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.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.