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?
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.