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Indonesia: The Society and Its Environment
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment


Indonesia's social and geographical environment is one of the most complex and varied in the world. By one count, at least 669 distinct languages and well over 1,100 different dialects are spoken in the archipelago. The nation encompasses some 13,667 islands; the landscape ranges from rain forests and steaming mangrove swamps to arid plains and snowcapped mountains. Major world religions -- Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism -- are represented. Political systems vary from the ornate sultans' courts of Central Java to the egalitarian communities of hunter-gatherers of Sumatran jungles. A wide variety of economic patterns also can be found within Indonesia's borders, from rudimentary slash-and- burn agriculture to highly sophisticated computer microchip assembly plants. Some Indonesian communities rely on traditional feasting systems and marriage exchange for economic distribution, while others act as sophisticated brokers in international trading networks operating throughout the South China Sea. Indonesians also have a wide variety of living arrangements. Some go home at night to extended families living in isolated bamboo longhouses, others return to hamlets of tiny houses clustered around a mosque, whereas still others go home to nuclear families in urban high-rise apartment complexes.

There are, however, striking similarities among the nation's diverse groups. Besides citizenship in a common nation-state, the single most unifying cultural characteristic is a shared linguistic heritage. Almost all of the nation's more than 195 million people speak one of several Austronesian languages, which -- although not mutually intelligible -- share many vocabulary items and have similar sentence patterns. Most important, the vast majority of the population can speak Bahasa Indonesia.

Nearly 70 percent of Indonesians lived outside of cities, which, according to the definition used by the government's Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS; for this and other acronyms, see table A), were areas with population densities greater than 5,000 persons per square kilometer or where less than 25 percent of the households were employed in the agricultural sector. Indeed, most Indonesians in the early 1990s, as their ancestors before them, were closely associated with agriculture, stockbreeding, or fishing. Whereas some isolated farming communities were comprised essentially of subsistence farmers -- living off what they grew -- most depended to some degree on cash profits earned from selling their produce at mercantile centers. Aside from coffee and rubber plantations, large-scale, highly capitalized agribusinesses, such as industrialized rice farming or chicken farms, remained the exception in Indonesia.

This pattern, however, was changing. Describing Indonesia's cultural and regional variety, American anthropologist Hildred Geertz in 1960 divided the population into three types: wet rice growing (padi) peasants of Java, Bali, and parts of southern Sumatra; coastal Islamic traders in the harbor regions of Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi; and isolated inland swidden farmers throughout the archipelago. In following decades, however, a fourth category emerged. It consisted of a largely urban middle class -- members of a modern Indonesian national superculture.

Over the course of the 1980s, population mobility, educational achievement, and urbanization increased as Indonesians were exposed to the varieties of their nation's cultures through television, newspapers, schools, and cultural activities. Linkages to native geographic region and sociocultural heritage weakened. Ethnicity became a means of identification in certain situations but not in others. For example, during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, peasants from Java might emphasize their Islamic faith and affiliation, whereas in other settings, they emphasized their membership in the national state by attending school, participating in family planning programs and belonging to village cooperatives, and by invoking the Pancasila, the state ideology, as a moral justification for personal and family choices In a similar way, isolated hill tribes living in the interiors of the islands of Sulawesi, Seram, or Timor might express devotion to ancestral spirits through animal sacrifice at home, but swear loyalty to the Indonesian state in school and church, or at the polls. In the early 1990s one's identity as an Indonesian was still interwoven with one's familial, regional, and ethnic heritage.

Data as of November 1992

Last Updated: November 1992

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Indonesia was first published in 1993. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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