Vol. 6, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Nishaant CHOKSI


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 3

Language, Migration, and Identity: Neighborhood Talk in Indonesia
Zane Goebel
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, xvii+221pp.

Zane Goebel’s monograph detailing the face-to-face encounters between residents in the ethnically and linguistically diverse town of Semarang (Central Java) provides an excellent case study of the way linguistic ethnographic methods illuminate larger questions of urban transformation, social incorporation and exclusion, and patterns of migration in Southeast Asia. In fact, with the exception of a few dated studies done in Java (Errington 1988) and on the island of Sumba (Kuipers 1990; 1998; Keane 1997), very few linguistic ethnographic-oriented monographs have been written about Indonesia, and even fewer about other parts of Southeast Asia. Goebel’s book, therefore, which takes care to explain and highlight some of the more technical concepts used in the field, serves as an introduction to the field while also advancing social theory.

The title of the book, Language, Migration, and Identity, is rather straightforward but also somewhat deceptive. In fact, the book takes care to complicate each of these terms in ways that can only be accomplished through detailed analysis of face-to-face interaction and a familiarity with semiotic theory. Rather than going through a chapter-by-chapter analysis, I will touch on each of these aspects in turn, noting how Goebel complicates them in order to provide a more nuanced picture of daily life in Semarang.

First I touch on what should be the main focus of linguistic ethnography, which is the concept of “language.” Goebel begins the book by outlining what is a supposed binary between “Indonesian” and what he calls LOTI, or “languages other than Indonesian.” In official discourse, Indonesian—as the national language—is supposed to represent national and interethnic unity, truth, objectivity, and also the ethnic “Other,” the opposite of place-based LOTI, such as Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese, etc. Thus, within this ideology, codes such as Indonesian and Javanese form what Goebel calls “semiotic registers,” communicative assemblages in which language is associated with personality traits and types of personhood.

However, while these semiotic registers permeate official state institutions, they are not hegemonic within the local ward meetings of Semarang town, where Indonesian and, in this case, Javanese (which itself has multiple registers, such as the more familiar ngoko register and the more formal krama) are creatively deployed by participants to accomplish different ends. In fact, Goebel shows how in multilingual settings, language use cannot be neatly mapped onto social function (as is often done in naïve discussions of “code-switching”). Therefore, instead of the word “language,” Goebel opts for “medium,” demonstrating how particular linguistic tokens mediate social relations. For instance, in the excellent discussion in Chapter 5 of the conversations of female residents in Ward 8, who more frequently attended ward meetings than their male counterparts, he shows how many non-Javanese speakers, many of whom had low overall competence in Javanese, would sprinkle their talk with ngoko Javanese words or particles, creating a sense of both familiarity and belonging in the ward. This kind of practice is the same for non-ethnically Javanese male residents of the working-class Ward 5 (Chapter 9). Even though these residents may not have been fluent in Javanese, their use of the ngoko register, together with their perceived familiarity and ease of interaction, created an impression to Javanese-speaking counterparts as if they were competent in Javanese (this is called, in linguistic ethnographic terminology, “adequation”). This differed from the non-Javanese male residents in Ward 8, who rarely used Javanese tokens at all, while the male Javanese used krama forms to each other (Chapter 7). Thus, the difference in linguistic code (Indonesian vs. Javanese) or ethnic identity (Javanese vs. non-Javanese) did not structure interaction as much as distinctions between familiarity and unfamiliarity.

This leads to the second concept of “identity.” Analyses of face-to-face interaction usually tend to avoid talking about identity in “attributive” terms, in which a person’s social position (i.e., ethnic or religious affiliation, class, gender, etc.) leads to certain social behavior. Instead, Goebel, like many linguistic ethnographers, prefers the term “processes of social identification” (p. 82), which focuses more closely on the means by which participants classify people and what categories are relevant at any given instance of interaction. For instance, in most of the ward meetings, which determined the finances of the ward and where dues were collected, the category of “payer” vs. “non-payer” was more important than ethnic or class identity. Those who then were classified as non-payer became stigmatized as socially deviant, or irresponsible, and talk about these categories of persons often occurred in the Indonesian language, even among Javanese (Chapter 5). While ethnic identity was not the primary factor, in some cases, such as among male participants in Ward 8, the association of non-payer and deviant was mediated through New Order discourses that targeted Chinese-descent Indonesians, and thus some Chinese-origin residents in Ward 8 were considered “deviant” (Chapter 8). Notice, however, how ethnic identity forms part of a larger semiotic register of exclusion that includes participation in ward activities, language use, and national-level discourses of discrimination.

Finally there is the issue of migration. This concept is not explicitly discussed much in the book, though it is implied, since residents are made up of both locals and those from the outside, and there is quite a lot of movement of people in and out of the wards. However, the book offers some analytic tools that help with the study of how migrants may be incorporated into or excluded from the neighborhoods where they live—for instance, the important point that “learning Javanese” (or what is called Javanese) does not depend on where one comes from or how long one has lived in the ward, but rather on one’s level of activity and involvement in ward meetings. Each person therefore has a “trajectory of socialization” (p. 41) into the community, and this trajectory is affected by language use, participation, individual biography, and, in some cases, ethnic or religious affiliation. Examining these trajectories is important to understand the actual social processes by which migrants are incorporated into or excluded from the community.

The book, as Goebel mentions in the preface, is challenging. However, it is to be lauded that the analysis does not shy away from the important, though rather technical, theories and concepts of linguistic ethnography so that we can better understand the complexities of social life in diverse, transient, and multilingual settings. Despite his use of technical terms, Goebel attempts to make these concepts as clear as possible for the non-expert (by defining and bold-facing the terms, for instance). Hopefully, in doing so, books such as this will make linguistic ethnography more accessible and inspire more scholars of Southeast Asia to take up its tools in order to further complicate issues of language, identity, or migration.

Nishaant Choksi
Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University


Errington, James Joseph. 1988. Structure and Style in Javanese: A Semiotic View of Linguistic Etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Keane, Webb. 1997. Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kuipers, Joel C. 1998. Language, Identity, and Marginality in Indonesia: The Changing Nature of Ritual Speech on the Island of Sumba. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

―. 1990. Power in Performance: The Creation of Textual Authority in Weyewa Ritual Speech. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


DOI: doi.org/10.20495/seas.6.3_560