Cognition and Emotion (I): The Ontogenesis of the Semai Ethos of Peacefulness

Clayton Robarchek, PhD, Wichita State University

The Semai are a hunting and gardening people living in the rainforested mountains of Peninsular Malaysia. Theirs is a society where interpersonal violence is extremely rare and homicide almost unknown. The authors conducted two long-term ethnographic field projects among the Semai, seeking to understand how, in a world where violence and homicide are ubiquitous, these people virtually never see violence as a behavioral option in human relations.

What we found was cultural construction of reality, a worldview, that sees human beings as helpless in a malevolent world that is completely beyond their control. In such a world, the sole source of security is in kin and community. This generates a set of key cultural values centering on nurturance and affiliation. In this reality, interpersonal situations that might elsewhere generate anger and violence are here defined as situations of threat, where the appropriate emotional reaction is fear and the appropriate behavioral response is one addressed toward minimizing the threat. This paper examines this complex of existential and normative assumptions and how they constitute a psychological and behavioral environment where the typical emotional response of individuals to a broad range of situations is fear, and where anger is seldom manifested in human relations.

The 2007 Conference