Sep 11, 2011

The political economy of Zomia

From the CR (HT @cblatts):
Zomia does not appear on any official map, for it is merely metaphorical. Scott identifies it as "the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples have not yet been fully incorporated into nation-states." Though the scholars who have imagined Zomia differ over its precise boundaries, Scott includes all the lands at altitudes above 300 meters stretching from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India. That encompasses parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma, as well as four provinces of China. Zomia's 100 million residents are minority peoples "of truly bewildering ethnic and linguistic variety," he writes. Among them are the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Mien, and Wa.
While others might describe the hill peoples as "primitive" because they did not have permanent abodes or fixed fields, adhere to a major religion, or adopt other modern practices, Scott turns that idea around. He argues that those many minority ethnic groups were, in a sense, barbarians by design, using their culture, farming practices, egalitarian political structures, prophet-led rebellions, and even their lack of writing systems to put distance between themselves and the states that wished to engulf them.
See the fascinating interview with James Stott. 
Scott argues in another interview:
Before I began graduate school—a long time back—a friend of mine said: ‘before you go to graduate school, you must read Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.’ I read it the summer before I went to graduate school, and I think it is, in some ways, the most important book I’ve ever read. The other book that greatly influenced me a great deal was E.P. Thomson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963)—I can actually remember the chair I sat in when I read the whole hefty 1000 pages. This book digs into the naissance of the working class consciousness in the same period that Polanyi zooms into to describe the disembedding of the economy from society. Another book that influenced me was Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels, because he pointed to forms of social banditry as political phenomena and should be understood as such in terms of methodology, where they are normally analyzed as something else.
Why do I like these scholars? They have taught me that it is an important contribution to the social sciences to bring in a novel concept that changes people’s way of looking at things. You know these hand-held kaleidoscopes, that when you shake them, they change colors and show you a different world? All works that made an impact on me, had that effect on how I saw the world: if I look at the world through the kaleidoscope this author proposes, I see a fascinatingly different world, and understand things I didn’t understand before. 
And he gives great advice to scholars:
Here I have a definite opinion. We can assume, in the kind of trade-union sense of the word, that everyone who becomes a scholar is going to be trained in their specialties and disciplines, so I take that for granted. But what I’m fond of telling students these days, is that if 90% of your time is spent reading mainstream political science, sociology, anthropology, and if most of your time is spent talking to people who read the same stuff, then you are going to reproduce mainstream political science, sociology and anthropology. My idea is that if you were doing it right, at least half of the things that you should be reading would be things from outside of your discipline, as most interesting impulses come from the margins of a discipline or even externally. Interesting scholarship in social sciences arises when you see a foreign concept as applicable and adding something to your field. Now I give that advice as a theoretization of my practice. When I was working on The Moral Economy of the Peasant, I read all the peasant novels I could get my hands on; all the oral histories; in short, as much as I could stuff from outside of political science. If you look at the works that have been influential historically, you can tell by the index or bibliography that the author has been reading a lot of things that are outside the normal range of standard, mainstream work. 
On the other hand: how important is it to publish articles? A colleague of mine reported how many people actually read academic articles—and the number on average was less then three. So the majority of article publishing is essentially a vast anti-politics machinery put together to help people get tenure, and that holds even for peer-reviewed articles. Professional advancement depends increasingly on a kind of audit system for number of peer-reviewed articles et cetera, a kind of mechanical system that is an anti-politics machine, an effort to avoid making qualitative judgments about how good something is. It is something particularly common to democracies, where you have to convince people you are objective, you’re not playing favors, there are no qualitative judgments, and it’s just comparing the numbers. So, if you are producing an article, and it’s going to be read by three people, then why are you doing this in the first place? You should find another line of work, where you have a little impact on the world. If you’re doing it to please the discipline looking over your shoulder, it’s going to be alienated labor, and I fully grant it is more difficult to make your way if you want to do it otherwise. It’s easy for me to say, because I came along at a time when there was this romance about the third world—anything on the third world was likely to get published. So I am conscious of the fact that life was easier for me than it is for students today. But on the other hand: unless you prefer a clerical nine-to-five job in which you put in your hours, you might as well be doing something exciting even if it’s harder to sell. 

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