Read: “Anthropology and community in Cambodia.”

Marston, John, ed. 2011. Anthropology and community in Cambodia: reflections on the work of May Ebihara. Caulfield (AUS): Monash University Press.

It’s rare enough for new academic texts on Cambodia to be published that each publication feels something like an event.  John Marston‘s latest edited volume doesn’t fail that test.  Marston, previously co-edited a volume of collected essays titled “History, Buddhism, and new religious movements in Cambodia,” along with Elizabeth Guthrie.  This new volume follows another recent festschrift in honor of David Chandler. The festschrifts come fast and furious recently, which is both gratifying and nerve-wracking, since the arrival of festschrifts usually implies the transfer to field or disciplinary authority to a new generation.  John is of that next generation, and along with his peers – my elders – reassures the reader that they will be able to continue moving the field forward.

May Ebihara was an astonishing person in many many ways.  I won’t ruin the experience of getting to know her from the book, which open with a lovely essay on Ebihara by David Chandler, and closes with a transcript of an interview between Marston and Ebihara.  I had the honor of meeting her in person just once, and prior to meeting her Chandler told me, with the sort of grave seriousness that meant I both should and should not take his pronouncements too seriously, that there “are two things you need to know about May. First: she’s a very little women. Second: she’s really not.”  David was right.  May was a woman of astonishing short physical stature.  But she took up a lot of room.  Not in a boorish or dominating way, but rather through her humor, her openness to conversation with anyone – even lowly graduates who stumbled onto a dinner far above their station – and her intelligence, which was both broad and deep.

As the only American anthropologist to have conducted a field ethnography prior to the Khmer Rouge period, her work holds an enormous amount of value for all of us in the field. Her dissertation Svay continues to be a foundational source of understanding about Cambodian peasant life. The best advice I ever received when writing my own dissertation was that “dissertations were meant to be bound on all four sides.” This remains completely untrue of Ebihara’s great dissertation.

Moreover, May returned to her ethnographic site after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and watched the village slowly return to life, if never to the situation that existed prior to the conflict.  Today one of her students Judy Ledgerwood, a contributor to this volume and a fellow member of Marston’s generation, continues Ebihara’s work at the same site.  In a country wracked by so much upheaval, it is both academically significant and interesting, as well as personally affecting and hope-inducing, that such long-term, multi-generational, studies are even possible.

The contents of the book will be of interest to anyone curious about rural Cambodian life today, the influence of the Khmer Rouge period on rural Cambodia, and the meaning of ‘community,’ that over-and-under-used word, so laden with competing nuances of politics and discipline that one almost wishes it away.  Yet Ebihara has always been a community-oriented scholar, and her emphasis and employment of the term because something of a subterranean conversation between contributors through the work.  As more contemporary scholars focus ever-more-strongly on networks, relationships, and institutions, the conversation on community at the very least returns us to an attention to the ways in which a sense of interdependence, trust, and relationship are created and maintained.

A few of the chapters focus not directly on Cambodia but on Thailand: essays by A Thomas Kirsch, Charles Keyes, and Jane Richardson Hanks all take Thailand as their primary focus, though Keyes especially attempts to connect and comment on Cambodian changes.  Articles by Keyes, Alexander Hinton, and Kate Frieson all take the disruptions of the Khmer Rouge period as their primary data, focusing respectively on the failures of peasantist revolution, genocidal terror, and the decline of female status in Cambodia during the period, respectively.  Eve Zucker, Judy Ledgerwood, and Sedara Kim all focus on more contemporary, village-level data-sets.  Zucker’s work is based on her dissertation fieldwork in a highland Khmer community in which poverty, loss of trust, and novel social conflicts continue to pervade daily life; Ledgerwood’s essay focuses on the differing relationships between the communit(y/ies) of Svay and their two separate temples, and Kim’s quantitative-rich study focuses on patterns of village reciprocity.

Soizick Crochet writes a sort of survey on the nature of Cambodian village monographs which could perhaps have come somewhat earlier, as it helps to set a tone of differential engagement to ethnographic works, and Jane Hank’s short, poetic work on females and fertility will undoubtedly inspire additional work on those topics. The essays all achieve a high level of quality, and each makes significant contributions to Cambodian scholarship, brought together through the focus on rural villages and their transformation.

One disappointment is the quality of sentence-level editing in the volume.  While the content is excellent throughout, there are too many typographical errors (the very first line includes a period between a first and second name), and given the relatively low numbers of fanatical Cambodian scholars who purchase such books, these are unlikely to be corrected in a second edition.  That may seem like a unimportant complaint in light of what is otherwise a very good book, and it is.  But such editing issues do affect the readability – and importantly, the pleasure – of a book, and so perhaps it is acceptable to register the disappointment here, and hope that even in spite of the severe financial constraints on academic publishing, such basic mechanical issues will return as a subject of importance for university presses.

I highly recommend buying and reading this book.  If you are a Cambodian scholar, there’s really no excuse.  If you are an anthropologist interested in community studies, village transformation, and post-traumatic recovery at the community level, this is an important work.  Most of the contributions could easily be used for undergraduates as well as graduates, should the material be appropriate to the class.


One thought on “Read: “Anthropology and community in Cambodia.”

  1. Pingback: Reading Report « imagining the real world

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