Prof. Jos Platenkamp

Structural analysis and the dynamics of political change: the case of Laos

Discussant: Sabine Luning

- Summary by Marije Kapinga \ Translation by WDO


There has been a lot of criticism on the French and the Leiden Schools of Structural Anthropology. Critics state that both these schools in structuralism are not able to analyze complex data gathered through professional fieldwork nor to provide adequate analysis of the dynamics of social change. Structural anthropology does not, according to the critics, pay enough attention to the individual as a barer of culture. Structural anthropology is said to abide to illusionary concepts of culture and society, in which the individual is made invisible.


Furthermore, it is often stated that processes of globalisation will lead to the creation of a 'global culture'. When differences between societies would evaporate, then the aim of cultural anthropology - the comparative description and analysis of differences between societies as systems of images and actions - would become unreachable. Acculturation is not new, yet has been accelerated since the 19tht and 20tht centuries and it reaches in this century a higher and more global intensity.


On both theoretical as ethnographical grounds, I contest views. This is what I want to talk about today.


In Laos, where I have conducted research the passed years, a globalisation process has been in a way initiated from 1975 on, with the formation of a communist nation-state. The communists party has tried to arrange the more than 100 different social language groups and three non-related language families in three topographically defined groups (lowland Lao, hill Lao and mountaintop Lao) and to transform the many different cultural communities into one nation. Furthermore, these past years, the government has tried to propagate the Therevada Buddhism as the national religion.


The fieldwork took place in Luang Prabang, a town in the northern part of Laos, where the Laotian Kings used to live. The research concentrates on the celebration of the New Year-ritual and on the ideas and values that carry this ritual. This ritual used to express an imaginary system that is centuries old, in which Buddism and Kingship were intertwined with the worship of spirits of land and water and in which a complex hierarchy was recognized. Nowadays, one is trying to bring this ritual in accordance with the modern socio-political ideology of the Laotian state, where all citizens are equal, the government has taken up the place of the King, and the Buddhism is officially recognized as religion.


In the perception of the local population, this New Years ritual does not only serve the purpose of bringing important spirits in a favorable mood and imploring happiness and prosperity from them, it also expresses the relationship between different parts of the town and the former King, for example in the form of a procession of ' brides' from all layers of the population, who all take their own position in the ritual parades. This is why the former royalty, the influence of spirits and the different hierarchical positions of the population are still ordening elements of the New Years ritual. However, in the context of the modern state, a lot of elements of the ritual system have been altered. For example: the 'brides' are nowadays called ' beauty queens', that are elected in a ' beauty contest'. The influence of globalisation is not to be stopped. But, instead of interpreting this as a process that leads to cultural leveling, it should rather be seen as a dynamic in which new local transformations constantly arise, wherein old and new images are being integrated.


In order to be able to continue analyzing these transformations, the methods and models of structural anthropology are indispensable.


Referee: Dr. Sabine Luning


To complement Prof. Platenkamp, I would like to add four points of attention


1. differences between structuralists: models and practice


In the difference between the tradition of Levi-Strauss and Leiden, there lies a question on the erlation between the way in which the people model their rituals and the way in which the anthropologists views it. This has not bee mentioned in the introduction. Nonetheless, I believe this to be a very important topic in the context of this conference. A study on the dynamics of social change requires research-attention for the interaction between different types of models. How was it possible to follow the events? U mention that the government was following your research; how did that influence your study on these ritual events?


2. Marxism in Laos and different forms f similar ideologies: adaptation towards Buddhism.


Elements of the original Marxist regime have moved towards Buddhist tradition through actions of the government. Is this, in the process of homogenization and the elements of globalisation, an example in which locality is difficult to determine?


3. Construction of the local and the social


What could this research add to the debate concerning the study of local communities?


4. Fieldwork: different times and places


Could there be some influence on the research in Laos from the extensive and long etrm research the researcher has conducted in Indonesia? To what extend did the 'spectacles of experience' direct your vision when in Laos?

Reply prof. Platenkamp:


These are many fundamental points addressed by Dr. Luning. Thank you for that, I will answer your four points of attention.


1) Indeed, there is a difference between the French and Leiden variants of structural anthropology. The contribution of Leiden is to maintain the systematic distinction between anthropological models and participants' models. They both testify, however, to the same process: to use something that is known in order to explain something unknown. In my research I first explore the participants' models in order to gain an understanding of the decision making processes that structure the rituals, and then attempt to translate these into anthropological models.


2) It is very interesting to see how in Laos one attempts to align a principally utopian Marxism with Buddhism, that is, to see it being transformed in situations of local contact and interaction.


3) I try to utilise observed phenomena of local differences. At this moment certain bodies interact, there is an interaction between globalization and local differences. To analyse such interactions it is indispensable to describe the local differences.


4) On the comparison between Laos and Indonesia: yes, I use models that have been developed for the comparative analysis of the various Indonesian cultural systems, in an attempt to gain an understanding of the Lao data. The Indonesian models which I applied in Laos seem to work, that is, they do have a heuristic value, but of course that does not mean that Lao and Indonesian systems are identical.


Q Spyer (public): Are these Laotian 'beauty queens' indigenous for you?


Reply: The beauty queens in Laos are not part of the original ritual, and very different from beauty queens in Paris. In Laos the authorities organise beauty queen contests. In my understanding this is done to suppress and transform the original context of the ritual. So the seemingly 'global' meaning of the concept of 'beauty queen' for Laos has acquired a local and culturally specific meaning.