Going Beyond "The West" and "The Rest"
Conducting Non-Western, Non-native Ethnography
in Northern Thailand
Camera and notebook in hand, "the anthropologist" is looking for the
savage, but the savage has disappeared.
One reason for the disappearance of "the savage" is that he (or in this case "she") is now taking on the role of anthropologist and assuming multiple levels of familiarity that are transforming the relationship(s) of the observer to the observed. The ethnographer is no longer obviously distinguishable from her subjects, having emerged herself from the colonial, political, and historical morass that has come to define the non-West. In my experience as a Malaysian ethnographer of rural Thailand, fieldwork created certain moments of intellectual and social tension that served both to underscore the "savageness" of my own identity and to dissolve the significance of the native–Westerner distinction altogether. These tensions produced insights and observations that rested uneasily in the world of the village and in my own world, leading in turn to new spaces of significance for this anthropologist to ponder.1 In this chapter I tease out moments of cultural overlap and dissonance, some expected, some unexpected. I also explore how research subjects themselves contribute to the construction of the anthropologist's relationship to the field.
Previous ethnographies on Thailand have emphasized conformity and stability, 2 thereby shaping my pre-fieldwork vision of Thai villages as spaces of logically patterned behaviors and attitudes. Imagine my surprise, and indeed outright confusion, when I encountered instead a research site that seemed to me out of focus, a space of constant and multiple movements, positionings, and posturings. Also, the "facts," the logic, and the reasoning given to me by villagers about their lives seemed