Agency, Social Capital, and Mixed Embeddedness among Akha Ethnic Minority Street Vendors in Thailand's Tourist Areas

By Trupp, Alexander | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, November 2015 | Go to article overview

Agency, Social Capital, and Mixed Embeddedness among Akha Ethnic Minority Street Vendors in Thailand's Tourist Areas


Trupp, Alexander, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The work of self-employed Akha souvenir sellers in Thailand's capital city is situated at the intersection of tourism and migration, two central social and economic phenomena of our times (Williams and Hall 2002, p. 8). The areas of Bangkok in which Akha vendors are active --such as the famous travellers' quarter of Khaosan Road, the Lower Sukhumwit area or the red-light zone of Patpong--have become interfaces between street vendors or ethnic minority entrepreneurs and a wider economy in which domestic and international tourists, expatriates, business owners and workers, officials and various members of mainstream Thai society participate. The Akha migrants treated in this study are predominantly female. They have moved mainly from the northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to Bangkok in order to become self-employed and sell souvenirs since the 1990s, when economic opportunities in their highland home regions deteriorated and competition among vendors in the northern city of Chiang Mai intensified (Trupp 20146, p. 143).

This article uses members of the Akha ethnic minority group as an example for analysing the "mixed embeddedness" (Kloosterman et al. 1999; Kloosterman and Rath 2001; Ram et al. 2008) of urban ethnic-minority vendors. It also seeks to explore the strategies that such vendors employ to contest and circumvent existing structures and to create new ones. The concept of mixed embeddedness derives from studies of the socio-economic position of migrant and ethnic minority (micro-)entrepreneurs. Proponents of the mixed embeddedness approach argue that proper understanding of the opportunities and constraints of migrant entrepreneurs requires "taking into account not only their embeddedness in social networks ... but also their embeddedness in the socio-economic and politico-institutional environment" of the area of settlement (Kloosterman et al. 1999, p. 253). The work of these scholars follows and further develops the studies of Aldrich, Waldinger and Ward (Aldrich and Waldinger 1990; Waldinger et al. 1990), who claimed that, in order to explain ethnic entrepreneurial strategies, it is necessary to combine attention to ethnic and sociocultural factors with attention to politico-economic factors. This article applies the concepts of social embeddedness (Granovetter 1985; Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993) and social capital (Bourdieu 1986; Coleman 1988; Putnam 1993) to determine the social dimensions of economic action on the part of the vendors studied. I expand this social perspective by integrating the economic, political and legal embeddedness of the actors in question into the analysis. I examine market conditions influenced by tourism development or business competition as well as legal regulations and policies, such as those on ethnic minorities and street vending, in order to understand ethnic minority entrepreneurship--above all as it develops in the highly contested context of street vending.

"[M]ost scientific researchers have paid little systematic attention to the underlying structural changes of the economy in general and specific markets in particular" (Rath and Kloosterman 2000, p. 667). While the mixed embeddedness approach offers a strong tool for analysing the structural conditions that confront migrant and ethnic minority entrepreneurs, the approach nevertheless leaves the actors' motivations and agency invisible. It is thus necessary to expand on existing research by pursuing more qualitative and action-oriented studies focusing on entrepreneurs as individual agents (Ptitz 2003, p. 557). Following Bourdieu (1986), the level of an actor's agency -- capacity to take action--also depends on his or her endowment of capital in its various forms. At the same time economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital are unevenly distributed among various actors within a field. Capital can be perceived as power. It is accumulated, inherited and transferred individually or collectively (ibid. …

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