ASU anthropologist says Zomia's people are more complex than popularly depicted
In 2009, James C. Scott, a Yale University anthropologist and political scientist, wrote a controversial book about Zomia, a metaphorical zone including highland regions of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and four provinces of China. Home to about 100 million people of diverse ethnic and linguistic minorities, Zomia has become a hot topic among social scientists. And Scott’s book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, has become the catalyst for many dynamic discussions.
This month’s Chronicle of Higher Education addresses the firestorm around Scott’s depiction of Zomia as a place where rebellious peoples turned their backs on the nation-states that wished to rule them and adopted a way of life that, while seemingly “primitive” is, in fact, designed to keep those states at bay.
Weighing in on the debate is Hjorleifur Jonsson, ASU sociocultural anthropologist, who sees the foundation of Scott’s book as the romanticized American link between freedom and the frontier.
Jonsson, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is a specialist on the Mien, a Southeast Asian highland people. He has read Scott’s book many times and called it “a lot of fun,” despite having reservations about its assertions.
He found particular fault with two ideas: that Zomia’s hill people can’t engage in beneficial political negotiation with states and that their ethnic identity is politically crafted.
“Who is a Western scholar to say identities of Southeast Asian people are all fluff?” asked Jonsson, who pointed out that Zomia’s cultures are ever evolving and worthy of continued interest and study.
He also balked at Scott’s claim that Zomia’s people abandoned literacy as a means of staying distant from would-be oppressors. “To assume that writing is a way to trap you into subjugation is very problematic. I don’t believe it,” he noted.
This spring Jonsson participated in a roundtable titled “To Zomia or Not to Zomia” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He has also sat on Zomia-themed panels at the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies and conferences at Cambridge University and Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.