Moments of Stability

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We dare not leave this vista of kaleidoscopic impermanence without mentioninga few factors in stability. Certainly the merit-based hierarchy representsthe fixed field on which action occurs. Though power blurs the clearedges of cosmic justice, one may think of justice lagging behind, like a courtwith a clogged calendar, in exacting punishments and awarding compensations.The stations on the hierarchy, too, are relatively fixed. While the particularpriests in a temple change from year to year, as do the members of a government bureau or the artisans in a tinker’s shop, the tasks at each ofthese stations remain roughly the same. In all sections of the hierarchy thegeneral rules apply for the reciprocation of benefits and services.Sex and age further define action and limit the range of mobility. Thoughmen stand on the whole slightly above women and though both sexes sharetasks flexibly, the man is expected to be “hard” (khaeng), since he must advancethe group on the hierarchy. Women are “soft” (auaun), hence are lessdirectly concerned with social advancement; they work to solidify the group.A child, though inducted early into the system of benefits and services, isconsidered too weak for the rules to apply with full vigor. Similarly, aftera life-time of benefits and services, the aged reciprocate only if they are soinclined. The rules of reciprocation and the struggle for position focus particularlyon the adult male until his nominal retirement.In speaking of “rigor” in applying the rules, we are only affirming thatthe expectation of services in return for benefits varies between a meticulousaccounting and the never-alculated, easy transactions of old friends. Whena farmer exchanges uprooting labor5 with his neighbors, all parties know theexact number of bundles that must be bound within the work day. Whenan older brother houses and feeds, clothes, and treats his younger brother,neither party in this liaison knows the services that are to be returned norexpects them within a particular time. As long as “love” (khwaamrag) and“respect” (nabthyy) dominate, neither partner reckons his efforts. Love andrespect thus become stabilizing factors in liaisons, for then fewer are inclinedto break the relationship. These qualities mark the relations especiallyof kinsmen, and kinship accordingly promotes more permanent liaisons.Yet, as we have already seen, the right to terminate a liaison is exercisedamong kinsmen as well as nonkinsmen. When convenient, parents leavetheir children with aunts and uncles; siblings take off on their own.6 A wifedeparted with the cash, livestock, and tools of her jailed husband to join anotherman, but no one questioned her right to do so; people observed onlythat she loved her former husband for his property. Yet certainly “love” and“respect” slow the speed of breaking liaisons.[. . .]Before the 20th century, slow transportation limited the geographic areaof mobility, and within a given area the special privileges and restrictionsapplying to nobles, commoners, and slaves further curtailed the easy rangeof movement. However, the abolition of slavery in 1872 lifted one barrier tosocial mobility. The demise of the royal harem in the second decade of the[previous] century together with the revolution of 1932 reduced the privilegesof nobility to a smaller portion of the population and modified theseprivileges substantially. In these ways social mobility has been increasing.[since the nineteenth century], to say nothing of the transportation whichhas multiplied geographic mobility. Yet important new restrictions are developing.Education presents the single most important new barrier to movement,for without satisfying educational prerequisites for governmental posts, manylack access to advancement. Certain occupations, e.g., medicine and engineering,are developing relatively closed groups where admission requiresspecial training. In these manners, new rules for moving in the social scene are developing.Yet the fundamental principles of merit and power still operate, andthe new occupations are readily fitted to the hierarchy. Desire to rise andfear of falling remain the emphasis. Specialists trained abroad may or maynot practice their specialties at home, but the letters of a foreign degree afterone’s name opens the way to higher station. As new occupations appear,people learn the skills in school or on the job, but [for the] Thai these [acquired]skills lie more peripherally in the ego; to the Thai they are more instrumentalthan personal, like carrying an umbrella on a rainy day or learningto row a boat. Concerned mainly with the advancement, the power, andultimately the merit, they treat their skills as insignia for a higher rank.




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