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251st Meeting - Tuesday, August 10th 2004

'Reflections on 40 years of research on Thailand'

A talk by Niels Mulder

Present: Annelise, Hans Bänziger, Mark Barrett, Klaus Berkmüller, Pore Boonpornprasert, Bruce Briz, Megan Broadwell, Alex Brodard, John Butt, John Cadet, Eddie Clark, Peter Cuasay, Celeste Cutter, Ben Dierihx, Jack Eisner, Rom Emmons, Jon Fernquest, Barry Flaming, Chalao Graham, Oliver Hargreave, Diik Heidersbach, Reinhard Hohler, Peter Holmshaw, Andrew Jordan, Ken Kampe, Carool Kersten, Martyn King, Hilke Kōgl, Annette Kunigagon, John McCord, Mayumi Okabe, Kirk Person, Jeff Petry, Adrian Pieper, Vaddey Ratner, Mariya Salas, Bruce Shao, Hsar Shee, Horst Schneider, Khar Thuan, Timmi Tillman, Brock Wilson. An audience of 42.

Niels Mulder’s summary of his talk:

In the last days of the year 2000, when I finished writing ‘Southeast Asian Images - Towards civil society?’ (Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books, 2003), I knew it would be my last work based on field research. That being the sign of age it was, it did not mean that I could or wanted to stop writing. From the very beginning of doing research on Thailand, I have been intrigued by the process of knowledge formation. How do we get our ideas? How do we generate understanding of others, and what is the value of what we think to know?

Since January 2001, I have been working on my intellectual biography. The high aim of that endeavour is to reveal the background of my formal writings; at a more pedestrian level, it is telling stories in which I report the real, often juicy and racy occurrences that every so often lose their flavour when we drag them up to the steps of the ivory tower. It meant I had to develop a new style of writing. I found it and I liked it. Now I indulge in telling stories that yet reveal how I did anthropology.

The first result is ‘Doing Thailand: The anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s.’ It is both serious and fun. My readers like it, but Thai publishers do not. I am not supposed to have started to learn about Thai society through indulging in the low life, through associating with the struggling poor, with prostitutes and pimps. To do so is not seuy, is not ngarm. Yet it was, at least in part, precisely what I set out to do. (The convener, Brian Hubbard, can make the manuscript available; suggestions for publishing are welcome; you can reach me c/o readpvilloso@hotmail.com).

In doing anthropology, more hurdles are to be taken than the reluctance of some to be confronted with facts about their society that they would prefer to deny. Before we go to foreign places with the purpose of doing the tour of other people's life, we prepare ourselves for the excursion. We study and read, and become charged - or burdened - with many ideas of which we often are hardly aware provide, at least initially, the spectacles through which we see.

The idea that science is a highroad to 'objective' understanding, is false, the more so where it concerns the knowledge about people. Science is subject to fashions. In my days at the University of Amsterdam, we had graduated from purely descriptive ethnography to the more theory-informed discipline of anthropology. Two paradigms were in vogue. The first was the culture-and-personality approach, the other was functionalism. The former takes it that culture, say, our world of shared ideas, conditions the personality of the members of a certain society, and that these members are therefore given to maintain their culture. Culture imprisons people; people conserve culture. The second way of thinking sees societies as equilibrated wholes in which institutions and individual roles complement each other: the doctor cures, the teacher teaches and the fireman quenches. At the highest floor of the ivory tower these things make sense, irrespective of inter-individual variation and conflicts of interest on the ground.

By the time I went to Thailand, two other articles of faith were modish. All people in the world should 'develop'- we had entered the age of development. Alas, not all people were able to do so, because they held the wrong beliefs. Having the right religion could stimulate capitalism; holding the wrong one could thwart it.

From the late 1940s to the middle 1960s, the ideas of the first generation of American (most often Cornell-affiliated) researchers dominated the study of Thai society. They knew that Thailand is a Buddhist country, and so Buddhism provided the key to understanding Thai culture and behaviour. According to Wilson, it provided a natural barrier against violent Marxism; Sutton held that it made Thai bureaucrats other-worldly and the country's administration a sleepy establishment; Kaufman noted that the peasants lived in rhythm with the seasons and that religion told them to accept their fate as it came; according to the researchers who were 'doing Bang Chan', the belief in karma inspired a deep-seated individualism.

Theravada Buddhism teaches that everybody is responsible for their own deeds, that nobody can help, that there is no God to forgive, that doing good yields good, and that bad deeds have negative consequences, in this or in next lives. Every Thai thus cared for theirself and went their own way. To describe this astonishing behaviour, the researchers coined the idea that Thai society was loosely structured. Together, Buddhism, individualism and loose structure appeared like a functionally integrated whole, in which culture (Buddhist ideas) informed individual behaviour, and in which individuals saw to the conservation of their religion.

Good or bad ideas, all of them provide blinkers. Another load one carries is one's cultural background, or some deeply engrained ideas and emotions that provide the unconscious measuring rods for evaluating new experiences. I am Dutch, and we think ourselves to be thoroughly egalitarian; we dislike boasting, finery and ceremony ('Don't make a fool of yourself, behave plainly!'); we are down to earth, blunt according to the British, straightforward according to ourselves; we are broadminded, tolerant, penny-pinching and, as good Calvinists, awfully moralistic (renowned as the Dutch Uncle). All that, I had it with me, and they proved to be the sure omens of where I would hurt myself once in Thailand.

Next to lofty ideas and a deep-seated cultural background we carry our personality, which may - again partly - explain the way we look at and associate with people. I am a kind of L'Etranger in the sense of Camus, the permanent outsider, wherever he goes - looking at the others from a distance and never engaging himself with them. In Thailand that quality was reinforced by being categorized as farang, a classification that keeps the Thais and the white strangers separated from each other; it erects a dividing wall behind which it is comfortable to hide.

Like Camus' Stranger, I lack in worldly wisdom; at the same time, I was not only naive, but also socially and politically unaware. This is not only demonstrated by my initial blundering about, by my unawareness – until 1972! – of the crime the Americans perpetrated in Vietnam, but still by my attempt to get an uncouth book about Thai society published in Thailand. On the positive side, I am perennially amazed, seeing things anew or seeing new things all the time.

So, if anthropologists are supposed to gather their 'data' and ideas through 'participant observation', I still do not really know what that is supposed to mean. I observed, but from a distance, my emotional reactions to whatever hurt me notwithstanding. Whether I participated, I do not know. I was there, a visible stranger, a farang who tried to pry on the other side of that dividing wall where he was not supposed to take a look. I made it my calling and became a professional stranger, but before I had advanced that far, I had much to learn.

In June 1965, I was introduced to the lecturers of the Chulalongkorn University who were to initiate me to the Thai language. On campus, I also met the right venerable father Jacques Amyot S.J. who was tasked with setting up the study of anthropology. He was not exactly charmed by the interpretations of the US professors conducting their research on the fringe of Bangkok in 'a village at a convenient commuting distance from the Erawan Hotel'. Loose structure was a non-statement, an avowal of not knowing how things were connected.

Look around on campus: everybody is in uniform. Even the lecturers, you can immediately tell them apart from clerks and menials. When you speak Thai, you need to express the whole social map. Outside the gate, civil servants often dress as policemen minus the cap; schoolchildren are in uniform, and on certain days all of them dress as scouts. If you want to drive a taxi or a tricycle, you dress in a dark shirt on penalty of a fine. Is this loose structure?

Often it seems as if social scientists are carried away by their theories rather than guided by stubborn facts and observations. So too Acharya Sulak to whom I was introduced because of my interest in the leadership potential of Buddhist monks in community development. He was a man with hard but always interesting ideas. If the American professors saw Buddhism in every nook and cranny, he saw it nowhere.

“The Siamese are mistaken Buddhists. They indulge in all sorts of superstitious practices that are a far cry from the Buddhist message. They are irritated when they are reminded of this, because they do not like to think. In the confusion of the present, they are given to 'follow the wisdom of the farang', which leads us to the mess we are in. If the Siamese would realize their religion, they would successfully face the problems of the present.”

The idea that the Thais are Buddhists-gone-astray would fix itself in my mind for years to come and kept me from asking the pertinent anthropological question as to the nature of Thai religion. On the other hand I learned many things from being on the street - about prostitution, poverty, venereal disease, and hopelessness, about venality and the police, about contempt for the powerless, illiteracy, rough language, spirits and holy objects, and about the few social and medical services available to those who were desperate. I also learned much about the other side of society as I was among the 'fine people' (phu dee) of Chula every day. My interest was in the low life they naturally distrusted, and so did I their smiles, their insistence on ceremony and proprieties, and the importance of reputation and 'face'.

I had the good luck that Acharya Sulak introduced me to Phra Maha Uthai, a bright young monk at Wat Thongnoppakhun who became a kind of a middleman in sorting out my experiences on both sides. As a 'holy man', he had entered the monkhood at the age of eleven in order to study - because his parents were too poor - and soon I found out that almost all long-term monks are of the humblest of origins and deprive themselves of the pleasures of youth in order to advance in (secular) life. At twenty-two, Uthai knew everything but had no experience at all; I knew nothing, but had plenty of weird experiences. Soon I was Uthai's window on the shady side of life about which he was naturally curious: after all, like most of his colleagues, Uthai was at heart an ordinary Thai man in a strange costume.

If there is anything I learned from my early experiences, it is that the anthropologist himself is his or her greatest enemy and his indispensable guide. That guide is utterly unreliable -sometimes possessed by emotions, sometimes stubborn and self-destructive, sometimes rational and calm. I was most shocked by my own prejudices, by the narrowness of my horizon, and I kept hurting myself more at my confines than at 'Thai society'. I, who always thought of myself to be free, realized that I was more of a petty bourgeois than I was willing to avow. In spite of all this, given time, luck, ingenuity, some self-knowledge and keen observation, the situation of the anthropologist is not hopeless as some of us have generated some penetrating insights into the way of life of others.

Niels Mulder

Chiang Mai, 12 August 2004


After an avuncular question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience quaffed ale and partook of light refreshments as they engaged Niels in more informal discussion.