Village Life in Modern Thailand.

John E. DEYOUNG, Village Life in Modern Thailand. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1955. Pp. vii + 225. $3.50.


(reviewed by Clifford Geertz)


Eighty per cent of the peasants of Thailand share the same general culture: despite minor regional variations--particularly in agricultural technique--"a basic cultural pattern can always be discerned" in lowland wet-rice villages from Chingmai in the north to the Malay Peninsula in the south. Villages lying in the great Menam delta around Bangkok, where the growth of cornmercial agriculture has significantly altered traditional patterns (land holdings are larger, farms are more scattered and labor is mobilized on a case- rather than a share-work basis) do not share all aspects of this basic pattern, but Dr. DEYOUNGís book confines itself to the non-delta villages, presenting a generalized description of village economics, social organization and religion claimed to apply in most respects to all of them. The result is a portrait-- based both on three years of post-war field research in Thailand (one of which was spent in intensive anthropological study of a northern village) and on a thorough review of the small corpus of modern sociological and anthropological literature on the Thai--of rural life in Thailand which, if it lacks much of the concrete vividness of cultural detail we usually associate with anthropological community studies, does offer a useful summary of the main cultural patterns in the more isolated and largely unstudied areas.


The picture of the Thai peasant already familiar from the works of LANDON, EMBREE, SHARP, BENEDICT and others emerges once again from these pages: an independent, self-reliant, cheerful and self-assured down-to-earth pragmatic farmer living in a "loosely structured" social system which lacks any narrow or rigid constraints. Kinship ("a loosely woven structure within which a considerable variation of individual behavior is permitted"), class ("today rigid class lines do not exist in the Thai village") and religion ("villagers do not slaughter their pigs because the Thai farmer is a Buddhist whose religion forbids the killing of animals and because he cannot afford the relatively high slaughtering fee") all are marked by a great amount of flexibility and a tendency to let the practical necessities of a particular situation take precedence over the demands of cultural consistency. Settlement patterns, government, life cycle, calendrical ceremonies are other traditional anthropological subjects treated, largely in a traditional anthropological manner. In a final chapter, DEYOUNG gives a brief analysis of recent changes in the way of life of the typical villager stemming from reforms (for the most part, government introduced) in education, hygiene, agriculture and transportation. Indifference to national political affairs is widespread despite the existence of national elections since 1932. National holidays have their chief impact upon school children who are required by law to wear Western clothes on such occasions and to participate in the celebration by cheering three times at the end of the District Officerís reading of the official proclamation of the day. Rural taxation by the central government is extremely light, and effectively limits the governmentís ability to introduce improvements in village life. The rapidly expanding transportation network, increasing monetization, the ever-growing importance of the government school (and schoolteacher) in village life, the intensive work in the health area and elaborate programs in irrigation, reclamation and flood control are expected to change this picture of rural isolation rather radically and lead to a steadily rising standard of living for the Thai peasant in the decades ahead.


Unfortunately this optimistic prognosis rests on a simplistic assumption that "under-" and "over"-population are simply quantitative matters and that, therefore, "rapid growth in population is an asset rather than a liability" in Thailand, which has relatively lower densities than the rest of Southeast Asia. Considering, for example, the state of Javaís economy in the early decades of the nineteenth century--it must have been rather similar to that of Thailand today--and its state now after it has passed through a process similar to that DEYOUNG projects for Thailand, one might be inclined to doubt that improved irrigation, more effective health measures and a better transportation network imply the kind of economic growth one would wish to praise. In the absence of serious reform in methods of agricultural production, modes of land use and in the crop pattern, such improvements seem likely to lead to a stereotyped economy where subsistence needs are relatively well met but possibilities for further changes are extremely limited due to the great masses of people committed to a traditional, labor-intensive monocultural agriculture. Whatever benefits a rapidly rising population is likely to bring to Thailand, they appear to be, in the absence of serious agrarian reform, rather short-run ones indeed.


Clifford GEERTZ
Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Book Review, in: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1955), 462-465.


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