ between people in Yogyakarta and Manado?

Decentralization and Public Service Delivery in Indonesia

PhD candidates: Bambang Sjahrir Putra and Antonio Farfán Vallespín
Department:          Department of Economics
Funding: BMBF (November 2009-November 2012) and Promotionsstipendium nach dem Landesgraduiertenförderungsgesetz (LGFG) Baden-Württemberg (May 2008-November 2009)


This research project analyzes the impact of decentralization on the evolution economic and social development in Indonesia.  The development and distribution of public service delivery is a relevant policy issue in a developing country as big and as diverse as Indonesia.  Theoretically, decentralization can be beneficial for a country with heterogeneous preferences and sufficient resources mobility.  Decentralization brings decision-making power closer to the constituents and therefore can make public services more efficient if we assume that local governments are benevolent.  In a developing country such as Indonesia, however, resources are not fully mobile, a sufficient monitoring system is not yet in place and accountability mechanism is far from being effective.  These factors can hinder decentralization from being beneficial and make it prone to corruption and elite capture.  The impact of decentralization is evaluated by observing the quantity and quality of public services. This research attempts to provide theoretical and empirical evidence that would show how decentralization can affect the dynamic of public service delivery and socio-economic development.  Ultimately the study will try to answer whether Indonesia has benefitted from decentralization and what are the determinants of the success or the failure and how Indonesia can improve or benefit more from it.


  • Kis-Katos, Krisztina and Suharnoko Sjahrir, Bambang (2017): The Impact of Fiscal and Political Decentralization on Local Public Investments in Indonesia, Journal of Comparative Economics 45(2): 344-365.
  • Schulze, Günther G. and Suharnoko Sjahrir, Bambang (2014): Decentralization, Governance, and Public Service Delivery, in: Hal Hill (Hrsg.) Regional Dynamics in a Decentralized Indonesia, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies Press: Singapore, 186-207.
  • Suharnoko Sjahrir, Bambang,  Kis-Katos, Krisztina, and Schulze, Günther G. (2014): Administrative Overspending in Indonesian Districts: The Role of Local Politics, World Development 59: 166-183.
  • Suharnoko Sjahrir, Bambang,  Kis-Katos, Krisztina, and Schulze, Günther G. (2013): Political Budget Cycles in Indonesia at the District Level, Economics Letters 120 (2): 342-345.


Making local governments more responsive to the poor: Developing tools and indicators to support sustainable livelihood under decentralization

Project Director: Prof. Dr. Stefan Seitz
Department:                    Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Universty of Freiburg, Germany
Cooperation: Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

Federal German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)  


This interdisciplinary project on the impact of decentralization reforms in Indonesia regarding the wellbeing of Dayak communities in Kutai Barat, East Kalimantan, was based in a comprehensive survey conducted jointly by the district government of Kutai Barat and the CIFOR–BMZ Poverty and Decentralization Project. Various poverty and wellbeing indicators were assessed covering more than ten thousand households in over two hundred villages of the district. In contrast to a single poverty figure, the project examined multiple dimensions of poverty and wellbeing spheres (health, wealth, knowledge; natural, economic, social and political environments; infrastructure-and-services).

The Reconfiguration of Indonesian Decentralization: An Historical Institutionalist  Study on Intergovernmental Power Relations and Resource Allocation

PhD candidate:

Zuliansyah P. Zulkarnain

Department:          Department of Political Science, University of Freiburg
Funding: Gov. of Indonesia


The Indonesian big bang decentralization of 1999, which was initiated by the collapse of the New Order regime in 1998, has changed the nature of the Indonesian government from centralized government to decentralized government. To date the process of decentralization reform is still continuing in order to overcome conflict of authority between levels of government, and the discontent of sub-national governments on the design of fiscal allocation. However, most of the policies and studies on decentralization show less concern on the political context and political interaction in the process of institutional change and formation of intergovernmental relations. By utilizing a Historical Institutional perspective, this research aims to explore how the political context, power relations, and actors’ maneuvers determine institutional change of intergovernmental power relations, and influence the policy of fiscal allocation. A causal tracing process approach is being used to analyze the causal mechanism in the process of decentralization reform along the path of change since 1999 up to 2009. Methodologically, the within-case study is applied to elucidate how institutional change and formation took place in each period of reform, whereas cross-case studies intend to explicate how and why power relations and actors’ maneuvers create a discrepancy of fiscal allocation among the regions. As a protocol of cross-case studies, this research selects two provincial governments i.e. the provinces of Riau and East Kalimantan as comparable cases.

Network culture: social integration in Minangkabau communities

PhD candidate:

Paritosha Kobbe


Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology


funded by DFG within the research group "Friends, Patrons, Clients"


The aim of the planned research is to identify the variety of forms of social integration and to analyze their impact on culture. This question is explored by an analysis of social networks in Minangkabau communities in the context of cultural revitalization. Social relationships and cooperation in Indonesian communities have usually been explained in terms of kinship or conceptions of mutual assistance, e.g. 'gotong royong' (a Javanese concept of mutual assistance) or 'arisan' (a form of rotating savings and credit association).

Minangkabau society in particular has been explored in categories of kinship with a strong interest in their matrilineal organization. This study aims to give a new perspective on social relationship, taking into account Minangkabau in West Sumatra and the Minangkabau diaspora in Central Java. It will raise the question how cultural concepts of mutual assistance evolve during migration and in different cultural as well as socio-economic circumstances. On one side there is the “traditional” setting of the countryside in West Sumatra, where economy mainly depends on agriculture and small trade. On the other side there is a “modern” setting as represented by the city of Yogyakarta. The focus will be put on well-educated persons from the fields of academia and commerce. This study will raise the question if people within this “modern” setting refer to traditional conceptions of mutual assistance. One aim of the research will be to identify and analyse the cultural ties of social relationships and social networks in Minangkabau communities in different locations and socio-economic positions.

The cultural basis of social integration in Minangkabau communities will be examined by ways of an ethnographic approach encompassing one year of fieldwork on Java and West Sumatra, namely in the cities of Yogyakarta, Padang and Bukittinggi as well as their rural surroundings.