Workshop: Divergent resource claims in plural ecologies. Case studies from Southeast Asia

Workshop 6–8 July 2017
Institute for Advanced Study, Konstanz.

Organized by Judith Beyer (University of Konstanz) and Birgit Bräuchler (Monash University)

In this workshop, we intend to investigate divergent claims to resource access, thereby furthering our common interest in plural ecologies across Southeast Asia. Following Ribot and Peluso’s Theory of Access (2003), we define access to resources as the “ability to derive benefits from things – including material objects, persons, institutions, and symbols” (2003:153). Access to natural resources (such as land, water, mineral resources) is always legitimized, negotiated, defended, and denied through the recourse to cultural resources.

Cultural resources include economic (markets, infrastructure, etc.), political (legitimation discourses about civil rights, ethnicity, indigeneity cultural heritage, etc.), and religious (traditional knowledge, cosmology, etc.) forms of power and influence. In social-political practice, natural and cultural resources never appear separately but are always intertwined, and, to a certain extent, interdependent. Competition for and claims to resources is decisive since privileged access and the inclusion of a particular group usually involves the exclusion or neglect of others (see Hall, Hirsch, & Li 2011: 8, 13; Adhuri 2009).

We here consider the concepts of majority, minority, and indigeneity as political constructs functioning at the interface of local identity claims, traditional resource demands, the enforcement of national laws, and internationally promoted human rights. The “right to culture” is central in the recent development of collective human rights (see, for example, Francioni & Scheinin, 2008; Stamatopoulou, 2007) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2007). Among others, it concerns the granting of long denied access to resources and promotes the advancement of group-specific rights on a national level, which is fostered by an increasing number of decentralization and demo- cratization processes in Southeast Asia and does not go undisputed as it leads to the exclusion of non-group members (compare e.g., F. v. Benda-Beckmann & K. von Benda-Beckmann, 2010; Kymlicka & Norman, 2000; Rosaldo, 2003; Taylor, 1994; Young, 1989). In debates on minority and indigeneity the question is whether it is justified to grant specific rights to individuals or groups within a state for historic reasons (see, in particular, Barnard, 2006; Bohnet & Höher, 2004; Guenther et al, 2003; Preece, 2005). Again, this implies a close interlinkage of political, cultural and natural resources.

What is of special interest for this workshop is how such ambivalences and contestations between local, national and international rights and claims inform ecological policies and power struggles at the respective levels. Given the rising demand for cultural rights and the plurality of ecologies within and across countries in Southeast Asia, a regional comparison would shed
new light on debates about diverging normative orders, the translation of individual and collective human rights, and the (sustainable) management of a broad range of resources.

For a full programme of the workshop see here.



Podcast about my book

Sean Guillory of Sean’s Russia Blog spoke with me the other day about my book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.” You can listen to the podcast online here or download the podcast here.

In our interview, Sean asked me what inspired me to do a study on “custom” (Kyrgyz salt) and how we can understand the concept anthropologically, how it is communicated, what metaphors are associated with it and in what contexts we can observe it in action.

Sean was also interested in hearing my reasons for not anonymizing my main informants, how people in my fieldsite conceive of their history, what the historical trajectories of the local courts of elders (aksakal courts) are, how Soviet life has been unmade after Kyrgyzstan gained independence, how we should understand the role of the state in the countryside and what the roles of elders and their relationship with villagers, politicians and state administrators are.

Finally, we discuss my decision to end the book with a criticism of the concept of postsocialism which, I argue, is not central for understanding everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.


Teaching “The romantization of community” (MA course)

This summer term, I am continuing my exploration of the concept of ‘community’ with an MA-course that is aimed at reading whole monographs instead of articles. We are reading Zygmunt Bauman’s “Community. Seeking safety in an insecure world” (2001), Miranda Joseph’s “Against the romance of community” (2002) and Michael Herzfeld’s “Siege of the spirits. Community and polity in Bangkok” (2016).

What makes community? Solidarity, emotional attachment, common interests and practices? Dependence, debt, death? What is it that community asks from its participants, and what does it promise them? The academic discussion of what community really is has long been controversial. In the last few years, however, publications have critically questioned the concept and its often positive connotation without losing sight of its uninterrupted relevance both within and outside academia.

The aim of the seminar is to examine the concept of community in its entire range: from our own everyday understanding to descriptions of a “paradise lost” to its philosophical “unthinkability.”

Summer Term 2017. University of Konstanz. MA-Course as part of the MA in “Anthropology and Sociology”.


The Force of Custom. Law and the Ordering of Everyday Life in Kyrgyzstan

I wrote a book. No, it didn’t happen just like that. It was more of a ten-year thing. Starting in 2004 as part of a PhD thesis, the story unfolded over the course of 10 years, included language training, a lot of reading and thinking, but most importantly spending a long time in a rural part of Kyrgyzstan, getting to know people who grew up there, people who were different from me in so many ways, who knew so much more about life and what it means to grow up and grow older amongst the people you love, but in a society that was changing rapidly. How did ‘the big  change’ (the end of the Soviet Union) relate to the many small changes in a person’s course of life? How did people deal with the fact that the last century had come with a lot of unforseeable innovations impacting all spheres of life – from the economy to politics, religion and law? This book is a book about people not only coping with the fact that life is changing. It is about trying to understand the way in which they manage it – how do they order everyday life? And what role do ‘law’ and ‘custom’ play in this regard? My book is a legal anthropological exploration of people’s everyday lives. In it, I explore aspects of sociality which, at first sight, do not seem to involve law, but which are nevertheless shot through with it: funerals, village genealogies, veterans’ celebrations, mosque congregations…

I am happy about this book. It tells real stories that were told to me by real people. It tries to do justice to their own ways of reasoning. It takes their struggles and concerns serious and it stays with their perspective on life when translating what I have come to understand into the language of social anthropology. I wrote this book for myself, for I wanted to understand. Now I hope it will get read by others, too.

You can order my book here or here

“Judith Beyer has done a magnificent job of unfolding current notions of legalism among the Kyrgyz of Talas province. Her prose is crystal clear, her ethnography is rich, and her theoretical engagement is stimulating and accessible. This book deserves a place on readers’ shelves alongside the best works on the anthropology of post-socialist Eurasia.”

Paolo Sartori, Institute of Iranian Studies, Vienna

On the Shia community in Yangon, Myanmar

Celebrating-Arbaeen-Shia-in-Myanmar_origI posted a sound-bite from my recent fieldwork in Myanmar on Allegra this week.

Here is the full text:

On December 2nd 2015, the Shia community in Myanmar celebrated Arba’een – the fourtieth day after Ashura. I recorded this martyr song around midnight in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon where I have been carrying out 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2013 and 2016. That night, men and women joined a downtown procession of a tomb replica of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Mohammad. The Arba’een celebration is one of the largest Muslim celebrations worldwide, attracting around 25 million people in Karbala (Iraq) in 2015 alone.

In Yangon, however, the Shia community is very small. There are no official numbers; community leaders usually count the attendance at Ashura and Arba’een, the two most important memorial events of Shia. “We might be around 6000 in Myanmar,” one elder said, “but in Yangon, maybe around 3000 only.” During the yearly mourning period, which lasts for two months, the community gathers regularly in their two mosques in the downtown area. Women and men as well as various youth organizations have their own duties to perform and they organize seperate festive events. In 2015 and 2016, every week another donor came forward to pay for food to be prepared in the mosque on Fridays after juma, the weekly prayer meeting. The cooks, who are employed by the board of trustees of the mosque, prepared rice and chicken dishes for everyone and people took turns eating, making sure they finished their plate quickly to make space for new guests. Next to community members, also Buddhist monks, neighbours of various religious backgrounds, Sunni friends and the occasional tourists, who happened to pass by, were invited. Afterwards, milk tea was being served outside and people hung out to chat with each other.

In the basement of the Shia mosque food is being served after prayer (Photo by Judith Beyer)

In the basement of the Shia mosque food is being served after prayer (Photo by Judith Beyer)

The Shia community in Myanmar traces its origin back to either Iran or to India. Community members are well aware of each others genealogical backgrounds and frequently point to differences in their physical appearance to indicate the geographial origin of their great-grandparents who all had been brought from India to Burma (as the country was called until 1989). From 1840 onwards, the British colonizers had shipped thousands of “Indians” across the Bay of Bengal to help them in the administration of their final addition to the British Empire. Muslims from India had been under colonial governance already, they often spoke English well and knew how to interact with the British authorities. Rangoon, as the small town by the Andaman sea was called back then, quickly turned into an “Indian city” and was composed of people referred to as kula lu-myo in the Burmese language, literally “people who have crossed over” (meaning journeyed from India to Burma across the Bay of Bengal).

Members of the Shia community applied for a free land grant from the East India Company, an English, later British trade company that operated in India and Burma from the mid-18th century onwards. Their request was granted and two mosques were erected, both in the downtown area. Next to the two Shia mosques, Sunni mosques, Hindu temples and Christian churches were established in this period, turning Yangon into a multireligious place.

Although Myanmar is a de facto Buddhist state in which the majority of its population practices Theravada Buddhism, Yangon has retained its plural religious landscape until today.


On Arba’een, the downtown procession passes the golden Sule pagoda (Photo by Judith Beyer)