Arisan revisited: Notes on precariousness (1)

Arisan is a popular community-based savings association in Indonesia. Amid various ways of saving and credit facilitated by modern banking platforms, arisan proves to be a sustaining mechanism for accumulating money. What aspects of arisan to help contribute to its sustainability?

Arisan: a transitional economic system

Jan Newberry defines arisan as a monthly credit lottery and describes how it works as follows: “At each meeting, members contribute a fixed amount, and each in turn receives the entire collected amount during the course of the arisan’s run (several weeks, months, or as long as it takes). Although identified here as a credit lottery, the arisan is just as easily described as a savings association.”[1] The members of arisan refer to it as a way of saving—a forced one. There are other definitions, however.

Edward Miguel, Paul Gertler, and David I. Levine discuss arisan as an Indonesian typical self-help group that built on the foundation of social networking, saving mechanism, and loans provision.[2] Kempe Ronald Hope defines it as a group saving association in which temporary loans are possible.[3] Bala Shanmugam refers to it as a rotating credit association.[4] Both Hope and Shanmugam respectively emphasize arisan as part of the subterranean and informal economy. They provide many examples to show the existance of arisan-like mechanisms in different contexts—tontines and Kootu (Malaysia), paluwagan (the Philippines), adashi or cha in Nigeria, ROSCA or rotating saving credit association (South Africa), chita (India), sou-sou (Trinidad and Tobago), tanda (Mexico), and gameya (Egypt).

The emphasis on informality indicates the function of arisan as a transitional economic system. For those who are not familiar with the cold and bureaucratic banking system, the familiarity of arisan is a feature to make it easier to partake in organizing personal finance. Arisan is the intermediary, “the middle rung”, says Geertz, from a traditionalistic agrarian society to a commercialistic one.

More economic

According to Geertz, arisan has become “more and more specifically economic rather than diffusely social institutions.”[5] It has become the norm to be part of two, three, or even more arisan groups. The reason is to be able to save more. On the one hand, it indicates willingness to save. On the other, however, the savings might be distributed for different expenses and needs, and dissolved as soon as they are obtained.

To illustrate this, I use my mother’s story as an example. She is a member of four arisan groups. As much as my mother enjoys going to arisan, there were many occasions where she could not attend due to her work obligations. Despite being busy, she did not want to miss a single arisan meeting, and at once lose the possibility of narik. A common strategy that is applied to deal with this problem is to get a representative whom is tasked with paying the contribution money. A simple solution is to get a wakil, or representative – for example, a daughter or close relative. My mother often asked my older sister to represent her.

The social meaning of arisan, often unsettled by the busy and hectic lives of its members, has the potential to be reproduced and revitalized in some ways. The difficulty in getting a representative is because arisan requires high social skills; a skill not everyone is at ease with. Especially if this includes chit-chat with a group of much older women. The challenge is to convince the prospective representative that going to arisan can be an OK experience too. After regularly being present at my mother’s arisan groups, my sister eventually had the idea of joining the groups herself. Rather than going to arisan as a mere representative, she made the most of it by subscribing to its meaning—a powerful economic institution.

Another aspect to reveal from the fear of losing the opportunity to get the arisan fund is an attempt to learn to commit to the basic principle of the arisan, as Shanmugam writes, “the duty-bound to make regular contributions.”[6] The failure to provide the commitment would result in shame[7] and distrust among the group. Because it suggests the lack of “discipline to set aside money regularly.”[8] This is an aspect, which has brought Geertz to conclude arisan as an “educational mechanism.” The educational value lies in its capacity “to change their whole value framework from one emphasizing particularistic, diffuse, affective, and ascriptive ties between individuals, to one emphasizing—within economic contexts—universalistic, affectively neutral, and achieved ties between them.”[9]

Communal harmony

Kerukunan, communal harmony, manifested in the gathering, has been the key element in the operationalization of arisan (see Geertz).[10] Geertz alludes to the word ‘arisan’ as mutual help. My assumption is that it derives from Javanese, the language spoken by the people in Mojokuto, Geertz’s main research area. But ‘arisan’ sounds like ‘warisan’, an Indonesian word, which literally means an inheritance. It derives from ‘waris’, a Javanese word that is absorbed by Indonesian, which means an inheritor. The collected lump sum of the arisan, succeeded to one member to the other, indeed feels like a collective inheritance.

The gathering aspect aside, based on my childhood memories arisan is an opportunity to share good food and eat together. The host of the arisan meeting always provides special food, the kind of food and drinks that might not be available on a daily basis. Eating together is an added element that makes arisan pleasurable. Going to an arisan is a much-awaited event, because it is like going out to eat, which does not occur often. For the same reason, I liked it when my mother asked me to come to an arisan with her. Though I always ended up doing my own things there—sitting quietly next to my mother, reading.

To organize an arisan is like organizing a feast. It is a time-consuming process, which involves complicated preparation. The whole house has to be clean and tidy (in fact, the host needs to perform well too—wearing a proper outfit is a must). Beautiful plates, bowls, mugs, and jars are curated and displayed out on the table as part of the food display. The guests will praise the delicious food provided. They will extend particular attention to the spatiality of the arisan—the house of the host (the neatness of the living room, what paintings, photos, and other things are displayed on the walls, or the cleanliness of the toilet). The host will go about arisan preparation as best she can in order to avoid being the subject of gossip. Gossip, ngobrol-ngobrol, and other types of casual conversations are essential parts of the meeting. The members express enthusiasm for arisan by coming early (so that there will be ample time for chit-chatting and gossiping).

Arisan is a powerful performative tool. It is an open platform that can be appropriated for showing the current state of possession to others within a familiar environment.

The hosts have to use their personal money to prepare the food. Some feel burdened with this aspect, since it seems contrary to the spirit of arisan as a saving mechanism. While the social aspect of arisan is highly valued, it entails performing a series of careful calculations. It would be careless to spend large parts of the saving just for food. Some arisans ask their members to contribute an extra amount of money to be allocated to create a collective saving pot. The collective saving pot can be used for different purposes—funding for the food preparation included.

For practical and economic reasons, some hosts choose to provide takeaway snacks in boxes instead. It removes the risk of losing the lavish element that is commonly expected from arisan food. Nonetheless it does not seem to reduce the excitement that emerges from getting free food. When I did not join my mother to an arisan, I would wait for her at home in anticipation of receiving a small box of snacks.

[1] Newberry, “Rituals of Rule in the Administered Community: The Javanese Selametan Reconsidered”, 1296-7.

[2] Miguel, Gertler, and Levine, “Does Industrialization Build or Destroy Social Networks?”, 290.

[3] Hope, “Growth and Impact of the Subterranean Economy in the Third World”, 869.

[4] Shanmugam, “Socio-economic Development Through the Informal Credit Market”, 209.

[5] Geertz, “The Rotating Credit Association: A ‘Middle Rung’ in Development”, 246.

[6] Shanmugam, ibid., 219.

[7] Geertz, ibid., 247.

[8] Shanmugam, op.cit.

[9] Geertz, ibid., 260.

[10] Geertz, ibid., 243.


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