Materializing Thailand

Materializing Thailand

Materializing Thailand

Materializing Thailand


Thailand has become well known throughout the world for wonderful cuisine, great package holidays, sumptuous temples and textiles. Noticeably absent from glossy tourist brochures but equally well known throughout the Western world is Thailand's seedier side - the world of child exploitation, rampant prostitution and AIDS. Thailand maintains its appeal by slipping the ugly and painful out of sight and by promoting women as exotic visual icons through beauty contests, state rituals and the sex trade.This book explores the construction of gender in Thailand and in particular the role Bangkok plays in establishing gender relations for the whole of the country. It examines the historical and cultural processes underlying Thai public culture, including historical theme parks. The author demonstrates how the materiality of the Thai world shapes gender relations and how Buddhism discourages essentialisms, including fixed binary gender identities. Throughout the book, appearances are shown to be critically important, and the essentialism of gender is maintained through display, public presentations, and everyday material practices.Anyone wishing to understand the complexity of Thailand will find this book provides a highly readable and insightful analysis.


We ride on the shoulders of our teachers and our students. I thank all those who have taught and inspired me in Thailand and North America in the process of researching this book. Rather than select a few to name and risk offending by naming or failure to name, I would like this dedication to A. Thomas Kirsch (1930–1999) to stand as an acknowledgement and thank you to all those who take the time to support others, personally and professionally.

Although I was never a student at Cornell, Tom Kirsch was my teacher in many ways, responding to questions, commenting, commending, correcting. Every few months over the last three years, Tom would gently probe, ‘have you finished your book on Thai gender yet’? I would offer excuses, only to be buoyed up by Tom's faith in anthropology, Thai studies (and me). There is no greater gift that a mentor can give than the utter confidence that a task will be completed. Tom critiqued early chapter drafts, seeing connections to draw arguments together, pointing out contradictions, and inspiring insights that were as much his as mine.

In his own work, he saw historical context as integral to anthropological analysis, and incorporated gender as part of good ethnography in a logically elegant, unselfconscious manner into his work long before the subject became popular. His intellectual excitement was infectious.

This book is therefore dedicated to the life and scholarship of A. Thomas Kirsch, whose sensitive approach to history and gender in Thai anthropology inspired so many students and colleagues. His legacy endures in their work.

I acknowledge with thanks a York University, Faculty of Arts Research Fellowship (1992) that allowed me to spend several months at Thai Khadi Research Institute, Thammasat University, Bangkok. Stimulating visits to Southeast Asian Programs at Michigan, Wisconsin, Hawaii and Cornell made up for the isolation of writing in a school, indeed a . . .

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