I was recently interviewed for a Special Report on Postgraduate study that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 20th. The journalist did a wonderful job of pulling out meaningful quotes and constructing a generously positive article. I thought that I would post the full interview here…
What is your name?
Paul H. Mason
Where you are studying?
I am studying for the final year of my PhD in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University.
What are you doing in the Netherlands?
I have been awarded a PhD travel fellowship by the Australia-Netherlands Research Council to go to Leiden University and undertake archive research at the KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies. While I am here, I have been able to consult with academic experts in my field and meet with artists and dance groups who have ties to Pencak Silat schools in Indonesia and Capoeira groups in Brazil. It is exciting to be at the KITLV where I get to peruse historical documents, and then travel to meet martial artists who bring this research alive.
Do you agree with the statement that anthropology has clearly come a long way. If so, how?
Australian anthropology has developed in directions that compare and contrast to the developments of anthropology in Europe and America. It would certainly be fruitful for Australian anthropology to expand into the four-fields approach of American anthropology which includes cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology and linguistic anthropology. Concurrently, I believe that Australian anthropologists have something to contribute to recent European developments in Cognitive and Evolutionary anthropology. Australian anthropology has grown into a very successful field of research, with a strong tradition of teaching and a growing sense of responsibility to the service of humankind. The potential of anthropology to contribute to global issues in science, politics, economics, culture change, sustainability and legal debates is becoming increasingly recognised.
What is the central concept of your study? and the working title of your PhD?
Working Title: Fighting for Peace of Mind: A cross-cultural survey of fight-dancing in Indonesia and Brazil
Central Concept: Brains, culture and the environment interact in intriguing ways to produce a spectrum of humanly organised activities. Researching the fight-dancing of two independent societes is a way for me to look at how these human activities are shaped by the abilities of the brain, empowered by culture and determined by the resources of the environment. Understanding these interactions is integral to an explanation of culture-bound mental disorders, an analysis of how cultures are positioned to deal with impending problems such as climate change, and to develop our awareness and sensitivity to the varieties of human experience in an increasingly global world.
Why did you want to become an anthropologist?
I commenced my studies with a passion to learn more about the human brain. I majored in neuroscience, undertook internships in various brain research laboratories and then completed my honours in psychophysics. It became apparent to me that we are beginning to understand more and more about the most minute processes of the human brain without understanding how these processes fit together. Anthropology provides researchers with the tools to understand how these pieces fit together and how the brain operates within its natural context. Anthropology can take findings out of the laboratory and into the cultural domain. I find it fascinating to understand how the brain acquires skills and how these skills are shaped and empowered by cultural processes. Becoming an anthropologist was a logical step for me to explore some of the most mesmerizing aspects of humanity. It has exposed me to a greater understanding of the world and a deeper appreciation of the people in it. In my research, the cross-cultural study of the music and movement of fight-dancing in Indonesia and Brazil is a method for me to explore the complex relationships between culture and the embodied brain.
Is it possible to study another culture and report on the findings without impacting on the outcomes just by your mere presence?
The research questions we can ask and hope to answer are heavily defined by the methods available to us. It is clear that becoming part of a new community introduces some change in the activities of that group. The way in which people accomodate for our presence is also a tool for our investigation. In my research, I am not only studying the abilities of the performers I work with, but I am also using my own apprenticeship of these arts as a tool of investigation. I am fortunate to be studying Capoeira and Pencak Silat, because the private worlds that I am trying to study are publicly expressed through performance. Cultural barriers evaporate when I merge with the performers and become one of them. My presence is no longer a distraction but a contribution both to the communities I am studying and the topic I am researching.
What has attracted you to capoeira & Pencak Silat?
I have always been attracted to music, dance and martial arts. Capoeira and Pencak Silat blends all these elements into holistic art forms. It is because they are holistic systems of cultural activity that they have also become useful for my research. While some researchers use language to study the interaction between brains, culture and the environment, my expertise is studying humanly organised systems of sound and movement.
How does it help you better understand Brazil and Indonesia?
Playing capoeira has given me an entry-point into the lives of the Afro-Brazilian communities I have worked with. Similarly, learning Pencak Silat has been a vehicle that has carried me much further than learning techniques of self-defence.
In some ways, being an anthropologist can be confusing to some people. It is strange to say to someone, “I’m interested in how you live, could I just stick around and watch you and ask questions from time to time?” However, it makes perfect sense to say to a Capoeira practitioner, or a Pencak Silat Guru, “Hey, those moves were awesome. Can you teach me that?”
If someone agrees to teach you their art then you are sharing a passion with them. They can understand why you are interested in their art and why it would be an interesting topic for academic research. After all, they have spent their lifetime committed to their practice. Most artists I have met enjoy sharing their art and are honoured by the idea that a little bit of what they do might travel to another country one day. Being a student of their art and culture gives you a reason for being in the field. Furthermore, it guides you to the questions that are meaningful to the people you work with.
The fight-dancing that I’ve witnessed in Indonesia was very aggressive (on the surfing island of Nias)… What differences have you found between the two cultures and what do your findings demonstrate?
The skills that proponents of these arts learn are integral to the way they lead their lives. That is not to say that practitioners learn fighting skills to fight. Quite the opposite. In West Sumatra for example, the indigenous martial art of Silek embodies social codes that are intricately intertwined with the matrilineal history of this society. The art is used to teach cultural values of patience, respect and the avoidance of conflict rather than its direct confrontation. In Salvador da Bahia, Capoeira is a curriculum for practitioners to learn how to train their bodies, become aware of trickery and a primary vehicle for community building. Music is an element of performance that reminds practitioners that they are there to work together to create art. It is an art imbued with dangerous principles of combat that requires the cooperation of adherents in order to be practiced. Indonesian and Brazilian fight-dancing are enchanting preformance genres that arise from community, art, and skill.
What is the best thing about doing this PhD for you? (ie, is the travel aspect an attractive part of the arrangement?)
Anthropological fieldwork is not your typical kind of travel. It is a journey guided by a series of research questions, investigative methods and a desire to understand another culture. I am captivated by the world and the people in it. This research has allowed me access to some very special corners of the globe where I have been witness to exquisite living arts and befriended inspiring teachers. To be invited into the cultural worlds of other people is one of the greatest gifts someone can recieve.
Why do you think anthropology is an area of academia that is often overlooked?
I have to admit that I did not know what anthropology was until my third year at University. One of my core subjects at the time was Integrated Biomedical Systems. However, the only thing integrated about the course was that it was held in the same lecture theatre at the same time each week. When I stumbled across a Medical Anthropology subject, it was the first time that someone had put all the building blocks together and formed a complete picture for me to understand. I saw the need for more people to be doing research in this area and actively pursued my interests.
The various disciplines of academia have become increasingly specialised in their own fields with few people finding the bridge that connects them together. If Anthropology has been overlooked as just another department faculty, then it is perhaps because people are unaware of the insights it has to offer. In an increasingly globalised world, anthropology can contribute to expanding businesses, government policies and community development projects. At its core, anthropology is a vehicle to integrate the various disciplines of the humanities and sciences into an holistic understanding of the human species that recognises the diversity of human cultures in all their magnificence.
What is the most difficult thing about doing this kind of field study?
It is not always straight-forward to find a balance between your commitments back home and the demands of extended periods of fieldwork. It is also a bit of a roller-coaster ride to oscillate between intense physically demanding fieldwork and the stress of writing requirements once you are at your desk. On the practical side, anthropology can often be quite emotionally draining. In the field, you have to navigate an entirely new set of cultural etiquettes. You become confronted by your own pre-conceptions of what is acceptable, and you have to adapt to what other people find acceptable. You have to learn how to act, think and behave differently. Sometimes, the things you see and experience can seem shocking at first, but you have to make an effort to understand these events within the rationale of the culture you are studying. For example, with one family with whom I lived, it took me a while before I adjusted to the idea that objects are not personal belongings but communal belongings. At first I found it bizarre to find other people wearing my shoes, borrowing my hat, and (during a most uncomfortable discovery) even using my towel. But then, when I started borrowing their belongings–objects like an umbrella or a musical instrument–I found that it pleased them considerably. It may sound strange, but the act of borrowing was an expression of familiarity. In fact, it was rude to even ask for permission to borrow items. It was sufficient to enquire if anyone else wanted to use the item simultaneously, and then just make use of it if it was available. This etiquette took a bit of getting used to, especially at first, but I came to appreciate its own inherent beauty as a gesture of friendship. It is very rewarding to become seamlessly integrated into the community with whom you work.
Do any tensions arise between you and those whom you are studying?
I have been lucky to have maintained a healthy relationship with the people in my fieldsites. If there was one generalisation that I would make of the people I worked with in West Sumatra, West Java and North-East Brazil then it is that they are truly some of the most loving people that I have come to meet.
How close do you get to the ‘dancers?’ Do you hang out with them post-bout?
I have been fortunate to have been invited to hang out with almost all the groups that I have worked with. Some of my fondest memories are the lively post-performance discussions that I have shared with teachers, fellow students and audience members. One of the treasures of this experience is that I got to see how fight-dancing fits into their lives and what it means to them to be practitioners of these arts.
Was it necessary for you to become a master of capoeira to better understand it?
It takes many years before a practitioner of any art can be called a master. But as any dancer, martial artist or musician will tell you, the more you can actively participate in the art, the more you will understand. As an anthropologist, I am trained to listen to and acknowledge the voices of the people in my fieldsite. I must recognise that what people say has significance for them, or possibly that they are trying to relay something significant to me. Being a practitioner of these arts means that i embody what i learn and that my own experiences become part of the field that I am studying.
Training in the basics of Pencak Silat and Capoeira is fundamental to eventually understanding how the forms work operationally. Learning the skills of Pencak Silat and Capoeira also means that I get to test the techniques I am taught. Sometimes people will tell you things about punches and kicks that sound incredible but are simply untrue. If you get to practice them yourself, then you can begin to grasp the actual meaning behind the stories you are told. Sometimes there are alternative reasons for sharing the untrue.
What have you learnt since doing your research?
Undertaking a PhD has been a huge learning curve! I believe that I have a 100,000 word limit on my thesis and I’m sure I’ll be pushing the upper limit to answer that question.
What do you hope to achieve with such a study?
My long term goal is to contribute meaningfully to culture change in effective and constructive ways. My current research is a stepping stone into a greater understanding of the interactive effects of culture and biology on human development and behaviour and simultaneously, to understand the ways in which different patterns of thinking shape human cultures. I believe that such research is integral to the needs of human populations whose cultural habits are rapidly expanding beyond their ecological boundaries.
How has it impacted on your life?
Deciding to undertake a PhD was a decision that has determined the last four years of my life. It has given me lots of opportunities, but it has also demanded a lot of sacrifice. I have lived in four different countries, learnt three different languages and made friends with people all over the world along the way. After my fieldwork in Brazil and Indonesia and my experiences in Australia and Holland, I will never look at the world the same way again.
What place does your PhD have in a global world?
On technical and theoretical matters, my research is a unique contribution to areas of science, ethnomusicology and dance anthropology.
On another level, my PhD is positioned to contribute to our understanding of intangible cultural heritage. In Australia, we are aware that some societies transmit their culture aurally. In the Capoeira of Brazil, and Pencak Silat of Indonesia, culture is transmitted through music and movement. These are traditions that are not written down in books but are inscribed upon the bodies of the practitioners. The practitioners themselves are living chronicles of cultural heritage that need to be recognised as they are increasingly marginalised by the push for globalisation.
How do you give back to the communities where you are studying?
I have always given copies of my footage to the communities with whom I work. Often I would try to contribute to these groups through my time and effort rather than through money. Giving back to the communities with whom you work can be a delicate issue. It requires background knowledge of the economy of the regions where you work. For example, it would be inappropriate to offer people money that is disproportionate with their average wage. It is equally inappropriate to make people reliant on your donations. In most cases, I try to look for ways in which I can contribute to the sustainable future of the Arts groups with whom I work. For example, one of my teachers of West Javanese music was a blind man. During a period of particular hardship, he had to sell his most valuable instrument, a kecapi, in order to support his family. Unfortunately, while the sale gave him an immediate income, it prevented him from earning a wage through performing at local events and ceremonies. I wanted to give him a new Kecapi, but I felt that it would be better if I could prevent the risk of him selling the instrument for fast-cash. So I bought him an instrument and gave it to him on loan saying that one day, I would like to bring it back to Australia. It would be amazing if one day I could invite some of the artists from the groups I worked with to perform in Australia one day.
6 thoughts on “In the media”
Paul, your research sounds fascinating. Where can it be read?
Thanks John. I have a list of publications at http://paul.sobriquet.net/publications/
If you cannot download an article of interest, please feel free to contact me via
I had a brief glance at your profile and blogs on wordworks.jp
What a rich and varied career! You certainly have an eye for trends and a finger on the pulse!
Mostly blind luck and opportunistic risk-taking. Hard to find a better example of critical path as random walk. I’m off now to follow that link you provided.
Paul, please let me pick your brains for a moment. I am working on a paper for a conference in Taiwan next month. It begins with a tourist-type question. My imaginary tourist has been visiting temples and shrines in Japan. Then she stumbles onto the temples to Tian-hou (Ma-tzu) and Guandi in Yokohama’s China Town. “Why do the gods look like that?” she asks. What I am trying to think through is how many different ways there are to answer that question: In terms used to describe Chinese popular religion? In terms of historical influence, e.g., Greek influence on Buddhist sculpture…..[lots of missing links]….Chinese iconography? In terms of pan-human principles, e.g., a seated image sitting straight with feet on the ground, shoulders squared, facing straight ahead is a personification of authority. If female, it is likely to be read as more compassionate. Dynamic poses suggest amoral, corruptible power; grotesque features demonic qualities. I am wondering if you know of good sources on South or Southeast Asian iconography or the language used to describe martial arts poses that might bear on these issues.
I have just spent the last few days sifting through articles about the archetypes of Candomblé, the religion of the Orixás. There are possibly Jungian themes that can be applied ‘with care’ to such a topic.
Have you looked in the journal, “History of religions” published by the University of Chicago?
You might also find some articles relevant to your query in articles related to Paul Ekman’s study on facial expressions.
There is also some interesting research flying around about male and female reactions to and interpretations of emotions.
There is a book by O’ong Maryono called Pencak Silat Merentang Waktu (in Bahasa Indonesia I’m afraid, although there might be translations floating around amazon somewhere) that talks a little bit about Pencak Silat related poses on the walls of Borobodur. I walked around all the facades of Borobodur myself and found a few examples of dynamic, asymmetric poses that were related to fighting and war.
Paul, thanks very much.