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The Traffic in Hierarchy: Precedence and Power in Burmese Social Life

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Duration: 0:56:37 | Added: 24 May 2016
Dr Ward Keeler speaks at the Southeast Asia Seminar.

Traffic on city streets is the first of three scenes from everyday life Ward Keeler will use in this lecture to illustrate principles of hierarchy and power as they obtain in contemporary Burmese social life. The second is the public “Dhamma talks” or Buddhist sermons sponsored increasingly frequently at pagodas and neighbourhood festivals. The third is the interaction among customers and servers at tea shops, where hot and cold drinks and a variety of snacks can be had at most hours of the day. The very ordinariness of these phenomena shows how concerns for relative standing—hierarchical understandings—and the privileges and obligations they entail, pervade Burmese social interaction. At the same time, differences among these scenes makes it possible to illustrate how hierarchy inflects behaviour in diverse ways according to the nature of the situation at hand: when interaction is anonymous and therefore implicates only differences in power; when situations elicit enthusiastic displays of subordination; and when arrangements provide hints of what superior standing without implications of reciprocal obligation would feel like, which is to say, why the market economy exercises such seductive allure.

Ward Keeler is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph. D from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, following undergraduate studies at Cornell University. During the first part of his career, he did research on the performing arts, language, and gender in Java and Bali (Indonesia). More recently he has conducted fieldwork in Mandalay (Burma). His published works include two books on the Javanese shadow play tradition, the annotated translation of a postmodernist Indonesian novel, a textbook for the Javanese language, three CDs of Burmese classical music, as well as a number of articles on both Indonesia and Burma. He and a collaborator, Allen Lyan, have prepared materials for foreign learners of Burmese, which they hope to publish in the near future. The lecture is based on the opening chapter of a book, The Traffic in Hierarchy: Masculinity and Its Others in Buddhist Burma, based on recent fieldwork in Mandalay, to be published by the University of Hawaii Press.

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