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Invisible Walls: Village Identity and the Maintenance of Cooperation in Laos

  • W. Randall Ireson (a1)

Inter-household relations in lowland Lao villages are often characterized by cooperation and mutual support. This study describes norms governing agricultural labour exchange, assistance at household ceremonies, and village-wide projects. Successful cooperation expresses and reinforces values of village mutuality and solidarity which are important principles of Lao social organization and identification.

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1 Embree, John, “Thailand, a Loosely Structured Social System”, American Anthropologist 52 (1950): 181–93.

2 Heine-Geldern, R., Conception of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Data Paper no 18, 1956); Tambiah, S.J., World Conqueror and World Renouncer (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

3 Condominas, Georges, Essai sur la Société Rurale Lao de la Région de Vientiane (Vientiane: Commissariat des Affaires Rurales, 1962); Taillard, Christian, Le Laos — Stratégies d'un Etattampon (Montpellier: Reclus, 1989).

4 Taillard, Le Laos, ch. 2.

5 Kemp, Jeremy, “Processes of Kinship and Community in North-Central Thailand”, in Cognation and Social Organization in Southeast Asia, ed. Husken, Frans and Kemp, Jeremy (Leiden: KITLV Press, 1991), pp. 91107.

6 Chayanov, A. V., “Peasant Farm Organization”, in The Theory of Peasant Economy, ed. Thorner, Daniel, Kerblay, Basile and Smith, R.E.F. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); Scott, James C., The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

7 Chayanov, “Peasant Farm Organization”, pp. 81ff.

8 Ibid., pp. 69ff. See also Durrenberger, Paul and Tannenbaum, Nicola, Analytical Perspectives on Shan Agriculture and Village Economics (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1990); and Durrenberger, Paul, “Chayanov's Economic Analysis in Anthropology”, Journal of Anthropological Research 36, 2 (1980): 133–48.

9 Chayanov, “Peasant Farm Organization”, pp. 77ff.

10 Scott, Moral Economy; Scott, James C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

11 Brown, MacAlister and Zasloff, Joseph J., Apprentice Revolutionaries: The Communist Movement in Laos, 1930–1985 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1986); Ireson, W. Randall and Ireson, Carol J., “Laos: Marxism in a Subsistence Rural Economy”, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 21,2 (1989): 5975.

12 Evans, Grant, “The Accursed Problem: Communists and Peasants”, Peasant Studies 15,2 (1988): 73102.

13 Evans, Grant, ‘“Rich Peasants’ and Cooperatives in Socialist Laos”, Journal of Anthropological Research 44,3 (1988): 229–50; Evans, Grant, Lao Peasants Under Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

14 Brass, Tom, “Moral Economists, Subalterns, New Social Movements, and the (Re-) Emergence of a (Post-) Modernized (Middle) Peasant”, Journal of Peasant Studies 18,2 (1991): 173205.

15 Gunn, Geoffrey C., Rebellion in Laos: Peasant and Politics in a Colonial Backwater (Boulder: Westview, 1990).

16 Barber, Martin J.P., “Migrants and Modernization — A Study of Change in Lao Society” (Ph.D. diss., University of Hull, 1979); Condominas, Georges, “Phiban Cults in Rural Laos”, in Change and Persistence in Thai Society, ed. Skinner, G. William and Kirsch, A. Thomas (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 252–77; Taillard, Christian, “Le village Lao de la region de Vientiane — un pouvoir local face au pouvoir étatique”, L'Homme 17, 2–3 (1977): 71100.

17 Foster, George, “Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good”, American Anthropologist 67 (1965): 293315.

18 Wolf, Eric, Peasants (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966).

19 Scott, Moral Economy.

20 Popkin, Samuel L., The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

21 The author worked in Laos as a community development volunteer between 1967 and 1969, directed the development assistance programs of two non-governmental organizations during 198486 and 1988–91, and has carried out several applied social studies or evaluations for U.N. agencies between 1988 and 1994. The interviews in the U.S. were supported by a grant from the Joint Committee on Asian Studies of the Social Science Research Council and American Council of Learned Societies. Carol Ireson, Kham-one Keoprasert, Chansouk and Tou Meksavanh, and Chareundi Van-si collaborated on the project. This analysis and interpretation is the responsibility of the author, however. Prior to the 1975 revolution, all the informants had lived in rural villages in Royal Lao Government controlled areas in the Mekong valley or its major tributaries; none were originally from the eastern mountainous areas, or from the Pathet Lao controlled zone. Thus the information is relevant to traditional Lao society unaffected by changes imposed by the liberation government.

22 Evans, Lao Peasants, chs. 6, 7.

23 Kemp, “Processes of Kinship”; Scott, Weapons of the Weak.

24 See for example, Taillard, “Le village Lao”; Taillard, Christian, “Le dualisme urbain-rurale au Laos et la récuperation de l'idéologie traditionnelle”, Asie du Sud-est et Monde Insulindien 10 (1979): 4156; and Condominas, Essai sur la Société Rurale Lao.

25 Condominas, “Phiban cults”.

26 Tanabe's detailed study of rice cultivation in northern Thailand indicates that under similar conditions, approximately two-fifths of the labour input in rice cultivation was spent in transplanting and harvesting, and of that labour, three-quarters was obtained from outside the immediate farm family. Tanabe, Shigehara, “Peasant Farming Systems in Thailand — A Comparative Study of Rice Cultivation and Agricultural Technology in Chiangmay and Ayutthaya” (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1981), p. 420.

27 Ireson, W. Randall, “Peasant Farmers and Community Norms: Agricultural Labor Exchange in Laos”, Peasant Studies 19,2 (1992): 6792.

28 The description by Durrenberger and Tannenbaum of the way similar social and environmental forces promote economic homogeneity among the Shan provides a parallel example. See their Analytical Perspectives.

29 See Evans, Lao Peasants, and Stuart-Fox, Martin, “The Initial Failure of Agricultural Collectivization in Laos”, Asia Quarterly 4 (1980): 273–99.

30 Ireson, W. Randall, “Laos: Building a Nation under Socialism”, Indochina Issues 79 (1980): 17.

31 The importance of believing that others will “follow the rules” is the basis of Runge's analysis of cooperation in common property management. This “Assurance Problem” is equally relevant in reinforcing norms for village cooperation. See Runge, C. Ford, “Institutions and the Free Rider: The Assurance Problem in Collective Action”, Journal of Politics 46, 1 (1984): 154–81; and Runge, C. Ford, “Common Property and Collective Action in Economic Development”, World Development 14, 5 (1986): 623–55.

32 Evans, Lao Peasants.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
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