Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case

I just finished James Scott’s 2009 book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, and I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to introduce the book to those not familiar with it. I quite enjoyed his last book, Seeing Like a State, which I wrote about back in 2007, and this book picks up where that book left off. Whereas Seeing Like a State discussed the strategies by which states exert bureaucratic control over unruly populations, The Art of Not Being Governed looks instead at the strategies people adopt to resist centralized state control. [The title of this post comes from one of the chapters in the book.]

His focus is on Southeast Asia, specifically a region he calls “Zomia” which, to quote Martin Lewis:

denotes the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, along with adjacent parts of India and China, that have historically resisted incorporation into the states centered in the lowland basins of the larger region.


In chapter after chapter he lays out his argument, showing how virtually every aspect of Zomia hill society exists as a means of resisting state authority: If states like the flat plains, people move to the hills to avoid the state. If states like cultivating rice because it concentrates much needed manpower where it can easily be tapped, people adopt shifting cultivation for the very same reason. If states employ writing as a way of keeping track of who’s who, people ditch their books and rely upon easily modified oral genealogies instead. If states like organized religion, people engage in heterodox traditions that defy centralized control. And, perhaps most strikingly, if the state wishes to impose a shared ethnic identity upon its subjects, people choose “tribal” identities as a way of avoiding such ethnic ties.

This last one is likely to draw the most attention (although I personally found the brief section on orality the most provocative – perhaps I’ll write more about that later), although few anthropologists will have a problem with his view of ethnicity as socially constructed. Still, it is worth quoting him at length:

There is, clearly, no such thing as a “tribe” in the strong sense of the word — no objective genealogical, genetic, linguistic, or cultural formula that will unambiguously distinguish one “tribe” from another. But, we might well ask, who is confused? The historian and the colonial ethnographer might be mystified. The mixed villages in northern Burma were “anathema to the tidy bureaucratic officials” who, until, the last moment of imperial rule, were still trying in vain to draw administrative lines between the Kachins and Shans. But hill people were not confused; they were in no doubt who they were and who they were not! Not sharing the researcher’s or administrator’s mania for mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories, hill people were not paralyzed by identities that were plural and variable over time. On the contrary, as we shall see, the ambiguity and porosity of identities was and is, for them, a political resource.

Nor does Scott wish to limit his argument to Zomia. Throughout the book he makes comparisons to indigenous people in Latin America, Gypsies, Cossacks, Afghans, and other tribal and semi-nomadic populations. In an interview with the Boston Globe Scott “cheerfully” conceded “the possibility that he may have overgeneralized in the pursuit of a cohesive argument.” Yet he is careful to restrict his argument to the pre-modern era, saying “if my analysis does not apply to late-twentieth-century Southeast Asia, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” It would be interesting to compare this book with Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject which discusses the role of Colonialism in constructing African ethnic identities. Whereas Scott treats all “states” as essentially the same, Mamdani draws interesting distinctions between French and English strategies of rule, arguing that they led to very different dynamics of ethnic formation.

Of course, much of what Scott says is not new. Anthropologists will be especially aware of the tremendous debt to Edmund Leach and Pierre Clastres, both of whom are cited at length throughout the book. Here’s what he says about Clastres:

The French anthropologist Pierre Clastres was the first to argue that many of the hunting-and-gathering “tribes” of South America, far from being left behind, had previously lived in state formations and practiced fixed-field agriculture. They had purposely given it up to evade subordination. They were, he argued, quite capable of producing a larger economic surplus and a larger-scale political order, but they had chosen not to so as to remain outside state structures.

And Regarding Leach’s classic text, he writes:

Nothing in this distinguished critical literature, however, questions the fact that there are important differences in the relative openness and egalitarianism of various Kachin social systems or that there was, near the close of the past century, something like a movement to assassinate, depose, or desert the more autocratic chiefs. At its core, Leach’s ethnography is an analysis of escape social structure—a form of social organization designed to thwart capture and appropriation either by Shan statelets or by the petty Kachin chiefs (duwa) who attempt to mimic Shan power and hierarchy.

What Scott has done is woven together a huge literature on Southeast Asia and the Chinese border regions into a sweeping (if occasionally repetitive) narrative about the strategies hill people use to resist state power. If I have any reservations about his argument it is that, as someone who spends a lot of time looking at how specific state formations have led to the development of specific ethnic formations, it is more than a little disconcerting to take such a “long view” of history where these details seem so unimportant.

15 thoughts on “Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case

  1. There’s a similar argument that’s been kicked around by some folks here in the Northeast US about Algonkian speaking peoples in the Connectictut River Valley–basically that these are folks who have resisted being pulled into state politics and social relations:

    -first against Cahokia a thousand or so years ago (there’s an article by Dincauze and Hasenstab in an edited book called “Center and Periphery” that lays this out),

    -then against the French and the English in the 16th and 17th centuries (here I’m thinking of Marge Bruchac’s work on Pocumtucks and Abenakis in the 17th through 19th centuries), and

    -then finally by the US state Eugenics movements in the 20th century (Nancy Gallagher’s book “Breeding Better Vermonters” has some of this, and I think Marge may have written a short piece or two on it).

    I’ll definitely have to check Scott’s book out, as it sounds like an interesting and important inversion of the study of “Tribal” society.

  2. If the option of tribal groups is to remain outside the hegemonic boundaries of centralizing systems, what is given up in the process? Must tribal groups always seek to limit their population as a means of remaining “light” on the ground and nomadic? Or is this just a by-product of lifeways?

    I am also intrigued by the map of Zomia. Although it follows the mountain ranges, it also appears close to a map of a language phylum with its origin in southwestern China. Is that true? The tendrils of the range into the south correspond witht he mountain ranges, surprising since most maps of civilization follow rivers. This may suggest either a long term strategy, or a condition of retreat.

    It would be of some interest to compare Zomia with Tibet, which managed to create an Empire at such high altitudes. In the case of Tibet, it seems difficulties encountered by lowland rivierine states were overcome in biniding together a vast region of high-altitude people.

  3. I haven’t had a chance to look at Scott’s book closely and one reason I haven’t put it at the top of my list is…. how is this new? Didn’t Morton Fried figure this our like, _decades_ ago?

  4. This reminds me of Harold Barclay’s People Without Government, which is more of a broad survey of, well, peoples without government (to varying degrees), but covers some peoples who he describes as similarly avoiding governance from the states around them.

    Don’t have my copy near me but I seem to recall him covering the Santals in India, and even more so a people I can’t recall in, I think, mountains in Eastern Europe.

    Also reminds me of David Graeber’s descriptions of the ways people in Madagascar ignored their weak state. This analysis of culture emerging specifically to avoid it sounds fascinating.

  5. The Journal of Global History ran a special issue on the book this past summer titled “Zomia and beyond.” The two articles I’ve read are by anthropologists, and both excellent, grounded critiques of the Zomia concept: Magnus Fiskejo on “Mining, History, and the Anti-State Wa: The Politics of Autonomy between Burma and China” and Sara Shneiderman’s “Are the Central Himalayas in Zomia?: Some Scholarly and Political Considerations across Time and Space.”

  6. I’ve enjoyed reading Scott’s newest, but it was a little like reviewing my very first class on the peoples and cultures of SE Asia – what he says isn’t all that new to those of us who work in the mountains of SE Asia. He’s generalized and broadened and reviewed the literature very nicely. And Scott seems quite aware of this.
    My problem with it is that is is a review and broadened application of much of the previous work by Durrenberger, Jonsson, Shanshan Du and others without the nuances; and without consideration of much more recent historical work on the precise nature of those upland/lowland relations. As Carole’s pointed out, the Journal of Global History articles are good “grounded critiques.”
    Fred – the map is NOT a depiction of / coterminous with a language phylum. The range of language families represented in that area is enormous. In my area alone, there were the Mien-Hmong families; there were the Tibeto-Burman (Lahu, Lisu, Akha); Karen is its own family, or Tibeto-Burman (debated); the Tai languages (lots of Tai/Thai speakers are upland peoples) originate from the Red River area of N Vietnam oh so many millennia ago. And further south into mainland SE Asia, you’ve got Mon-Khmer speakers.

  7. I personally think that being “new” is overrated. And I think there is even a case to be made for a big picture view which skips some of the nuances. But I there are also cases where the nuances matter, resulting in a very different “big picture.” It isn’t clear from the comments whether or not this is the case? But I’d be very interested in reading the Journal of Global History articles for myself. Thanks for the tip!

  8. People might be interested in two lengthy and insightful posts about Scott’s book by philosopher of science (and Asianist) Daniel Little. The first outlines the book and puts it into intellectual context:

    The second post reports on papers in the special issue of the Journal of Global History that have been talked about in earlier comments

    In his review of the book in Science (vol. 328, p.175, 2010), Frederik Barth seems far less breezy than Scott (in the quoted interview) on the use of comparative data and methods in the book:

    “his conclusions seem weakened because of a failure of comparative method … I felt overwhelmed by a spate of brief comparisons and one-liners about much of the world … If we are to draw useful conclusions, we need features to be systematized and the connections among them to be illuminated” (p.175).

  9. Yes, let us bask once again in the reflected light of the Noble Savage. And curse the wretched State of our Civilization… or rather, curse those horrible Burmans and Thai (Tai) who “seem always to have been state-making people” (p.141).

    I was surprised that Scott mentions Hobbes’s Leviathan (p.7; p.324), but not even a nod to Rousseau?

    Or rather, the “noble savage” tradition in political philosophy:

    That said, if polemics are your thing, Scott writes a good one.

  10. “Say what you will about the excesses of the Burmese state, Dude — at least it’s Civilization!” -apologies to Walter

    Thank you for the review Kerim, and for the links Michael. A new Scott book is probably just what I need right now.

  11. Interesting. Sometimes I am amazed by how anthropologists do a lot of writting and fieldwork based only in their expectations of what some concepts (“society”, “state”, “power, etc.) should mean. I´m not familiar with Mr. Scott´s work on Asia, but I´ve been reading Leach´s “Political Systems of Highland Burma” since I was an undergrad student.

    As an anthropologist who live and work in Brazil, I can say that there are no “tribes” here, and there never were. A tribe implies a particular form of policital organization and kinship system, that the indigenous peoples of Brazil do not follow. But that doesn´t mean that those people do not organize themselves, that they do not have complex kinship systems, or a sense of ethnicity.

    It seems that the State needs to organize them, draw a line between “these and those” but the anthropologist should not fall for that trap. Most of the time here, the natives describe their societies as “mixed” and they are not concerned by this particular obsession that others have for a certain kind of “coherence” and “purity” towards ethnonyms. What is important for them is the relation, not its absence.

    Leach has done a great work concerning that topic, and some other anthropologists also made significant contribuitions. Being so I dont quite get the point of Mr. Scott´s book.

    (sorry for the weird english!)

  12. Thanks Barba. I’m a Systems Ecologist who has worked for years among these different “tribes”. I have no idea what most of the arm chair writers are talking about. The people I lived with had even less. To them, because I helped with the work, participated in their celebrations and sorrows, and if called on would have fought at their side against “those others” who spoke their dialect and had similar culture. Silly savages that they were they saw “Us” as a “Tribe” (they had no such term) and not “Them”.
    We all had the same tight bond – survival. Forget the “weird” English. All English by definition is “weird Ciao,,, Michael”.

  13. Not “normally”. They do if they grew up a half-breed kid in Oklahoma and in their work live with the Indigenous for weeks, or years, at a time.

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