Communities of Potential: Social Assemblages in Thailand and Beyond

By Tsumura, Fumihiko | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Communities of Potential: Social Assemblages in Thailand and Beyond


Tsumura, Fumihiko, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Communities of potential: Social assemblages in Thailand and beyond

Edited by SHIGEHARU TANABE

Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2016. Pp. 250. Map, Illustration, Index.

Shigeharu Tanabe's edited volume aims to reveal prominent features of contemporary community movements in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand and Cambodia, and to illuminate the potential imagination and practice of the individual and the community.

In his introduction, the editor criticises the classic theories of communities for assuming that collectivity and homogeneity shape the core identity of its members. Since the early 2000s, the Internet and social media have spread widely and heterogeneous forces have become involved in global and local changes, social conditions have been largely changed, and harmonious views about communities have become difficult to apply. Individuals and communities formed on the bases of autonomy or/and social movements are becoming more flexible and open to the outside. Tanabe introduces the concept of 'assemblage' to the ethnographic analysis of social movements in this new context of fluidity, uncertainty, and commodification.

As some of this book's contributors mention, 'assemblage' was first posited by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A thousand plateaus (1987), and often referred to by scholars such as Manuel DeLanda, Arturo Escobar and Michael Osterweil. 'Assemblage' can be distinguished from theories that rely on totality (such as a system or structure), essence (such as ethnicity or culture), or the whole (such as the nation-state or global capitalism). Viewed through this framework, communities are seen as a configuration of heterogeneous forces, individuals and groups where the constituent parts have significant roles and retain a certain autonomy. Since relational aspects are considered central to Communities of potential, this key theory elucidates how diverse individuals actualise their potential and how community movements are constructed through actions and practices. Without relying on reality, structure or culture, the heterogeneity and communality in these movements can be described through 'assemblage'.

This volume consists of eleven chapters divided into three parts: I) Assemblages in community movements, II) Communitas and reflexivity, and III) Experience and alliance. Part I clarifies major characteristics of community movements in which multiple individuals form assemblages to pursue common goals through different approaches. The chapters explore religious movements and folk medicine movements in Northern Thailand and NGO movements in Cambodia. Chapter 2 by Kwanchewan Buadaeng analyses the construction of a pagoda by a charismatic Karen monk, Phue Khaw Taw, on Tamo mountain in Chiang Mai Province. The area's Karen were followers and believers of earlier charismatic monks' prophecy that 'the mountain owner will come to build a pagoda on its top'. Therefore, when the pagoda was announced, the prophecy's followers became excited and helped with its construction. Kwanchewan interprets these events not as the continuation of a traditional religious movement, but as an assemblage of different agencies involved in building the pagoda. Phu Khaw Taw and his diverse followers from Karen State, Myanmar and Thailand, who included other monks, donors, and even local Thai officials, did not form a unified whole, but their interaction increased each other's capacities. Even within one agency, there were differences in ideas and practices. However, Kwanchewan indicates that the instability and multiplicity in the assemblage enabled adaptation to changing socioeconomic circumstances and the actualisation of their religious movement. …

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