08 Mar Blog: 49 Weddings and a Change of President
What’s not to love about a big Indonesian wedding? Free food, a bit of socialization, and the chance to pull on your best kebaya. But, writes Jacqueline Hicks, for Indonesia’s political and economic elites, they are much more than that.
Elites in every country have their own social institutions which help cement existing relationships and exclude potential newcomers. The Ivy league colleges of the US, and the expensive private schools of the UK ensure not just a good education, but also admission to social clubs where life-long relationships among different sections of the elite are maintained.
Research on Indonesian political and economic elites has emphasized their positions within state institutions (Michael Buehler) and their material wealth (Jeffrey Winters) in explaining their elite status. While these are of course crucial, focusing on their social relations can help to understand more about who are the elite and how they maintain their status.
One place where such relations spill out from behind closed doors into the public domain are the high society weddings reported in the media. As part of my research, I trawled through three years of the magazine Indonesian Tatler to record the names of hundreds of people attending 49 of the country’s most lavish wedding receptions, and then loaded them into social network analysis software. Unlike the high society weddings covered by Tatler in other parts of the world, top politicians and business people are present at practically every Indonesian wedding covered, taking pride of place in all the photos. As one anthropologist notes of Javanese weddings in general, the most distinguished guests routinely stand on either side of the happy couple in the main photo, as if providing protection.
Although the social network software severely restricts the complexity and nuance of real personal relations, it has some nice features. As I add time data, dynamic visualisations show the changes and continuities in the people who attend the weddings before and after the 2014 elections. Knowing the political party affiliation of the guests also allows us to view the way that political allegiances crosscut social connections, thus undermining what scholars refer to as “principled political mobilization”.
The Tatler data may be partial, heavily mediated and perhaps even a little eccentric. The statistical analyses of the social network software can also seem impenetrable for those of us not schooled in complex mathematics – rather dangerous for a software programme which is relatively easy for a novice to operate.
But, from the outset, I hoped that this research would provide a glimpse of the elite powerbrokers that sometimes seem to run Indonesian politics. And when the person who shows up as the most central in the network analysis, no matter what statistical technique I use, is Aburizal Bakrie, it certainly makes sense to me.
(Jacqueline Hicks is a researcher on KITLV’s Elite Network Shifts project. Her current research interests lie broadly in the intersection between Asian studies and digital humanities, bringing the political economy perspective to the study of digital information practices, both as methodology and social relationship.)