To Zomia or not to Zomia

[This month Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman are guest blogging about James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. This post is by Jacob]

In early 2011 I organized a panel by the same title as this post in which we brought together ethnographers and historians to test the Zomia hypothesis against a body of ethnographic and historical material related to two Southeast Asian highland groups — Hmong and Mien. Two of the panelists (including fellow guest-blogger Leif Jonsson) were interviewed for this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that addressed the traction of Zomiography (if I may). I must say that since that time my ambivalence about the argument in James C. Scott’s latest book has perhaps only grown deeper.

On the one hand, I find myself really wanting to jump in with both feet to the political project in which one could locate Scott’s work. Important characteristics of this project might include the rejection of methodological nationalism and the ultimate legitimation of the cultural practices and social lives of highlanders that are so commonly perceived as barbaric or backwards by their lowlander counterparts (who, you guessed it, run the states which the highlanders, it supposedly turns out, have been successfully evading — at least until the mid 20th century). This political project is one that almost any anthropologist could jump on board with.

Quickly tempering this attraction, however, was the weight of ethnographic evidence from my own work that calls into question at least the reach of this argument, if not some of its fundamental premises. Granted, my ethnographic research with Hmong began more than 50 years after Scott says ‘all bets are off’ with regards to his argument about contemporary highlanders. However, we also cannot pretend that all highlander cultural practices and belief systems magically shifted away from what Scott portrays historically, just because you can drive on paved roads to much of the highlands all year around. In other words, if we take Scott’s argument seriously, contemporary Hmong, Mien, Akha, etc. societies exhibit cultural practices and ideologies that were extant and therefore historically rooted in the pre-post-Zomia period!

All footnotes aside, I want to focus on this ambivalence which I and others have experienced about Zomia (and its discontents?!?). First, one interesting parallel strikes me as a particularly apt one, given Scott’s inspiration from one anthropological classic, Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma. It seems to me that one could level a critique on the Zomia argument that directly parallels Leach’s critique of the prior structural functionalist school. To wit:

 “In brief, my argument is that although historical facts are never, in any sense, in equilibrium, we can gain genuine insights if, for the purpose of analysis, we force these facts within the constraining mould of an as if system of ideas, composed of concepts which are treated as if they were part of an equilibrium system. Furthermore I claim to demonstrate that this fictional procedure is not merely an analytical device of the social anthropologist, it also corresponds to the way Kachins themselves apprehend their own system through the medium of the verbal categories of their own language.” (pp. ix)

In other words, any notion of an actual equilibrium on which structural-functionalists relied is really completely fallacious. People may well experience their culture as maintaining some said homeostasis, but this is only true at the ideological level or inherent in the ideal types that people build about their own institutions. For an anthropologist to lend theoretical weight to such an idea is really just imagining society the way the natives do.

I would argue that so it goes with Scott’s thesis. For example, his argument seems to be quite a good representation of a Hmong ethnohistory of their own primordial search for political independence, but it appears much more shaky when it comes to ethnographic and historical details. As with Leach’s critiques of structural functionalism, Zomiography as a theoretical enterprise is aligned nicely with local ideologies. In particular, Scott’s argument allies itself with the specious historical/linguistic hypothesis that ‘Hmong means free.’ The portrayal of Hmong people (among others) as a group constantly on the run from the state and forever in search (okay, maybe only until the 1950s…) of political autonomy from ethnic others really coincides with this common historical narrative that one hears from Hmong who have migrated to the United States. This narrative seeks to understand historical and ancestral struggle of all Hmong for autonomy. Some variations on this narrative in the United States culminate in the realization of ‘true’ freedom in ‘the most free country in the world.’ From a phenomenological perspective, Scott’s thesis coincides quite well with this particular insider’s account of Hmong history, similar to the way that Leach argues a structural functionalist explanation of Kachin social structure aligns with the daily imaginings of Kachin actors, but less with a larger historical view of the dynamic system over time.

There are at least two problems here. For one, there are significant ethnographic and historical questions to be raised about the ‘Hmong means free’ thesis. Not the least of these being the way that it discounts perhaps the majority of Hmong in the world who do not see things this way, such as those that did not migrate out of Southwestern China in the mid-19th century, or even those that are often forgotten to have fought on the ‘other’ side of the Indochinese wars (for example: [PDF]).

Second, it is hardly the case that Scott purports to be simply engaged in a phenomenological account of how highlanders see themselves! Rather, I think that he argues to be engaging in a more ‘objective’ account of a historical reality akin to what the structural functionalists imagined themselves to be doing. This very same problem sparked Leach’s critique of the extent to which they were imagining the reality they thought of themselves as documenting.

There is a looming issue that complicates my critique of the Zomia thesis. That is that while the larger scope of Scott’s thesis is nicely aligned with a prominent Hmong historical narrative (i.e., Hmong means free), at a more micro-level of analysis the details he brings to bear to build the larger argument at times run directly counter to what Hmong purport to be engaged in. The best example here is Scott’s analysis of millenarian movements in Zomia, not the least of these being a host of Hmong/Miao millenarian and messianic movements throughout the long history of the region. These movements work consistently, the argument goes, to provide yet another mode of evading the state — an “escape social structure.” At the same time, Scott admits to the explicit goals inherent in the majority of these movements of actively seeking to usher in a new state. However, I think that what he is ultimately forced to do is to claim that this is irrelevant, because the fact is that none of them do. In other words, directly countercurrent to what “prophets of renewal” claim to be doing, they are really up to state evasion in the ultimate scheme of things. As with the host of other cultural practices that highlanders are up to, the would-be state-making of millenarian religious activity is really just about avoiding any state that already exists and would encapsulate the faithful of these movements.

As one who has significant phenomenological proclivities, I find myself wanting to react to the inevitable false-consciousness that is implicit in Scott’s analysis of these movements. Having worked closely with people engaged in such movements, this functionalist take on what they are really up to simply rubs me wrong. However, I must also confess that the more critical side of me wants to also question the larger scope of the Zomia thesis as a critical account of highlander society that really simply seems to be a reproduction of highlander’s own ethnohistory. Perhaps I, like Scott, would like to have my cake and eat it too.

On a final note, I must reiterate that I am drawn to the political project that Scott is building up. I really want to agree with him (on some points). I like the fight against methodological nationalism. I like the recognition of limits of state power that calls into question our projections of current political subjectivities onto older political orders. I like the way he does justice to ‘my people,’ since Hmong come out of his account as having “won” in some sense. This inversion really resonates with a lot of anthropologists, I would imagine, at least politically. When it comes down to understanding Hmong religious life in all of its diversity, however, I simply can’t find myself buying the reach of the argument for some of the similar reasons I find my self agreeing with it. In the end, the history of Hmong and other highlanders in the Southeast Asian Massif calls into question the extent of the Zomia hypothesis, and whether it only really works for a much more limited subset of people and practices — another common anthropological trope.

7 thoughts on “To Zomia or not to Zomia

  1. Yes, as noted here, specious reasoning is employed to make facts out of fiction about the Hmong –but it is not the Hmong only. As you go through the book, one example after another seems to be made out of confetti –and Scott only tries to distract the reader from how baseless these arguments are by rapidly switching between them (with what magicians call, “misdirection”) –invoking examples from other continents (Haiti, etc.) as if one example explicated the other, when, in fact, each example only confounds the other, and all of them are baseless.

    Within Laos, there are Hmong who fought on both sides of the American war. Within each of the states and each of the wars of the region’s known history, you can normally find examples of a given ethnos fighting on both sides (in various alliances, misalliances, in mercenary capacities, etc.). You can also find slave-raiding in all directions, etc. etc.

    None of the fundamental assumptions deployed by Scott can be applied (with validity) to a single one of the cases he presents: neither to the Shan-vs.-highlander divide (borrowed from Leach) nor to slave rebellions in Haiti (that certainly do not provide us with any salient evidence to support Scott’s case!). Akha, Hmong, Wa, etc. –not one of these is a valid case-study for Scott’s theory, that exacerbates all the absurdities of Ed. Leach.

    The same people whom Scott represents as fighting against slavery were themselves taking slaves as captives and participating in a slave economy, etc., and Scott is reduced to using the most Jesuitical logic to persuade us that “slavery is freedom” –i.e., the resistance of these ethnoi against “lowland” states was itself freedom, regardless of real relationships of production, trade, and indeed slavery. Does nobody have any interest in what the productive economies of these societies really were? It’s still within living memory for most of these tribes, what they traded with which cities, etc., over a century ago –and there are written records as well.

    The traditional relationships between Luang Phabang and its surrounding highland people are fairly well documented (due to the gradual co-opting of government by the French there, with much paperwork, now reprinted by White Lotus Inc., etc.) and they have no resemblance to anything that Leach or Scott ever dreamed of.

    Either a theory is rooted in ethnographic facts, or else it is nothing worth. In this case, it is a theory that requires us to “suspend our disbelief” and contradict all known facts of linguistics, history, etc., in the name of a “higher ideal”. That ideal boils down to Scott, as an ex-Communist, trying to re-packing and promote his views as “anarchism”.

  2. On the issue of evidence for the hypothesis, how about asking some Kachin? Once Leach’s book came out in 1954, they started to check, and have found no single case of a “gumlao” community. What does that imply? Leach found his Kachin and Shan and their varied relations, fifty years after the colonial regime had undone Shan kings’ ability to make their realms by distributing rank. The gumsa Kachin imitated the Shan by calling their chiefs Sawbwa. But from what I know about Mien and other upland peoples in China, Laos, and Thailand, such titles could only come from a lowland king, and would-be chiefs were in some competition over the connection (this was common before 1930). What Kachin were doing in the late 1930s was quite specific to that time and place; they were free to do some things that had been impossible before the colonial period.
    I agree with the point from Leach, that the clarity of (some) ethnographic works rests on as-if scenarios, and that any people we work with make the same kinds of as-if pronouncements. Tracing out the contingencies can highlight the sources of regarding Hmong or Zomians as free (in contrast to the state’s oppression). Such statements come only from situations of hostility, and in some cases they come from militia leaders who want to convince potential supporters that they are fighting the good fight (and never mind that ethnic militias are armies that run or control taxation, police, prisons, trade, and education, and may have transgressors executed).
    In the case I know best, of a Mien militia in Laos in 1962-75, the situation played to the agendas of the militia leadership, and they in many ways controlled the ethnic boundary and monopolized the ethnic voice. Some of these dynamics continued in refugee camps on the Thai side. Armed conflict does particular kinds of damage to social diversity, interethnic relations, life in general, and the imagination. Should scholars simply reproduce that, such as by attributing separate moral character to the two fighting sides (and say, perhaps, that the Thai, Burmese, or other state is evil while the Hmong or whoever else is on the side of freedom)?
    I think that any ethnic label invites a characterization, no matter how contingent. This is how we learn about the world, through representation and identification. Being given access to millennia of Asian history as the battle between freedom and the forces of oppression, through the label Zomia that brushes aside the issue of which highland people in what setting, dissolves any boundary between academic work and dramatic film. This gives Scott’s book its spark and its wide appeal. Leach called attention to the fictive quality of scholarly work, as did Kirsch later. Let’s not single out Scott and absolve our selves, but perhaps try to do work that better balances the interests of our varied constituents and is still readable and perhaps also relatable. Can we describe a complex region such as Southeast Asia without anchoring our epistemologies and ethnologies to ethnic boundaries, hostility, and political breakdown?

  3. Leif, in so far as ethnic boundaries, hostility, and political breakdown are part of the picture, they cannot be ignored. But we certainly don’t have to stop there. Thinking of work from other parts of the work, e.g., the classic Manchester School studies in Central Africa in particular, I would also be looking at intermarriage, adoption, trade, cult and social movement formation and similar mechanisms of cultural transmission, mingling and synthesis. Come to think of it, from a broader historical perspective, medieval and early modern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East also offer plenty of examples, with trade, war, politics, intermarriage and group formation all overlaid in complex patterns that don’t fit neat binary oppositions. A good question to ask is why should Zomia be any different?

  4. John, thanks, I agree completely. I am not suggesting to ignore conflict, but that we be more specific about the cases we work from, to ask how one jumps to conclusions from what ethnographic materials. I used to have very clear notions of highlanders as non-state peoples, and Scott got some of his lines from things in my dissertation. To some extent I am battling my own ghosts. Zomia lends itself to easy binaries because so much scholarship has taken national social divides for granted as facts, and elaborated on them. One problem is the Latin American work of Pierre Clastres, that Scott draws inspiration from — that Amazonian Indians had run away from the state. To me (as an Asianist) this removes the red flags of primitivism while retaining the (pre-contact, anti-contact) tribal zone for anthros (and now Jared Diamond) to “sample”. Once I started to learn from Mien people in the US, refugees from the war in Laos, I had to rethink many basic notions about the region and its complexity. They were affiliated with a CIA initiated and -funded militia. Before, during, and after the war they were quite differentiated, while the militia people claimed the ethnic voice. Something along the lines of Networks, in Latour’s sense, is much more adequate than the expectation of upland-lowland contrasts, or the state vs the people, and captures the kinds of things you bring up; “intermarriage, adoption, trade, cult and social movement formation and similar mechanisms of cultural transmission, mingling and synthesis”.

  5. In my own interpretation of The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott’s hypothesis suggests that to be truly Hmong, Kachin, Mien etc. one must subscribe to the ideology of state evasion. Individuals who have migrated, literally or figuratively, into the grasp of the state (an all-consuming monster that grasps at all lingering scraps of life beyond its periphery and outside of its control) seem to lose part of their identity. Somehow they become less Kachin or Hmong than those still inhabiting the hills and living outside of the state’s influence. In other words, without the foundational desire to avoid the state can these people maintain their identity? I would argue that even now in the “post-Zomian” period, when the ‘state’, I suppose, has grasped on to a larger number of ‘Zomians’, the identity of Hmong, Kachin, Karen etc. is not being absorbed but rather remolded (as identity always is). The avoidance of state encapsulation is not the trait that links to and determines all other traits. Nothing and no one can be so easily explained. Scott’s depiction of the state, though compelling for certain political agendas, oversimplifies the relationships that exist between the state and the supposed state evaders. The tidy boxes drawn around the hill people and the state cause me to suspect that the most fitting historical facts were chosen and all else was overlooked.

  6. Short and simple, I do not like Scott’s hypothesis that the highlanders main goal is state evasion, perhaps whether they even know it or not. I agree with Stefanie in that this is most definitely pulling from only supporting historical data and is leaving essential historical facts out. My perspective is that whether it be people, businesses, or every day situations we often just do things out of necessity. I’m sure that there may have been a time that the Hmong or Mien were evading the state, but I’m sure that there were many other times that they were just trying to do whatever was necessary to survive whether it be find new land for food or find a better location to protect themselves from enemies. I don’t think they were consciously or unconciously trying to escape the reach of the Thai government unless it were a time they felt threatened. Politically appealing to some, yes, but logically it just doesn’t hold up.

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