Family Life in a Northern Thai Village: A Study in the Structural Significance of Women

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520034303
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/1978
  • Pages: 137

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Family Life in a Northern Thai Village

A Study in the Structural Significance of Women
By Sulamith Heins Potter

University of California Press

Copyright © 1980 Sulamith Heins Potter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-04044-9

Chapter One

Theoretical Setting

In this book I am investigating the social structure and social organization of family life in a Northern Thai village. I am presenting my data in an essentially humanistic narrative form, because I believe that anthropology should be "history" in Alfred Kroeber's sense, or "thick description" in Clifford Geertz's. At the same time I hope to show the analytic shape which the data assume, and the theoretical importance of the analysis.

Specifically, it is my aim to describe a family system in which the significant blood ties are those between women-where the social structure is conceptually female-centered. Such a structure is importantly unlike structures in which the significant blood relationships involved are those between men; whether father and son, as in a patrilineal system, or mother's brother and sister's son, as in a matrilineal system. Where the relevant consanguineal ties are those between woman and woman, the logical consequence is that the structurally significant relationships between men are affinal. I shall discuss how this system differs from a male-centered system, and I shall examine its workings in a variety of social contexts.

I would argue that the assumption of the structural significance of men has made it more difficult for anthropologists to grasp the structural principles of female-centered family systems; or at least the structural principles of the Northern Thai system with which I am directly concerned, the structure of which has for many years been described as "loose." The system itself is not formless or inchoate, but its shape has been difficult for anthropologists to see.

Since I am concerned with the anthropology of Thailand, as well as with humanistic anthropological style and the theoretical implications of my analysis, it is important to place my work in the context of previous anthropological research done in Thailand. I begin in this first chapter by reviewing the relevant literature, and showing how my study is a departure from it. Then I introduce the family I studied, as individuals who form an integral social group, in the courtyard which symbolizes their social unity. I consider this family in terms of their economic activities: as individuals vis-à-vis one another, as a family group, and in relationship to other village families. I then discuss the family members in relation to the village temple. I explain the ordering of social relationships in the family; I consider encounters with spirits, and what those spirits imply about the social order of human beings; and concluding comments follow.

My first task is to place this research in its scholarly context. I have said that I am concerned with a classical anthropological question-the examination of the social structure and social organization of family life. I am also concerned with the impact of structure and organization on the experiences and feelings of the people involved. Because of the paradoxical way in which anthropological research in Thailand has developed, the consideration of these classical questions is a relatively new point of departure.

It was in Thailand that John Embree made the observations which led to the formulation of his theory of loosely structured social systems: social systems in which "the importance of observing reciprocal rights and duties" was minimized, with the result that "considerable variation of individual behavior was permitted" (1950, p. 4). As an integral part of his theory, Embree postulated a social system "relatively" lacking in social roles, and hence in forms of social structure and organization which would require the performance of role behavior. Anthropologists working in Thailand since the publication of Embree's ideas have had to take cognizance, whether admiring or critical, of his work, and until quite recently, anthropologists working in Thailand have been curiously reluctant to elucidate or explain Thai social structure, since Embree's theory implies that the attempt would prove fruitless. As Tambiah puts it, "Embree's formulation obstructs any kind of structural analysis..." (1966, p. 424). Although family and kinship relationships are the basic units of social structure in any society, and an understanding of kinship structure is essential to an understanding of social structure as a whole, until 1970 the structure of the Thai family received cursory attention in the published literature. In the last five years, however, increasing interest has been displayed in Thai kinship and family life. The ideas of Embree, so influential over the twenty-year period between 1950 and 1970, appear to be losing their potency now that a great variety of interesting new data have become available.

A brief summary of anthropological thinking about the Thai family and its structure, or lack thereof, will serve to put the results to be presented here into perspective. Embree himself is the first important figure to discuss the family. He says, "... The structure of the family is a loose one, and while obligations are recognized, they are not allowed to burden one unduly. Such as are sanctioned are observed freely [sic] by the individual-he acts of his own will, not as the result of social pressure" (1950, p. 6). Within this framework, Embree is willing to say that the father is the "putative head" of the family, but he does not describe the way a family works in any greater detail than that.

In 1953, Sharp et al. published Siamese Rice Village, a Preliminary Study of Bang Chan. In this book, which accepts Embree's theory of Thai society as a loosely structured system, the importance of the family is stressed, since "there are relatively so few groups to which the individual can belong" (1953, p. 77). Sharp describes the Thai family as consisting of parents and children living together in one household, and "thus very similar in its structure to the modern American family" (p. 77). According to Sharp, the Central Thai villagers of Bang Chan follow neolocal residence patterns. Husbands and wives are primarily obligated to each other and their children, rather than to their parents, and there is "no sense of lineage either on the father's or the mother's side" (p. 80). Property is divided equally among all children, with a slightly larger share to the child who stays to care for the parents in their old age. In many cases, the child who stays is the youngest daughter.

The next anthropological study, and the first based on field experience in the North, is John de Young's Village Life in Modern Thailand (1955). De Young recapitulates Embree's generalizations about the family. He says that "blood-relationship lines do not have the importance that they do in other areas of Southeast Asia" (p. 25). He adds an element to the composite picture of family life by observing that "the social position of Thai women is powerful" (p. 24), and he gives as evidence for this that it is women who control the money of the entire household. His comment is important because it foreshadows the emphasis on the importance of women in the social structure of the family which has become a focus of recent research, particularly my own.

Konrad Kingshill's book Ku Daeng-The Red Tomb, also based on fieldwork in Northern Thailand, appeared in 1960. Kingshill reports tendencies toward matrilocal residence and village endogamy. In terms of relationships within the family, he says that "there is no trend toward patriarchy or matriarchy" (p. 51). In his opinion, "property rights within the family are similar to those recognized in Western society" (p. 53). Since Kingshill's primary interest is religious life, his data on the family are brief and sketchy.

In 1960, Howard Kaufman's Bangkhuad: A Community Study in Thailand was published, based on fieldwork in a Central Plains village. Kaufman gave more attention to the family than previous authors had done. He distinguished three kinds of family groups. His classification is based on where people live, but not on any normatively structural reason why they live there. The three kinds of family groups to which he refers are the household, the spatially extended family, and the remotely extended family. In describing his first category, the household, Kaufman says that it is run by the mother, who is the one who raises the children. He borrows Embree's phrase "putative head" to describe the father. He observed residence rules which require matrilocal residence for the first year of marriage, and patrilocal residence thereafter. As far as inheritance patterns are concerned, Kaufman says that the father controls the division of property, and that the rule is for each child to have an equal share of land, with the youngest son or daughter receiving the house and equipment. As for his second category, the spatially extended family, the members demonstrate relationship by helping one another in case of economic need. However, relatives are not required to exchange labor-"there are no prescribed consanguineal obligations concerning various aspects of the household economy... the modern Bangkhuad household does not depend on the extended family in agricultural matters, and the extended family does not form the economic unit" (p. 31). The members of Kaufman's third category, the remotely extended family, demonstrate relationship by contributing to funerals. The relationship between these social variables and Kaufman's locational typology seems arbitrary. Kaufman summarizes his findings in the light of Embree and his followers with the remark, "Some scholars have commented that the Thai have very little sense of family responsibility; but in Bangkhuad, responsibility toward one's family is by no means lacking" (p. 23). From the point of view of my findings on family structure, to be developed below, Kaufman's most interesting comment is one which he makes casually. In the course of a discussion of status and wealth differences between marriage partners, and a pressure against what he calls "too great a discrepancy" (p. 28) he recounts the following example: "A hamlet headman at Kilopaed has three unmarried daughters in their late twenties and early thirties. Only two men have dared to ask to marry them, and both were turned down by the father as being too irresponsible to be trusted with his property" (p. 28). The importance of this incident lies in the implication that authority over a family's property passes from father-in-law to son-in-law. Kaufman does not make this point, but it is crucial to my own argument, and repeatedly confirmed by my own data.

Herbert P. Phillips' Thai Peasant Personality was the next important addition to the literature, in 1965. This is an analysis of some psychological aspects of Thai social life, and the family is only discussed because of the bearing it has on personality. Phillips was very heavily influenced by Embree's theory of loose structure, and his research was done in Bang Chan, the Central Plains Village which had been studied by Sharp et al. Phillips' discussion is couched in terms of the way individuals feel about kinship, rather than in terms which describe the system in which the individuals are acting. He unifies the data he gets from individuals by considering the statistical patterns formed. He is not looking for what is shared, in a broad, normatively structural sense (in contrast with my attempts to understand the nature of the Northern Thai family system), but for what can be shown statistically to be held in common. This means that his analysis is not a cultural one; or, to put it in Lévi-Strauss' terms, his model is statistical rather than mechanical (1953, p. 528). (I seek a mechanical model.) Phillips rejects the very existence of structural relationships in Thai kinship. He says, "Actually, I feel that any attempt to bring descriptive order to Bang Chan kinship does violence, in the very process of ordering, to the reality which is being described.... Kinship relationships in Bang Chan are considerably more unpredictable, inconsistent, and chaotic than our descriptive modes typically admit..." (p. 29). The only really structural phenomenon to which Phillips alludes is the set of respect relationships based on age within the family. He says, "The role of these respect patterns cannot be emphasized enough.... An older sibling['s]... position in the authority structure assumes the respect of those younger than he, and they willingly grant it, for, among other things, he plays his role well as the kindly superior..." (p. 33). These respect relationships apply to every member of the family, not merely to siblings. Phillips summarizes his views on the family by saying, "... It is not easy to determine the basis of the unity of the family. However, of all the factors which keep people living together in amity and affection, two come to the fore: a sense of love, obligation, and respect that is derived from the simple fact [one wonders what he means by this phrase] of kinship, but which must be continuously confirmed by mutual benefits; and economic considerations" (p. 32). This kind of explanation does not conceive of kinship as a cultural and structural form, and so does not elucidate its organization, working out, and peculiar qualities within a society. It carries the suppositions of the loose structure theory to their logical extreme.

Michael Moerman worked in a village in Northern Thailand, the inhabitants of which belong to an ethnic sub-group called the Lue. In 1966, Moerman tried another tack for understanding kinship in a loose-structure framework. He presupposed an essentially Westernized "biological" notion of kinship-perhaps this is what Phillips intends by his phrase "the simple fact of kinship"-rather than an anthropological model based on what relationship means to the people of the culture being studied. For Moerman, everyone in the village was kin, by his standards, so the basis of close ties had to be sought elsewhere. He says, "Ban Ping is a fairly small, predominantly endogamous community of bilaterally related kinsmen. Almost all of its 639 inhabitants have the same surname and can be traced back to fourteen ancestral couples. This means that every individual has more kinsmen than he can use. One simply cannot be especially intimate, especially supportive, especially helpful, to all of one's many relatives. In Ban Ping, and probably throughout Thailand, extragenealogical considerations are extremely important for determining whom one calls and behaves toward as 'kinsmen'" (p. 151). His paper attempts to trace some of these extragenealogical considerations, especially in the context of the village temple.


Excerpted from Family Life in a Northern Thai Village by Sulamith Heins Potter Copyright © 1980 by Sulamith Heins Potter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii
Acknowledgments xi
Cast of Characters xiii
1. Theoretical Setting 1
2. The Courtyard 23
3. Economic Life 52
4. The Family and the Temple: Structure and Individuality in a Larger Institutional Context 83
5. The Order of Social Relationships in the Family 99
6. Encounters with Spirits 115
Conclusion 123
Bibliography 125
Index 129
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