Introduction

Article excerpt

This special issue seeks to explore various dimensions of social differentiation in Laos, namely politics, religion, economics, ethnicity, and history. The guiding question is how contemporary Lao society develops within the framework of the conflicting tendencies of globalization, nationalism, capitalism, and traditionalism. The papers collected in the volume tackle different aspects of the question that complement each other to form the outline of a comprehensive picture and are mainly based on original, anthropological fieldwork. All authors view differentiation from a sociocultural and "indigenous" rather than from a descriptive, Orientalist, or universalist perspective--but they still pursue ambitious empirical and theoretical aims.

The term "social differentiation" is most readily associated with modernization theory (e.g., Rostow 1960; Parsons 1971). Contemporary globalization casts doubt on modernization theory--and on the sociological tradition as a whole (Nederveen Pieterse and Rehbein 2008). Few theories continue to portray democracy and capitalism in contemporary Europe and/or the United States as the universal models for the entire world and as the "end of history" (Fukuyama 1992). As Europe and the United States cease to be the unequivocal models of all other societies (and to be the dominating world powers), other empirical cases emerge as legitimate objects of study--not only for anthropology and area studies but for theoretically minded social sciences in general. At this point countries like Laos and regions like Southeast Asia are not mere objects of anthropological curiosity or the application of Western theories any more, but begin to be legitimate bases for theory-building and conceptual work (Alatas 2001).

This line of argument informs the present volume. Instead of repeating Eurocentric theories and uncritically applying them to societies of the global South, the authors of the volume propose to perform empirical studies of differentiation from the perspective of the global South in order to revise the classical theories and/or to construct theories adapted to their empirical field, which in the case of this volume is Laos.

The authors would agree with modernization theory that social differentiation in Laos has been increasing. But they go beyond the concept of division of labour, since very few Lao are engaged in wage-labour, and labour in any sense is merely one dimension of Lao society. And they would go beyond a functional concept of differentiation because they take agency, meaning, and power into account, which modernization theory does not. Furthermore, they demonstrate that differentiation takes place at varying, unequal speeds within different fields, regions, and groups of Lao society. To explain differentiation in the field of religion or the political elite does not mean to explain differentiation within the economic field or the peasantry.

The authors place some emphasis on social differentiation in the sense of poststructural theory. Instead of focusing on the division of labour and functional differentiation, they take vertical differentiation into account. Being different, establishing difference and expressing distinction are aspects of vertical differentiation that have been studied by post-structuralism, especially Pierre Bourdieu. Most papers in the volume draw heavily on Bourdieu's sociology without sharing its Eurocentric bias. In this regard they share a common theoretical horizon that extends to concepts and general statements.

Finally, the authors of the volume acknowledge the tendencies of contemporary globalization. Laos is becoming globalized while much of the population live as peasants in a subsistence economy. At the same time as many Lao--rural and urban--become members of global subcultures using cell phones, the Internet, slang variants of English, and real-time stock trading, their compatriots live off a stretch of land and access to the forest. …