Rethinking Community in Myanmar. Practices of We-Formation among Muslims and Hindus in Urban Yangon.
This is the first anthropological monograph of Muslim and Hindu lives in contemporary Myanmar. In it, I introduce the concept of “we-formation” as a fundamental yet underexplored capacity of humans to relate to one another outside of and apart from demarcated ethno-religious lines and corporate groups. We-formation complements the established sociological concept of community, which suggests shared origins, beliefs, values, and belonging. Community is not only a key term in academic debates; it is also a hot topic among my interlocutors in urban Yangon, who draw on it to make claims about themselves and others.
Invoking “community” is a conscious and strategic act, even as it asserts and reinforces stereotypes of Hindus and Muslims as minorities. In Myanmar, this understanding of community keeps self-identified members of these groups in a subaltern position vis-à-vis the Buddhist majority population. I demonstrate the concept’s enduring political and legal role since being imposed on “Burmese Indians” under colonial British rule. But individuals are always more than members of groups. I draw on ethnomethodology and existential anthropology to reveal how people’s bodily movements, verbal articulations, and non-verbal expressions in communal spaces are crucial elements in practices of we-formation. Through participant observation in mosques and temples, during rituals and processions, and in private homes I reveal a sensitivity to tacit and intercorporeal phenomena that is still rare in anthropological analysis.
Rethinking Community in Myanmar develops a theoretical and methodological approach that reconciles individuality and intersubjectivity and that is applicable far beyond the Southeast Asian context. Its focus on we-formation also offers insights into the dynamics of resistance to the attempted military coup of 2021. The newly formed civil disobedience movement derives its power not only from having a common enemy, but also from each individual’s determination to live freely in a more just society.
My old school (Alte Landesschule Korbach) published an interview with me this month in their alumni journal. Sweet!
On April 1, 2016 I co-organized a one-day research workshop on “Doing fieldwork in Myanmar” with Dr. Felix Girke and the anthropology department of the University of Yangon. The event brought together 24 participants from Myanmar and German-speaking countries. Eleven PhD and MA students presented first findings from their on-going anthropological fieldwork in the country. The topics ranged from labour and migration to religion, livelihood, and cultural heritage ( see the final programme ). A major focus rested on questions of method and fieldwork practice. The students debated challenges and obstacles that they experienced while carrying out their research. More senior scholars guided them in further developing the conceptual frameworks of their studies.
After fifty years of authoritarianism, Myanmar has only recently become accessible for foreign researchers again. These students are thus on the forefront of a new generation of anthropologists carrying out long-time qualitative research in this Southeast Asian country. The University of Yangon itself had been off limits for most foreigners until 2014.
In our effort to bring about a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Konstanz in Germany and the University of Yangon in Myanmar, this workshop was an important first step towards more institutionalized collaboration and academic exchange.
First impressions from Yangon, Myanmar where I will be based until May 2016. The city has changed a lot in the last two years since I visited, mostly in terms of transportation and mobile phone use. What has remained the same are the great street food eateries, the use of loudspeakers to convey religious messages, lottery ticket sales and other important or not-so-important events. I missed the people a lot and its great to find almost everyone in good health and spirits. Nothing beats fieldwork, really! J.
I carried out some follow-up fieldwork in Northern Kyrgyzstan in order to finish my book which is due at the end of September this year. I had a wonderful time, met old friends and made new ones and really enjoyed the cool and starry nights in my village in Talas province, and the hot days in the capital Bishkek.
Here is one of two seminars on “the state” I will be teaching in the coming Summer Term 2015 at the University of Konstanz.
All BA-students registered in Konstanz are welcome:
Ethnography of the state: Participant observation and photography
The methodology of participant observation is at the forefront of this seminar. Aided by photography, we will close in on self-selected themes within the subject of ‘state’. Once characterised as “fiction of philosophers” (Radcliffe-Brown 1940), the representation of states (i.e. what concretely the state is) has become the central focus today. Students’ field research can be concentrated on institutions, such as the courts, police, state/municipal administration, and other public institutions. It can, however, also focus on other material embodiments of the state, such as streets, architecture, monuments or borders.
The topic will first be explored with the camera, and connected to the seminar by way of a concrete research question. Over the course of the seminar we will examine specific subjects in addition to making observations, and if possible we will also use other qualitative methods such as open questions and semi-structured interviews. As an accompaniment, we will read texts on ethnographic methods together with texts on the ethnography of the state.
The seminar has two goals: firstly, to discuss the method of participant observation in order to understand its possibilities and limitations; and secondly to offer a practical introduction to the theme of the ‘state’ and reflect on how such manifestations influence our daily lives.
New equipment (small and large cameras) has been purchased for the seminar specifically for students to borrow. Students can, however, also use their own cameras.
Possible work formations: individual work or two-person teams.
Seminar requirements: regular participation in class; reading of literature; regular conducting of field exercises during the semester; presentation of preliminary results; seminar paper to be written during the semester break.