I see the state from here!

[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 Leif]

Understanding or even knowing the state is not an empirical matter entirely. The issue comes down to how we understand our selves and others, and what kind of future we can imagine. Pierre Clastres, who inspired some of Scott’s case, could only imagine history-involving-Indians as a process of destruction. Many scholars shared this view – their notions (of who were the Indian peoples of the Amazon and of what could happen to them) were entangled in these academics’ sense of themselves, the world, and what the future can (or could) hold. There are echoes of Fernand Braudel’s understanding of history, such as how capitalism or Christianity had “penetrated” the Mediterranean countryside and how some “remote” settlements had stood outside these dynamics.
This understanding is quite general among historians of Asia, such as in Lieberman’s (2003:208-09) statement that “the mountain tracts inhabited by illiterate Chins, Kachins, Karens, Palaungs and so forth escaped Burman political control entirely by virtue of their poverty, inaccessibility, and the fragility of their supra-village organizations.” Here, the ontology of hinterland identities and societies is clearly framed by history within Euclidian geometry – cities are central, mountains are remote. The regularity has occasionally been quantified, such as in this 1750 comment quoted by Mary Pratt (1992:35), where a year equals a mile: “Those who live a hundred miles from the capital are a century away from it in their modes of thinking.”
The state that lurks in the narrative in The Art of Not Being Governed is dreadful, in so far as it deprives people (anywhere) of their freedom. This gloomy story goes back to the origins of agriculture, since that was the moment people settled down. Sedentism describes state populations and –spaces. So the attractiveness of the highland peoples of mainland Southeast Asia was that they had fashioned and inhabited non-state spaces. The stereotype of migratory shifting cultivators thus became resignified as a vehicle for acquiring and maintaining freedom. Much of the story appears to fit a US educated-middle-class folk theory, the antagonistic binary of the individual (as freedom) and society (as a regulator, see Ruth Benedict 1934).
 Taxation is one sign of the state’s vampire-like character, and as I read this I had a rather European reaction – taxation can enable education, roads, health care, and safety for the general public. Various aspects of the argument for Zomia express particular US American sensibilities. That is perhaps inevitable, in the sense that research always draws on the conditions of work and workers. But can this case be tested or verified? I suggest that the argument for Zomia is bad science, and that this part of the case reflects a long history of bad science in the ostensible tribal zone.
 What do I mean by bad science? For starters, the notion of a clear binary between lowland society and highland peoples (oppression vs freedom) is an absolute denial of historical inquiry: The conclusions have already been reached, and the examples are simply chosen to express the truth of the analysis. States are out to eradicate migratory shifting cultivation, to socialize minorities through schools, etc. In some ways this two-part statement is true, but when and how it is true is more complicated. Many highland peoples never were migratory shifting cultivators. The ones that were most studied by anthropologists, those in Thailand, were in some ways on the run away from the state in the period from about 1900 to 1980.

 If that situation is telling of how states and highland peoples interacted historically then it is an uncomplicated ethnographic fact. I worked with the descendants of people who never ran away or tried to hide. They had been officially welcomed, recognized, and granted legal settlement. Most highland peoples were not accepted in this way, but were set up for subsequent criminalization (illegal settlement, lack of identity papers and citizenship, lack of land-use rights). Were this “the state” then Scott’s case is of general value for understanding the last two thousand years of SEAsian history. But this was not “the state” but rather a particular, assertive, and arrogant nation state that shaped society in highly specific ways, from Bangkok.

Aside from the population that I learned about, twentieth century highland peoples in Thailand were actively denied recognition and rights. To me this expresses a highly particular political pathology that emanated from the Bangkok elite. It must be specified and examined for how it played out, rather than approached as an example of how the state and the people relate. The wide range of cases that Scott cites in his book do generally fit this designation – they are from settings where any political relations have either not been established or they have either broken down or been denied (in southern China, and in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam).
 There are many reasons for the shape of Scott’s case. Central among them are nation-state notions of nation-as-race and the anthropological search for ethnic types, pre-contact peoples, authentic ethnic cases (of livelihood, culture, and whatever) that either normalized a disconnect between lowland societies and the ethnic hinterlands or brushed aside whatever contact there was. Karl Gustav Izikowitz, studying the Lamet of Laos in the 1930s, chose them over the Khmu because they showed less signs of contact with Lao society.

Because of international decisions that led to the establishment of a Tribal Research Center, Western anthropologists in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s were invested in studying six tribes. So they found and conveyed what pertained to each of the officially defined ethnic groups. They did so in a hostile setting: highland peoples were denied recognition and citizenship, and many were at constant threat of arrest for opium cultivation. Their opium was purchased on the black market by itinerant Chinese traders, and this shadow economy helped delay (until 1980 or so) the need for social integration across the ethnic divide.
The hostile interactions between Thai society and various Hmong, Lisu, Mien, and others were not an expression of the state, but of highly particular dynamics that are anomalous only if one wants a different outcome. The facts of ethnography and ethnology are not independent of what world one desires. I would rather that people had recognition and the ability to negotiate for basic rights, and now see some of my earlier work as quite irresponsible. The notion of ethnic minorities tends to import expectations of unity within and antagonism without. This is bad science, in the sense that it denies diversity (internal to a settlement, ethnic group, region, society, and a political community — “a state”). It is also a case of fatalism; what happens across this political and ethnic frontier is predictable.

The combination of bad science and fatalism is anchored to the normalization of violence – there is no surprise in a violent campaign of one or another kind that will deprive the highland peoples of their freedom. In my view, this is also bad science in refusing to prospect for any positive relations with the people whose worlds are “sampled,” and refusing to offer any future to them. In Scott’s book, the possibility of high-altitude freedom came to an end by about 1950, and in this his case is very similar to the tribalist anthropology that he explicitly counters. If scholarship cannot imagine and convey political negotiation as a tool for making the world a better place then I think we are in very deep trouble, at home, away, and between them.

8 thoughts on “I see the state from here!

  1. “Because of international decisions that led to the establishment of a Tribal Research Center, Western anthropologists in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s were invested in studying six tribes.”

    This is an interesting assertion. But weren’t some of the other institutions (e.g. anthroplogists, missionaries, military) defining the “other” in the 1960s (and earlier) also important. And to a certain extent, haven’t these six categories been eclipsed by decades of events, including the CIA war in Laos, Hmong insurgency in Thailand, and the continuing unrest in Myanmar?

    Anyway, I am appreciating very much your discussion of Scott’s book, and have also ordered a copy of your book about the Mien.

  2. Let me say simply that to this reader, who has no expertise in the area whatsoever, this is by far the best article of the ones we have read so far. It reflects to great effect an historical sensibility, local knowledge, and a willingness to reconsider earlier work in light of fresh thinking. Barring the appearance of fresh information that contradicts what Leif has said, I am prepared to take what he says in the spirit of that great old song, “If this isn”t love,it will have to do….”

  3. Here, the ontology of hinterland identities and societies is clearly framed by history within Euclidian geometry – cities are central, mountains are remote.

    Not geometry – physics. It takes more energy to go up-hill than it does to walk on a plain. This makes mountain regions less accessible almost by definition. The steeper the incline and the taller the mountain, the more energy is required.

    And while it is true that mountain people were often connected to plain-dwellers, especially along the Yunnan-Myanmar trade route, it is also true that they tended not to live in states – certainly not within the states of the plains. Pagan, Sukhothai, Angkor, none of them really had a hand in the mountains.

    The analysis here is a teensy bit convoluted – but I have to agree with the central point. I guess I’m too European for Scott’s anti-state ideas, and either way I’d certainly agree with the idea that Scott’s a priori commitment to anarchism is bad science.

    I agree with John here, as well – the best post in this series, for sure.

  4. For a different perspective, forwarded from EASIANTH.


    Robert Textor, one of the first anthropologists to carry out research in Thailand, died in Portland, Oregon on January 3, 2013. I would like to remember him by offering a few thoughts about his contributions to Thai studies as well as to other fields of scholarship.
    Bob first became interested in Asia during World War II. Having been sent to study Japanese while serving in the military, he was posted to Japan after the war. He had the opportunity to observe first hand the consequences of the war on Japanese society and the American effort to remake Japan for the postwar period (see his account of his experience in Failure in Japan: With Keystones for a Positive Policy, 1972).He would later write: “In 1946 I saw Hiroshima. I promptly committed myself to a career of seeking better ways to handle human problems. This commitment took the form of professional sociocultural anthropology” (Textor, “The Ethnographic Futures Research Method: An Application to Thailand,” Futures, 1995).
    In the early 1950s he entered the PhD program in anthropology at Cornell where he studied under Professor Lauriston Sharp. Bob became one of the original members of the Cornell Thailand Project that was focused primarily on the study of Bang Chan, then a village in Minburi district, not far from Bangkok. During his own fieldwork in Bang Chan he ordained as a Buddhist monk. This experience clearly led to his own personal transformation and even relatively recently when his interest turned to ‘future’s research’ one of his students observed: “He brought a Buddhist sensibility to thinking about the future, detached and compassionate.” (http://www.iftf.org/future-now/article-detail/iftf-remembers-robert-b-textor-anticipatory-anthropologist/)
    I first met Bob in 1959 when I entered graduate school at Cornell and decided I would specialize on Thailand. Professor Sharp introduced me to Bob. Bob was then engaged in writing his dissertation, “An inventory of non-Buddhist supernatural objects in a central Thai village”. I have to admit I was rather intimidated by the impressive number of things Bob had accomplished by that time as well as his knowledge of Thai society. He was, however, encouraging to a novice anthropologist.
    His monograph From Peasant to Pedicab Driver, which came out just before my wife and I began our fieldwork in rural northeastern Thailand, had a significant influence on me as I wrote my dissertation. I sought in the dissertation to understand how rural northeastern Thai saw themselves within the larger society of Thailand and Bob was the first to examine what would become a major pattern of migration of rural northeasterners to Bangkok to work. I have again drawn on this monograph for my forthcoming book that traces the transformation of political identity of rural northeasterners from their peasant roots to their role today when they have significant influence in the Thai political system. I had told Bob of my book and had looked forward to being able to discuss it with him more.
    Bob played a key role in the establishment of the Peace Corps in Thailand, having been hired in 1961-62 to train the first group of volunteers for Thailand. He has described with pride from the vantage of a half-century later the fact that more than 5,000 PCVs have now served in Thailand (http://www.stanford.edu/~rbtextor/History_of_In_Up_Out_Policy.pdf).
    After his time spent in training the first group of PCVs for Thailand, Bob took up a faculty position at Stanford where he held a joint appointment between anthropology and education. He was instrumental in shaping a new curriculum on anthropology of education and he trained several Thai PhDs in this field. His legacy in this field will long be felt not only at Stanford but also in the Council on Anthropology and Education of the American Anthropological Association that he founded. Bob’s work at Stanford in the field of international education again influenced me. I recall a workshop held at Stanford in the late 1970s that was instrumental in my deciding to undertake a project on the role of education in rural Southeast Asia.
    In the mid-1970s Bob’s interest became focused on what he termed “ethnographic futures research”. “Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR) is a method invented in 1976 which futures researchers employing a sociocultural approach can use with a sample of interviewees to elicit their perceptions and preferences among possible and probable alternative futures for their society and culture. EFR is an adaptation of the spirit and method of cultural anthropology and ethnography to the needs and constraints of futures research” (from abstract of Textor, 1995, cited above). His work in this field not only had strong influences in the past but will continue to do so through the Textor Family Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology offered through the American Anthropological Association (http://www.aaanet.org/about/Prizes-Awards/Textor-Award.cfm).
    In 1990 after Bob retired from Stanford, he settled in Portland. Soon afterwards he and several friends began meeting regularly at a local pub. These meetings evolved into a new semi-organization that became known as “Thirsters”. As Bob explained to me when I first went to one of the Thursday evening gatherings, the name referred to ‘thirsting’ after knowledge as well as beer. For the past 15 or so years, Thirsters have met weekly, often to hear a short (the time carefully monitored by Bob) presentation by a member or a visitor, usually about a topic related to international events or development (local as well as international). On occasion the formal as well as informal discussion has been about politics. Thirster membership grew greatly as many who were not resident in Portland became virtual Thirsters, connected by Bob’s ‘thirster-grams’.
    His role in fostering Thirsters epitomizes his life. In his research in Thailand and elsewhere, his role in midwiving the Peace Corps birth in Thailand, in his futures research and in leading Thirsters Bob continued until his death at nearly 90 to pursue the commitment that he first made after witnessing Hiroshima. He leaves a significant legacy, not only in several professional fields and the community of Thirsters, but above all in Marisa and Alex, his children, both of whom imbibed his love of making sense out of being in different cultures.

    (Charles Keyes)

  5. I agree that much of Scott’s book is thread together with “US educated-middle-class folk theory” of opposing ideals of freedom and state-encapsulation. While I read the book, I kept envisioning highland groups as Sylvester Stallone and the state as whoever Sylvester was fighting (Russians, Afghans, crazy Viet Cong, belligerent anti-soldier cops).

    But that all aside, here comes my rebuttal (if it can be called that). If we imagine for just a minute that Scott wasn’t necessarily drawing examples from his pre-formed conclusions, but that this work represents either the lived experience or the mental creation, or whatever you want to call it, of highland groups. I recognize the complexity of the recent history between Thai and Hmong, for instance (and I assume between Thai and other minority groups), but, has the violence and political conflict itself polarized these groups? For instance, wouldn’t the raids on Hmong lychee orchards in 2000 have had a dividing effect? I acknowledge that Scott puts a disclaimer on anything after 1950 (which I think is silly: people don’t just dramatically change their relationships with political and social institutions just because they made it half-way through a century). With that aside, perhaps groups are becoming more binary. For instance, Tapp (2005) cites a “widespread ethnic Hmong rebellion” in 1967-8 (p. 10). To counter this ‘rebellion,’ the Thai government sent the Royal Thai Army and Airforce to use troop assaults, napalm, and heavy artillery strikes to attack and, I assume, destroy the insurgency. It sounds pretty binary to me. While these, and other, instances might seem more like isolated events, I think they reflect more of a trend, at least in Hmong-Thai recent historical relationship. As the relationship between Thai and Hmong (and perhaps other minority groups) becomes more strained, the polarization of Thai and minority groups becomes more apparent and binary.

  6. I agree in the most general terms. But my quibble would be ‘Who are the Thai?’ The ones behind these episodes of violence want to systemically deny the various diversity there has been to Thai society past and present. And the supposed rebellion of 1968, according to my sources (people living in the same area) was that one Hmong village had been repeatedly fleeced by police and military demanding bribes, so ultimately the locals burned down a bridge leading to the village. Hundreds of miles away in Bangkok, this “of course” seemed an outbreak of communist terror. The notion of “red meo” (Hmong as communist) is no joke, but the fear was equally used in various suppression within lowland Thailand in the 1960s and 70s. We may register conflict along ethnic lines more easily than that internal to a (far from uniform) society, in part because so much of anthro gave us an ethically divided Thailand with clear faultlines

  7. Thank you April for bringing in the Sylvester Stallone comment. I had equally amusing thoughts of this “thing” called the State looming like the Death Star stretching out its “tentacles” to try and identify, claim and tax all individuals within its reach; the hill-tribes being the “Skywalkers” running around trying to escape the State’s corrupting and oppressing influence.

    I agree with the critique that the examples used in Scott’s book, of hill-tribe groups using evasive maneuvers to avoid encapsulation in the state, do not allow for a full picture of what is happening. I have not done enough research to fully support this doubt, but I find it difficult to believe that the state acted completely as a whole. That the “Thai” forces April mentioned, had a single mind, motivation, and justification for their actions in the past and present political interactions with the Hill-Tribes. It seems that the Thai mentioned in her argument refer to those who have agreed, for whatever reason, to act in accordance to the political agenda of the ruling political party of the centralized Thai state. Regardless of their individual ethnic, cultural and/or familial identities, they act in accordance with “the state” and therefore, are much like (sorry for the cross cultural analogy) ethnic groups in the United States that agree to be American for the benefits that come from being a part of the “system”. Therefore, they are acting as one, but not thinking as one, which seems, in part, to be Scott’s argument.

    I also find it important to explore Leif’s comments regarding the supposed rebellion in 1968. How much of recorded history reflects such a difference of view? Every story has two sides, and which side is “right”? And in the case of Scott’s argument, how much of his evidence would stand if the other side were collected and presented?

  8. For starters, I will clarify that I am not totally convinced by Scott’s argument. He suggests some interesting ideas, and has some fascinating theories on swidden horticulture, but his depiction of the state is dubious at best. I’m trying to think of what the state would gain by encapsulating Zomia. I don’t feel like there are huge economic benefits, and tax revenue would be minimal simply because the people in these areas wouldn’t be the most affluent citizens.

    True, Scott discusses slavery and corvee as reasons highlanders might avoid the state, but I wonder if he truly ever considers the question “What does the state gain from absorbing Zomia?” Granted, history provides many examples of states that have exploited minority groups for profit. Still, I disagree with Scott’s characterization of the state. It is not as black and white as he paints it out to be.

    I agree with the sentiment that while taxes may be an economic burden at times, the state does provide the infrastructure and institutions that simplify and even enhance life. If it is the case that state encapsulation yields greater returns, then I would expect there to be some evidence of members of the various ethnic groups to exist or function within both groups, namely the state and Zomia. The next question would be, is there a flow of peoples, particularly from the middle altitude range, that descend into the valley states when convenient? It seems that this would blur the boundaries between the state and Zomia that Scott works so hard to establish.

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