Anthropological Thailand

Following up on my personal experience of misinterpreting Thailand as recounted in the last post, I’d like to show I am not alone. Obtuse interpretation of rural Thailand seems to be routine in the social science that I read.

To be fair, not all of the social science was as obtuse as I was. The anthropological characterization of families in northeastern Thailand as having a “tendency towards matriliny” and a favoritism towards youngest daughters helped explain a lot about how money, property and power flowed through Luna’s family, and how Western men and their money were so readily incorporated into Thai family life. Stanley Tambiah’s work on the different layers of Buddhist, Brahmin and animistic ritual also helped me make some sense of the the various ghosts, spirits, monks, charms, healers and animals that wandered across the local landscape.

But many anthropologists were especially interested in house structure and food taboos–to the extent of constructing elaborate cosmologies, mentalities and social worlds on the basis of what they found. All very good and standard anthropological practice. But I could not recognize any of the houses or eating habits from my experience. If anything, I was struck by the relentlessly ad hoc nature of house construction, dependent more on available money, materials and construction talents than on the spatial manifestation of socio-cultural assumptions. And I was deeply impressed by their commitment to eating nearly anything in the landscape that could be digested. And if it couldn’t be digested, they would rub it on as a salve. The only reluctance to eat that I ever noticed was when I tried to cook something.

A lot of that anthropological fieldwork had been done in the 60s and 70s. Maybe things had changed since then, and the old habits had been lost? That explanation of my anthropological gap fell apart when I read Étienne Aymonier’s accout of his travels through the region in 1883-84 (Isan Travels: Northeast Thailand’s Economy in 1883-1884. Trans. Walter I.. Tips. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2000). He had little to say about houses, but his impression of eating habits was exactly the same as mine. He also described courtship rituals, sexual customs and a variety of recreational practices (humming kites, rockets, drinking) that evoked my experience of northeastern Thailand much better than the most of the anthropologists did. Even the randy old men on the internet forums often described and analyzed rural Thai life better than some of the anthropologists.

I also read a lot of sociology about migration to Bangkok. They wrote about the precariousness and drudgery of rural life that made emigration necessary.  They described farmers aching to leave because of misery and drudgery of rural life, but who only left because they were compelled and displaced by mechanization and modernity. They wrote about how emigration undermined communal labor exchanges. They described a rural economy that somehow both could not provide enough work and sustenance to the people there, but was also suffering from a lack of labor because of extensive emigration. They described migration as a problem that needed to be solved.

It was rubbish. Migration to Bangkok to work for a few months was generally understood as a choice to endure drudgery and hard work, not to escape it. The main reasons to do it were to earn money for dowries, funerals, to pay off gambling debts and to buy those machines that were supposedly pushing them off the land (but actually making their farming lives easier). People who did not like to work in Bangkok explained it was because life was easier and more secure at home–they could always find something to eat, somebody to take care of them and didn’t have to work nearly so hard. Communal labor exchanges were flourishing (although some research has shown that the frequency of communal labor varies greatly from village to village. Aymonier claimed that Khmer speakers commonly engaged in communal farming but not Lao speakers). Migration was not an epic exodus, but a routine possibility of rural life.

The sociologists often had plenty of empirical evidence that showed the same things that I had seen. But they were determined to frame it in terms of that stereotypical migration narrative of people compelled by poverty and exploitation to seek a better life in the city, where they wanted to become like us but run up against insuperable obstacles. They are people who need our help, a problem that requires our intervention.

The migration sociologists were drawing on standard myths of U.S. immigration and NGO benevolence to interpret their research. The anthropologists are more perplexing to me. Were they really in the same country as me? Some of them did their fieldwork while working as officers rural relief projects for NGOs or UN organizations. They relied on a limited number of informants, and all of their interactions must have been colored by their positions with these institutions. But this certainly does not account for all of the anthropologists.

I can only conclude that their research and analysis was overdetermined by their preconceptions of what anthropological knowledge should look like, of what facts were relevant and how they could be interepreted. It is much like the way I selected and interpreted facts about Luna’s behavior to fit with widely circulating narratives of Thai behavior that reinforced my own insecurities (see previous post). I am also more suspicious of Aymonier’s extensive descriptions of local governance, taxation and political ties to Bangkok than I am by his descriptions of daily life. France’s geopolitical interests in the region colored his interest in the former topic too strongly. It is not necessary to get caught in this trap. Tambiah’s work on Thai religion constantly recognized the complexity and multiple interpretations by local actors while still producing some generalizations and interpretations about how it all fit together. But the trap is hard to avoid, especially if we want to speak to our other social science colleagues in terms they can understand.

The trap is harder to avoid the more we try to make our knowledge ‘relevant’–i.e. link it to our career ambitions, disciplinary knowledge, moral commitments, political attachments, sexual identities, whatever. The more we want to be relevant, the more we encase that knowledge in methodological trappings, generalizations and concepts that try to establish its universality and objectivity. The more effort we put into this kind of communication, the more likely we are to deceive ourselves and spout bullshit. This is not an iron law, just a tendency. . . . But I haven’t even yet mentioned the writings on sex work in Thailand. They follow this tendency through to the bitter end in contradictions, blind spots, unsustained conclusions and polemics that seeped in urgent relevance and insecurities of all kinds.


Posted on September 2, 2011, in My Bad Science, Thailand and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Good insight. Appreciated.


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