Which Thumb is on Top? Questions about Culture from a Mlabri Village in Thailand

Explaining why people do things, even when it doesn’t seem reasonable to an American undergraduate is what I do for a living.  I’ve explained why people don’t agree with their political views, the persistence of “irrational habits,” why most people don’t want to move to America, why poverty persists in a world of abundance, and a whole bunch of things that the many undergraduates do not want to believe.  And after I’m done they undergraduates still don’t generally understand how people could have such persistent beliefs and practices which to them are just not logical.

I’m always looking for ways to explain to the American undergraduates why people are different, or just not “logical” by American standards.  And I found a new way to do this in a village of Mlabri people here in Thailand where I took eight American undgraduates last weekend, where an American missionaries Bunyuen Suksanae and his wife Wassana have been working for the last 30 years.  For anthropologists, the Mlabri are particularly interesting because until recently a big part of their economy was in hunting and gathering.  Indeed until the early 1980s about the time Bunyuen and Wassana first made contact with them, the Mlabri had an economy which included hunting, gathering, and laboring for local farmers in exchange for clothing.  They moved frequently, as hunter gatherers do, and were often victimized by the more powerful horticultural people in the area.

Since the early 1980s, the Mlabri have “settled” into four settlements in Nan and Phrae Provinces of Thailand; in one of these the Suksanae’s live with the Mlabri.  By settling down, the Mlabri moved into concrete block houses, gained access to health care, sent their children to school, and begun to participate in the local economy.  Still, though, the Mlabri retain many of the cultural characteristics associated with hunters and gatherers.  They are skilled in the ways of the forest, and will often spend time in the remaining forest seeking food.  They also remain in exploitative relationships with local farmers, even though land is now available to them for farming.

Last week when we visited the Mlabri Village with eight American undergraduates, the question inevitably came from the students, who asked Bunyuen: “Why don’t the Mlabri simply adopt the ways of the neighboring groups, and take up farming, sending their children to school, and so forth?” Bunyuen had pointed out that the Mlabri did things like abandoning fields due to fears of spirits, were unwilling to challenge non-payment by “employers,” reluctant to accept (and plant) readily available agricultural land, and disappear from the village at any sign of conflict.  Bunyuen pointed out that such practices are normal for a group which had recently lived in the forest.

In response Bunyuen asked the students to quickly clasp their hands together, an action they undertake many times every day.  Then he asked them which thumb was on top.  Of the six of us who were sitting there, four of us had the thumb from the right hand on top, and two of us had the thumb from the left hand.  Then Bunyuen said, “quick now pull apart your hands, and clasp them quickly together while putting the other thumb on top!”  In doing this, our hands quickly got tangled up in new ways.  “Now,” he said, you know why it is so hard for the Mlabri to change many habits, even when it would be advantageous (at least from an American undergraduate perspective) to doso.

For readers with a more social theoretical background, Bunyuen was describing what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus”.  Habitus are the various dispositions of perception, thought, interaction, and values we as individuals develop in response to the practical conditions we encounter as we are mature.  Such habitus often have an unthinking automaticity to them, just like when we automatically put a particular thumb on top when folding our hands together.  The Mlabri have such habitus too, developed in the context of their decades or centuries of hunting andgathering.  Much of this habitus is different from what my American undergraduates habitually assume to be “rational”.  But isn’t such automaticity normal?  Remember how difficult it was to put the opposite thumb on the top?


Where have you gone Robert Redford?

I lived in Thailand as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1980s.  To learn Thai, I would go into small local restaurants where I would sit at a table.   As a lone single foreigner, my presence raised curiosity of the people working at the restaurants, or other patrons.  Oftentimes is was a 30 or 40 year old woman who owned the stall, and made their living selling bowls of noodle soup.  Quite there were teenage girls in their late teens, or early twenties also working there, i.e. my age at the time.  I learned much of my Thai in such situations, often in the context of a conversation that went something like this:

Me:  Could I please have a bowl of noodle soup?

Them: You mean you even speak Thai!!!

Me: (modestly) Yes, yes, a little bit.

Them: You speak Thai really really well!  Where are you from?

Me: I’m from America.

Them: Ooh that’s interesting.  We see American movies.  Did you know you look just like a movie star????  (accompanied with teenage tittering).

Me (modestly):  Well, yes, I’ve heard that before (i.e. the previous time I sat down at a restaurant like this).

Them:  You have golden colored hair, just like Robert Redford!!! (more teenage tittering).

Me (with more humility):  Well yes, I guess so….

Some form of this conversation took place probably a couple hundred times during my three years in Thailand in the early 1980s.  In fact, it took place with most of the Peace Corps guys who had long noses, and hair that wasn’t’ black, including the bald ones.  It was the starter for a great deal of conversation, fun, and flirtatiousness.  Not to mention, it was the context for much of the Thai language we eventually learned.

Anyway, I returned to Thailand in June 2011 with hopes of reliving the glory of thirty years ago. I even brought along my wife of 24 years to show it how it was done—and how lucky she is to have married a guy who looks just like Robert Redford.

First restaurant:

Me: Could I have a bowl of noodle soup?

Them:  Sure.  Do you want something to drink with that?

Me:  Yes….water maybe?

Them:  It seems you speak a little Thai!

Me (hopefully):  Yes, yes….

Them:  Where did you learn Thai?

Me:  In the Peace Corps, over thirty years ago.

Them:  Why were you so stupid to leave Thailand?  Couldn’t you see that this is the nicest country in the world???

Me:  Um yeah.  Do you remember Robert Redford?

Them:  No, who’s that?

The real sad part is that it was no longer the tittering teenagers and twenty-somethings asking me these questions.  They still sit conspiculously in front of the noodle, but seem focused on others, and no longer strike up conversations with me.  Rather it is 50 year old ladies who smile as much the teenagers used to (wait a minute—I guess they were those teenagers), but the tittering is gone.  For that matter, so is the flirtatiousness.  I guess that the good news is that the noodle soup still tastes great

Dominance and Subordination, Max Weber Style

I am teaching a sociology class in northern Thailand to a group of nine Chico State students who are here for a special summer session.  As with most of my sociology classes, I have assigned Max Weber’s classic essay “Classes, Staende, Parties” at an early point in the class. Particularly what Weber writes about what in German is called “Staende” is relevant to Thailand. Staende are the groups we form in which we have loyalty to others in the same group, to whom we are loyal, and share a way of life.  Thailand is full of Staende, including the orange-robed Buddhist monks,various ethnic groups, uniformed students, civil servants, police officers, and other groups. Staende are the stuff of social life!

Staende memberships are an honor; notably, you can’t use raw cash to join a Staende, like you would the local fitness club. Rather you are either born into it, or establish a qualification that is typically marked by an education and/or and initiation ritual. An obvious example are the Buddhist monks here in Thailand. Monks are  frequently seen in their orange robes in Thai towns.  You certainly cannot buy your way into a Buddhist monk order!  Rather you go through an elaborate initiation ritual involving study, learning, and ritual. Citizenship is also are Staende. Unlike the monkhood though, we are typically born with a particular passport, though we may also earn it through the rituals of “naturalization.”  Other Staende include professions, ethnic groups, aristocrats, alumni groups, slaves, and some clubs.  The point is that membership is not bought in the open market (like membership in a local fitness club), but is the result of “honor.”

Weber notes that all Staende think that their own group is just about the coolest thing around, meaning that they all think that their own honor is better than potential competitors, even if no one else agrees.  Thus, when teaching with Chico State students, I typically point out that they are clearly cooler than UC Berkeley students, an assertion with whom few Chico State students have ever disagreed. (I have not been offered the chance to test this assertion at UC Berkeley yet).

More relevant in places like Thailand, professional bakers think that they are more important than the fruit-sellers.  Students from one secondary school think they are cooler than those from another school, and vice versa.  And the impoverished peasants are pretty sure that the success of society rests on their shoulders, even though at the same time, the aristocrats assume that the success of society rests on their own obviously brilliant skill.

Staende are readily apparent here in Thailand because of markers like uniforms (e.g. for students, employees of particular companies, civil servants, etc.), and a profusion of local accents. Then of course there are the many foreign Staende, including my own, which is called in Thai “farang,” and is composed mainly of tourists from the US and Europe.  Whether I like it or not, in Thailand, that is one of the Staende I was born into by virtue of my white skin and long nose.

For this blog, there are two important characteristics of Staende, which I want to highlight. First is the fact that by definition, Staende are about who you can hang out with, or in other words those with whom you consider eligible for “social intercourse,” all the way up to marriage.  They are the “us” and everyone else is the “them. “ We recognize the “us-ness” in each other when we share a Staende.  What is more, we recognize the “them-ness” of those who stand outside.

An important marker of Staende in Thailand, students wear school uniforms, all the way up to the university.  Each school has specific color combinations, and at the university the student even wear badges identifying their majors.  These are clear Staende markers of the honors the students have accumulated, and makes it easy for each to recognize the “us-ness,” i.e. who we have responsibilities to—or not.

Weber notes that it is the uniforms and badges that make it easy for different groups to know whether someone else is qualified for what type of social interaction.  Thus you see Thai school children all dressed alike travelling together—the wearers of specific school uniforms easily recognize each other, establishing a basis for who will help who (or not) in the future.  What is more, Stand ranking even gives such groups a chance to see who is violating the norms for interactions. Do university students mix with high school students (not too cool!).  Do English and Pharmacy majors mix (better, but still not so great).  In the United States universities the “Greek system” at many universities provides an obvious marker for stratified Stand relationships.  And not surprisingly, my students tell me, “who goes out with who” is a subject of intra-group regulations among status-conscious sororities and fraternities.

Ultimately, Weber points out, Staende reach their ultimate expression when they become concerned with endogamy and exogamy, which is basically “who goes with who” in a sexual sense. At that point, the Staende become “ethnic.”  This is when it becomes tough to sustain Staende because the hormones of youth are raging.  Thus, American students seek to send their children to the highest status university possible as a way to preserve the honor and status of their own Stand.  In high school, it is clear that cheerleaders can’t go with nerds, and in college, it means that a college boy dating a high school girl is discouraged.

I don’t know of any studies of Thai marriage patterns, but I would bet that the elaborate system of education and uniforms here patterns marriage patterns very strongly, guaranteeing that high Thai youth mix only with lower status Thai youth.  I would guess that marriage is most likely between those who wear the same university uniforms during their formative years are less likely to be caught in a compromised situation with someone from an unapproved Stand.


Who, What, When and Wai?

I was young once in Thailand.  I lived here as a 22-25 year old, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and after that working in refugee camps.  In these roles, I tried to blend into Thai society as well as possible, despite my long nose, height, blondish hair and the fact that my Thai language tones were far from accentless (or, as my Thai teacher told me last year “three out of five tones—not bad…”).

Part of blending in was getting used to the Thai focus on age and hierarchy. As a 22-25 year old, I developed the skill and reflexes to initiate a “wai” greeting at the appropriate time—which means when seeing someone for the first time who is older than me.  At age 22-25, this was most of the people I worked with.  The whole social process was reflexive by the end of my time in Thailand which was in (dare I admit it?) 1980-1983.  I would enter a social situation, calculate age, and wai, and get a wai in return.

In the summers of 2010 and 2011, I began spending time in Thailand again.   I found my Thai to be a bit rusty, and took Thai lessons to compensate (the result: the three tones mentioned above rather than the 1.5 tones I started with).  The wai reflex though turned with a vengeance.  The problem though was that it was the wai of a 24 or maybe 28 year old, and not someone who was 53 with a distinguished head full of now white hair.  This led to confusion among random Thais who received my wai, even thought hey were 15 or 20 years younger than me.  Note to self on the current trip to Thailand:  Sit on hands!