Surviving against the Odds

Village Industry in Indonesia

Surviving against the Odds

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 440 Illustrations: 13 tables, 2 maps, 4 figures (tent.) Published: December 2009

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Australia/New Zealand/Oceania

Read the foreword by Mara Soetoro-Ng

President Barack Obama’s mother, S. Ann Dunham, was an economic anthropologist and rural development consultant who worked in several countries including Indonesia. Dunham received her doctorate in 1992. She died in 1995, at the age of 52, before having the opportunity to revise her dissertation for publication, as she had planned. Dunham’s dissertation adviser Alice G. Dewey and her fellow graduate student Nancy I. Cooper undertook the revisions at the request of Dunham’s daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng. The result is Surviving against the Odds, a book based on Dunham’s research over a period of fourteen years among the rural metalworkers of Java, the island home to nearly half Indonesia’s population. Surviving against the Odds reflects Dunham’s commitment to helping small-scale village industries survive; her pragmatic, non-ideological approach to research and problem solving; and her impressive command of history, economic data, and development policy. Along with photographs of Dunham, the book includes many pictures taken by her in Indonesia.

After Dunham married Lolo Soetoro in 1967, she and her six-year-old son, Barack Obama, moved from Hawai‘i to Soetoro’s home in Jakarta, where Maya Soetoro was born three years later. Barack returned to Hawai‘i to attend school in 1971. Dedicated to Dunham’s mother Madelyn, her adviser Alice, and “Barack and Maya, who seldom complained when their mother was in the field,” Surviving against the Odds centers on the metalworking industries in the Javanese village of Kajar. Focusing attention on the small rural industries overlooked by many scholars, Dunham argued that wet-rice cultivation was not the only viable economic activity in rural Southeast Asia.

Surviving against the Odds includes a preface by the editors, Alice G. Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper, and a foreword by her daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng, each of which discusses Dunham and her career. In his afterword, the anthropologist and Indonesianist Robert W. Hefner explores the content of Surviving against the Odds, its relation to anthropology when it was researched and written, and its continuing relevance today.


“[I]t is abundantly clear that Dunham was a remarkable listener, an astute social observer, and a synthetic thinker committed to social change from the bottom up. This is perhaps the closest we can get to an idea of what attitudes she might have imparted to her son.” — Tom Boellstorff, American Anthropologist

Surviving against the Odds . . . tells us a lot about Ann Dunham as an anthropologist who combined moral commitment to help the powerless with pragmatic policy solutions. . . . Ann Dunham used her anthropological knowledge as a practical weapon and a spiritual talisman, hoping that through it, and by imparting its values to her children, she could bring into being the changes she deeply wished to see in Indonesia and the world.” — Janet Hoskins, Anthropology Now

Surviving against the Odds is a testament to [Dunham’s] lifelong passion for working for the development of rural populations around the world.” — Dinesh Sharma, Asia Times

“[Dunham’s] dissertation reveals, in its study of a single village, the dense textures of culture inherent in any one place. To read it is to learn the history, beliefs, and skill of nearly every inhabitant of the village; its intricate and evolving social, religious, and class structures; its cultural formation through centuries of foreign and indigenous influence. . . . [O]ne cannot help admiring both the complexity of Kajar and the industry of Ann Dunham.” (page 86 of The Bridge) — David Remnick editor of The New Yorker and author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

“[W]ould I recommend this book? Absolutely! . . . I am convinced we could learn much from Dunham and an earlier generation of economic anthropologists, who sought to interrogate macro-economic analyses from the perspective of the local.” — Wendy Mee, Anthropological Forum

“Alice Dewey, Ann Dunham’s thesis supervisor, and Nancy Cooper have done a skilful job of editing this dissertation into a focused, beautifully presented volume. . . . I had the good fortune to have known Ann Dunham as a feisty friend and tough-minded colleague. We shared many mutual interests, especially in Indonesia’s national program for the provision of rural credit (Kupedes). This book is a tribute to her spirit and dedication.”
— James Fox, Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies

“For anthropologists who are neither Indonesianists nor narrowly focused on work, the study is nonetheless of more than passing interest. . . . Ann Dunham’s legacy in this reelaboration of her University of Hawaii doctoral dissertation is a landmark of anthropological holism. . . . The wealth of information, explanation, and interpretation will be useful for generations to come.” — Jim Weil, Anthropology of Work Review

“Indicating there is a great deal to be learned about Javanese life, Dunham’s substantial contribution offers an understanding of economic activity from the perspective of village-level metalworkers subject to government-sponsored development policies and programs. This intense, detailed description of economic and social village life is thick description culminating from 14 years of fieldwork. . . . [A] superior close-up ethnography. A must read for general audiences interested in a mother’s influence on her famous son’s life, and for specialists with a yearning for micro-studies of economic process in small-scale societies.” — S. Ferzacca, Choice

“This is real-world anthropology: it is authoritative, extraordinarily well documented and detailed, informed by concern for the human issues that are involved, and deeply intelligent. . . . Dunham’s book is authoritative and thoughtful, a profound analysis of social realities informed by serious research, long personal experience and great empathy. It stands on its own as a major contribution. . . .” — Merle C. Ricklefs, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

“We are lucky that political tides and the perduring affection of Dunham’s family, friends, and colleagues have brought this carefully wrought study of Indonesian village industry into print. . . . Dunham’s painstaking and passionately engaged research offers enduring lessons for those of us who wish to leave a legacy as pragmatic and compassionate problem-solvers, be it in a village, a government office, an NGO, or a museum.” — Kenneth M. George, Museum Anthropology Review

“[T]he editors and Duke University Press did a wonderful job with this book. It is lovingly put together, and it will become the definitive source for anyone wanting to understand the ethical and intellectual make-up of Dunham, as well as blacksmithing and more generally village crafts in Indonesia. . . . This book—an estimable ethnography in its own right—is of unique interest precisely for . . . for the light it sheds on how Dr. Dunham’s work may have shaped her son and, thereby, his presidency.” — Michael Dove, Anthropological Quarterly

“[T]his book is a fascinating and important scholarly piece of work. It’s a good reminder that Ann not only had a sharp intellect, but was a perfectionist as well, and a hard-working one at that. Her work is extremely well-documented, with hard statistical data making her book extremely detailed and well informed. At the same time, Ann’s book—like her—is deeply empathetic. Full of evocative descriptions of the lives of the villagers she worked with, the book is a testament of her commitment to the development of the lives of rural and marginalized peoples all around the world. Ann was an internationalist with a global outlook, but it was Indonesia and its people that became the love of her life, and her passion also comes through in her book, something all too rare in academic writing.” — Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta Post

“To write a biography without mentioning the subject’s name in the title is unusual, just as irregular, in fact, as publishing a serious work of anthropology, entitled Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, with a portrait of the author splashed on the cover. But then the author of that academic book, the late Stanley Ann Dunham, an expert on the economics of Indonesian crafts, bore a startling resemblance to President Obama—the same long chin, the slight quizzical tilt of the head, the prominent eyebrows. Which is not surprising, since she was his mother. The scholarly book based on her Ph.D. thesis, which contains much excellent firsthand description of life in remote Javanese villages, is of great interest to specialists, and would probably have been picked up by a university press anyway.” — Ian Buruma, New York Review of Books

Surviving against the Odds is a work of very fine scholarship grounded in a deep understanding of Indonesia. Reading it, I learned a great deal about economic anthropology, blacksmithing (across a range of dimensions, from the supernatural to metallurgy), local life and labor in the Javanese village of Kajar, and the remarkable welter of development schemes and projects in play during the long period of S. Ann Dunham’s research. Dunham knew the arcane world of development very well and her account of it is fascinating and important.” — Donald Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz, past president of the American Anthropological Association

“S. Ann Dunham’s Surviving against the Odds bears witness to her knowledge of and affection for the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia. The book also speaks legions about Dunham’s integrity as a cultural anthropologist. . . . By the mid-1980s Dunham had begun to see the audience for her work as made up of not just academics but Indonesians, aid workers, and foreign analysts whose findings affect the lives of ordinary Indonesians. Rather than go with the academic flow, Dunham stayed true to a research program requiring varied and rigorous methodologies, all in an effort to speak truth to power and policy making.” — Robert W. Hefner, Boston University, president of the Association for Asian Studies, from the afterword

“The greetings that the village women exchanged with Mom conveyed an intimacy that made clear they had fully taken each other’s measure. Their connection had been established to a sufficient degree for laughter to be easy. Mom had come to a real understanding with them, it seemed, and not just the women; she was welcomed and trusted by all. This made me proud, I remember, for many of the same reasons my pride swells at the sight of my brother, our president; Mom too moved with such ease through every world, and people opened up at the sight of her smile.” — Maya Soetoro-Ng, daughter of S. Ann Dunham and sister of President Barack Obama, from the foreword


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

S. Ann Dunham (1942–1995), mother of President Barack Obama and Maya Soetoro-Ng, earned her undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees, all in anthropology, from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Dunham spent years working on rural development, microfinance, and women’s welfare through organizations including USAID, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, the Indonesian Federation of Labor Unions, and Bank Rakyat Indonesia.

Alice G. Dewey, an Indonesianist, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i.

Nancy I. Cooper is Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i.

Maya Soetoro-Ng has a doctorate in international comparative education from the University of Hawai‘i and teaches high-school history in Honolulu.

Robert W. Hefner is Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. He is President of the Association for Asian Studies.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Maya Soetoro-Ng ix

Editors’ Preface / Alice Dewey and Nancy Cooper xi

Acknowledgments xxvii

Supplementary Materials (a sampling of S. Ann Dunham’s
field notes, a letter, and maps) xxxi

Introduction 1

The Socioeconomic Organization of Metalworking Industries 40

Kajar, a Blacksmithing Village in Yogyakarta 82

Relevant Macrodata 155

Government Interventions 196

Conclusions and Development Implications 249

Appendix 283

Notes 287

Glossary of Metalworking Terms 299

Afterword: Ann Dunham, Indonesia, and Anthropology—A Generation On / Robert W. Hefner 317

Bibliography 331

Index 345
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