Indonesia’s Social Structure

The Indonesian culture originated from the farming activities of the indigenous people. It was influenced by the waves of traders from India, China, Saudi Arabia and Europe which brought along their religious teachings.

ind_socialstructure_mediumCustoms and Traditions

Whilst unity has been a result of history, different cultures are based on many different ethnic groups found throughout the country which have maintained their traditions, languages and dialects. Protected by adat (customary law) which differs from one region to another, modernization is only a superficial veneer covering the daily life in the cities.Ultimately, adat is man's ties to his family and to his community and is applied to his way of life.Western influence arrived with the Portuguese, who came in search of spices in the early 16th century and later with the arrival of British and Dutch merchants. The Hindu cultural heritage is also found in this archipelago, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics which play an important role in the Indonesian culture.Customs and traditions which have merged with religious teachings, have brought about different ceremonies and festivities, which vary from area to area.


Religion plays a large role in Indonesian life and values. The history of religion in Indonesia is fascinating, complex, and the subject of dozens of books, so all you need to know is that you probably won't know what's going on.

The range of religions practised in Indonesia is diverse, although around 90% of Indonesians identify themselves as being Muslim, the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. There are six religions recognised by the government - Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism - meaning citizens must identify themselves as belonging to one of these on official identity documents. The Indonesian constitution or state philosophy, Pancasila, provides freedom of religion, although religions other than the official six are considered beliefs and are not legally practised. Nor is atheism recognised, and blasphemy can lead to imprisonment.

The Islam practised in Indonesia is predominantly of the Sunni tradition, and is more concentrated in areas including Java and Sumatra. Those who adhere to the Shi’a tradition number around one million. Despite a large percentage of the population following Islam, Indonesia is not an Islamic state, although some groups have called for this over the decades.

Protestantism is more concentrated in the provinces of Papua and North Sulawesi, whilst most of the population of the island of Flores are Roman Catholic. Buddhism is mostly practised around Jakarta, by Chinese and some indigenous Javanese peoples. Hinduism meanwhile, known formally as Agama Hindu Dharma and followed by most of the population of Bali, differs somewhat from the Hinduism practised in other countries in that the caste system isn’t applied. The sixth religion mentioned, Confucianism, has had a changing position in Indonesian religions, losing its official status in 1978, to then have it reinstated from 2000 onwards.

Other religions in addition to those officially recognised are practised around Indonesia, but citizens must affiliate themselves to one of the six on identity cards etc. There is a small Jewish community, and Animism and Kebatinan are also practised. The constitution gives freedom of worship according to religious belief, although the first principle of Pancasila, the Indonesian state philosophy, is of the belief in one supreme God.

Diversity and values

Indonesia is made up of 17,500 islands, and thirty-three provinces, meaning that the cultural landscape is also a diverse one, mixing both foreign and indigenous customs.

Estimates put the number of different ethnic groups at three hundred or more, and these include indigenous populations such as the Asmat people of New Guinea, and the Mentawai tribe living in the rainforest of an island near Padang. They live a hunter/gatherer lifestyle that is a far cry from the city life of an expat in Jakarta.

The largest ethnic group within Indonesia is that of the Javanese people, estimated to make up around 45% of the country’s population. Native to Java, their populations can also be found all over the country, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia. The Javanese dialect is spoken, and has two forms - Ngoko, for speaking to familiars, and Krama, which is used when speaking among people who are unknown to each other, or of a higher social status. The Sundanese are another ethnic group, from the Western part of Java, and are the country’s second largest ethnic population. Other groups include Chinese and Malay Indonesians and the Madurese people, to name but a few.

With this broad range of populations comes just as broad a mix of cultures, languages, religions, traditions and histories. As a taster, Madurese bull-racing, Kerapan Sapi, is a festival that takes place annually on the island of Madura, whilst the traditional Sundanese marriage ceremony involves nine formal stages, and many Javanese people do not typically have surnames. People may identify themselves according to their ethnicity, birthplace or family, and hundreds of languages are spoken throughout the country, however most Indonesians are united through the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, as well as through the national philosophical foundation of Pancasila. These five principles come from age-old traditions and are said to define Indonesia’s nationhood:

  • Belief in the one and only God
  • Just and civilized humanity
  • The unity of Indonesia
  • Democracy guided by the wisdom of deliberations among representatives
  • Social justice for all the people of Indonesia

In addition to these national philosophical principles, social values play a role in Indonesian life. Family, for example, is given importance, with traditional structures and defined roles for family members. The experiences and advice of elders are meant to be respected, as is caring for parents in old age, and it’s not uncommon in areas outside the main cities for the nuclear family unit to be comprised of grandparents as well as parents & children. Marriage is seen as being how a person enters full adulthood, and the question of whether you are married may often be put as ‘Are you married yet?’

Value is also placed on social hierarchy, with positions of status, position and age respected and maintained. The use of ‘bapak’ and ‘ibu’ (‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’/‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’) may often be more commonly used in the workplace than you are accustomed to.

The cultural value of face is also important. It involves avoiding causing shame to others, meaning care should be taken to avoid criticism of others in public and in the workplace. ‘Forgive and forget’ may be an appropriate motto to bear in mind if wanting to avoid causing any cultural offense. Answers and communications may be more indirect than you are used to, for this same reason. For more information on customs and etiquette in Indonesia, see our post on Social customs.


The official language of Indonesia is known as Indonesian or 'Bahasa Indonesian'. Indonesian is a standardised dialect of the Malay language and was formulated at the time of the declaration of Indonesian independence in 1945. Malay and Indonesian remain very similar. Although the official langauge, in reality it is most of the population's second language. Due to the sheer size and fractured, island make-up of the country most people speak regional dialects such as Minangkabau or Javanese. These will usually be spoken at home and in the local community but at work or at school Indonesian is used.

Food in Daily Life

Indonesian cuisine reflects regional, ethnic, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Western influences, and daily food quality, quantity, and diversity vary greatly by socioeconomic class, season, and ecological conditions. Rice is a staple element in most regional cooking and the center of general Indonesian cuisine. (Government employees receive monthly rice rations in addition to salaries.) Side dishes of meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables and a variety of condiments and sauces using chili peppers and other spices accompany rice. The cuisine of Java and Bali has the greatest variety, while that of the Batak has much less, even in affluent homes, and is marked by more rice and fewer side dishes. And rice is not the staple everywhere: in Maluku and parts of Sulawesi it is sago, and in West Timor it is maize (corn), with rice consumed only for ceremonial occasions. Among the Rotinese, palm sugar is fundamental to the diet.

Indonesia is an island nation, but fish plays a relatively small part in the diets of the many people who live in the mountainous interiors, though improved transportation makes more salted fish available to them. Refrigeration is still rare, daily markets predominate, and the availability of food may depend primarily upon local produce. Indonesia is rich in tropical fruit, but many areas have few fruit trees and little capacity for timely transportation of fruit. Cities provide the greatest variety of food and types of markets, including modern supermarkets; rural areas much less so. In cities, prosperous people have access to great variety while the poor have very limited diets, with rice predominant and meat uncommon. Some poor rural regions experience what people call "ordinary hunger" each year before the corn and rice harvest.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions

The most striking ceremonial occasion is the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. Even less-observant Muslims fast seriously from sunup to sundown despite the tropical heat. Each night during Ramadan, fine celebratory meals are held. The month ends with Idul Fitri, a national holiday when family, friends, neighbors, and work associates visit each other's homes to share food treats (including visits by non-Muslims to Muslim homes).

In traditional ritual, special food is served to the spirits or the deceased and eaten by the participants. The ubiquitous Javanese ritual, selamatan , is marked by a meal between the celebrants and is held at all sorts of events, from life-cycle rituals to the blessing of new things entering a village. Life-cycle events, particularly marriages and funerals, are the main occasions for ceremonies in both rural and urban areas, and each has religious and secular aspects. Elaborate food service and symbolism are features of such events, but the content varies greatly in different ethnic groups. Among the Meto of Timor, for example, such events must have meat and rice ( sisi-maka' ), with men cooking the former and women the latter. Elaborate funerals involve drinking a mixture of pork fat and blood that is not part of the daily diet and that may be unappetizing to many participants who nonetheless follow tradition. At such events, Muslim guests are fed at separate kitchens and tables.

In most parts of Indonesia the ability to serve an elaborate meal to many guests is a mark of hospitality, capability, resources, and status of family or clan whether for a highland Toraja buffalo sacrifice at a funeral or for a Javanese marriage reception in a five-star hotel in Jakarta. Among some peoples, such as the Batak and Toraja, portions of animals slaughtered for such events are important gifts for those who attend, and the part of the animal that is selected symbolically marks the status of the recipient.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender

Women and men share in many aspects of village agriculture, though plowing is more often done by men and harvest groups composed only of women are commonly seen. Getting the job done is primary. Gardens and orchards may be tended by either sex, though men are more common in orchards. Men predominate in hunting and fishing, which may take them away for long durations. If men seek long-term work outside the village, women may tend to all aspects of farming and gardening. Women are found in the urban workforce in stores, small industries, and markets, as well as in upscale businesses, but nearly always in fewer numbers than men. Many elementary schoolteachers are women, but teachers in secondary schools and colleges and universities are more frequently men, even though the numbers of male and female students may be similar. Men predominate at all levels of government, central and regional, though women are found in a variety of positions and there has been a woman cabinet minister.

The vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, a woman, was a candidate for president, though her reputation derives mainly from her father, Sukarno, the first president. She was opposed by many Muslim leaders because of her gender, but she had the largest popular following in the national legislative election of 1999.

The Relative Status of Women and Men

Though Indonesia is a Muslim nation, the status of women is generally considered to be high by outside observers, though their position and rights vary considerably in different ethnic groups, even Muslim ones. Nearly everywhere, Indonesian gender ideology emphasizes men as community leaders, decision makers, and mediators with the outside world, while women are the backbone of the home and family values.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship


People in Indonesia gain the status of full adults through marriage and parenthood. In Indonesia, one does not ask, "Is he (or she) married?," but "Is he (or she) married yet?," to which the correct response is, "Yes" or "Not yet." Even homosexuals are under great family pressure to marry. Certain societies in Sumatra and eastern Indonesia practice affinal alliance, in which marriages are arranged between persons in particular patrilineal clans or lineages who are related as near or distant cross-cousins. In these societies the relationship between wife-giving and wife-taking clans or lineages is vitally important to the structure of society and involves lifelong obligations for the exchange of goods and services between kin. The Batak are a prominent Sumatran example of such a people. Clan membership and marriage alliances between clans are important for the Batak whether they live in their mountain homeland or have migrated to distant cities. Their marriages perpetuate relationships between lineages or clans, though individual wishes and love between young people may be considered by their families and kinsmen, as may education, occupation, and wealth among urbanites.

In societies without lineal descent groups, love is more prominent in leading people to marry, but again education, occupation, or wealth in the city, or the capacity to work hard, be a good provider, and have access to resources in the village, are also considered. Among the Javanese or Bugis, for example, the higher the social status of a family, the more likely parents and other relatives will arrange a marriage (or veto potential relationships). In most Indonesian societies, marriage is viewed as one important means of advancing individual or family social status (or losing it).

Divorce and remarriage practices are diverse. Among Muslims they are governed by Muslim law and may be settled in Muslim courts, or as with non-Muslims, they may be settled in the government's civil court. The initiation of divorce and its settlements favors males among Muslims and also in many traditional societies. Divorce and remarriage may be handled by local elders or officials according to customary law, and terms for such settlements may vary considerably by ethnic group. In general, societies with strong descent groups, such as the Batak, eschew divorce and it is very rare. Such societies may also practice the levirate (widows marrying brothers or cousins of their deceased spouse). In societies without descent groups, such as the Javanese, divorce is much more common and can be initiated by either spouse. Remarriage is also easy. Javanese who are not members of the upper class are reported to have a high divorce rate, while divorce among upper-class and wealthy Javanese is rarer.

Polygamy is recognized among Muslims, some immigrant Chinese, and some traditional societies, but not by Christians. Such marriages are probably few in number. Marriages between members of different ethnic groups are also uncommon, though they may be increasing in urban areas and among the better educated.

Domestic Unit

The nuclear family of husband, wife, and children is the most widespread domestic unit, though elders and unmarried siblings may be added to it in various societies and at various times. This domestic unit is as common among remote peoples as among urbanites, and is also unrelated to the presence or absence of clans in a society. An exception is the traditional, rural matrilineal Minangkabau, for whom the domestic unit still comprises coresident females around a grandmother (or mothers) with married and unmarried daughters and sons in a large traditional house. Husbands come only as visitors to their wife's hearth and bedchamber in the house. Some societies, such as the Karo of Sumatra or some Dayak of Kalimantan, live in large (or long) houses with multiple hearths and bedchambers that belong to related or even unrelated nuclear family units.

Kin Groups

Many of Indonesia's ethnic groups have strong kinship groupings based upon patrilineal, matrilineal, or bilateral descent. Such peoples are primarily in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Maluku, Sulawesi, and the Eastern Lesser Sundas. Patrilineal descent is most common, though matriliny is found in a few societies, such as the Minangkabau of West Sumatra and southern Tetun of West Timor. Some societies in Kalimantan and Sulawesi, as well as the Javanese, have bilateral kinship systems.

Kinship is a primordial loyalty throughout Indonesia. Fulfilling obligations to kin can be onerous, but provides vital support in various aspects of life. Government or other organizations do not provide social security, unemployment insurance, old age care, or legal aid. Family, extended kinship, and clan do provide such help, as do patron-client relationships and alliances between peers. Correlated with these important roles of family and kin are practices of familial and ethnic patrimonialism, nepotism, patronage, and paternalism in private sectors and government service.

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