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Identity Systems of Highland Burma: 'Belief', Akha Zan, and a Critique of Interiorized Notions of Ethno-Religious Identity

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While 'belief' as an interiorized, propositional capacity may be universal, when discussing the domain of 'religion' it must be viewed as a trope, that is, as a particular and historically specific Western cultural idiom for expressing people's relationship to tradition. This idiom emphasizes the interiority of ethno-religious identity. Drawing on ethnographic material from the Akha of Northern Thailand and some other Asian societies, it is argued that while 'belief' as an interiorizing notion is relevant in some contexts, it is not at all relevant to Akha cultural discourse on the relationship to tradition. There, ethno-religious identity takes an exteriorized form. This finding is used to expose the assumption of interiority in the various anthropological approaches to religious belief, and its implications for discussions of scepticism and critical thought are explored.

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... Indeed, how is it possible to distinguish between the two? However, in her discussion of the Akha cultural group in Northern Thailand, Deborah Tooker critiques the propositional and interiorising assumptions in the various anthropological approaches to this issue of religious cognition (Tooker 1992). Although she concedes that there may be some element of religious cognition which can be found on a universal level, the process of locating religious manifestations in beliefs (that is, in propositions that are affirmed by individuals as true rather than false) is by no means universal. ...
... A person's religion does not exist beyond a particular embodied manifestation (a circumcision or a building, or a particular discourse), it is embedded within the experience of that manifestation and cannot be abstracted out of it. In talking about religion in this way, it is possible to incorporate Tooker's (1992) perspective coming from her Akha informants-that is a religiosity that is manifest in the business of ‗carrying', rather than any ‗interiorisation'. Such an understanding of religiosity considers manifestations which are particular to embodied experiences. ...
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Scholars who identify themselves as anthropologists of religion attempt to work across the disciplinary divisions between religion and social/cultural anthropology , to varying degrees of success. In this paper I review some contemporary perspectives on how anthropology of religion has been developed, placing particular emphasis on the shift from religion-as-belief to religion-as-embodied-practice. However, an approach which considers religion as practice may need to rethink the religion-concept itself, and I suggest that anthropologists should begin to think of ‗religioning' rather than ‗religion', as a means of reconceptualising this shift. In conclusion I explore alternative tropes for such a discourse on religioning, looking at the play and work of religious practice.
... Therefore, the question about pioneering would not be: How do people break free from a traditional setting? Even where local terms for 'tradition' have some history -as among the Lisu (Diao, this issue), Akha (Tooker 1992), Lahu (Walker 2003: 429) or Sgaw Karen (Hayami 2004: 4) -as concepts they are very much present-day institutions. They serve to enable discussions about what to adopt from the outside and what to resist. ...
... The distinction between this world and matters beyond evokes so-called world religions, compared to whom most indigenous cosmologies of upland Southeast Asia appear as staunchly immanent (e.g. Tooker 1992). However, I suggest that the value of transcending bounded localities that is used to gain power from afar conceptually and historically prepares the arrival of transcendent religions. ...
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en Upland pioneering involves variations of two themes: drawing in power from the outside and the transcendence of local bounded social entities. Both integrate the distinction between inside and outside at the base of sociality in upland Southeast Asia. Pioneering is a valorised activity that continuously takes on new forms and thereby exemplifies the dynamics of inside and outside. Data from the Rmeet in Laos show that these movements have a gendered dimension. Pouvoir et transcendance : un commentaire sur les pionniers des hautes terres fr Le pionnage des hautes terres consiste en des variations de deux thèmes: attirer du pouvoir de l’extérieur et la transcendance d’entités sociales délimitée localement. Tous deux intègrent la distinction entre l’intérieur et l’extérieur à la base de la socialité des hautes terres d’Asie du Sud-Est. Le pionnage est une activité valorisée qui prend continuellement de nouvelles formes et illustre ainsi la dynamique de l’intérieur et de l’extérieur. Des données du Rmeet au Laos montrent donc que ces mouvements ont une dimension genrée.
... Focusing on how pious selves are instigated by practices of worship, they highlight the significance of the way in which norms are related and diffused in social relations. Although the articulations of Mahmood and others contribute to our understanding of Islamic subjects and societies, they still consider piety and belief intricately tied to the interior self (Asad 2012;Tooker 1992) and retain the conventional conceptualisation of the self as that who either instigates or is constituted by moral conduct, that is practices that the self is engaged with. ...
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Drawing on an ethnographic research in some rural communities of Trabzon, Turkey, this article provides insights about the diversity of Islamic pieties and their relations to religious norms. An exploration of everyday Islamic practices in the area demonstrates how piety can take peculiar forms within which norms are both publicly and socially upheld and yet also hollowed out. Among Muslim men of ‘the Valley’ in Trabzon, piety emerges as an aggregate of reiterative practices exterior to the pious self. Highlighting the aestheticised and ritualised state of these engagements with Islam in the Turkish context allows discussion of the relationships among practices of piety, pious subjectivities, and ethics.
... In outlining a Bidayuh model of Bidayuh-ness, so to speak, I have tried to generate an alternative conceptualisation of one indigenous minority's relationship with the Malaysian state. In this, my paper falls within the same ethnographic scope as an already rich and diverse literature on the relationship between dominant political majorities and 'hinterland minorities' in Southeast Asia (e.g., Benjamin & Chou 2003;Kahn 1992;Kammerer 1990;Keyes 1996;Kipp 1993;Rosaldo 2003;Schiller 1997;Tooker 1992;Tsing 1993;Winzeler 1997). At the same time, I have had a reflexive interest in highlighting an interpretative problem arising from the meta-analytical framework that underpins much of the literature. ...
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This article explores conceptions of the Malaysian ethnic system from the perspective of certain Bidayuhs, an indigenous group of Sarawak, Borneo. Recent scholarship has highlighted the ‘fluid’ and ‘shifting’ nature of Malay identity; but less attention has been paid to how ethnic minorities in the region depict Malayness. I suggest that for many Bidayuhs, Malay-ness is marked by an inescapable flxity which stifies a fluidity that they value as intrinsic to Bidayuh-ness and other aspects of life. Moreover, this sense of flxity has been mapped onto their conceptions of the (Malay-dominated) Malaysian ethnic system, in which they are inescapably entangled. The article investigates some of the consequent tensions arising from Bidayuh (dis)engagements with Malaysia's ethnic ‘flxity’, while tracing certain trends and changes in this relationship.
... Among the Zambian Christians of Kirsch's research, belief was not prior to or definitive of an identity subsequently acted out, but rather belief itself 'had a certain performative power directed at "the world outside"'. Likewise, Deborah Tooker (1992;Rhum and Tooker, 1993), writing about Christian Akha peoples in Thailand, notes that upon conversion, there is not a corresponding 'conversion' of the category of belief. Belief, she notes, remains a characteristic of 'exteriority' rather than an internalized state of assent. ...
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Looking at Christian identity in terms of standpoint theory, this article takes up the argument introduced by Susan Friend Harding more than 10 years ago that Christianity and Christians are stigmatized within anthropology as a `repugnant cultural other'. Drawing from my own fieldwork in the Philippines and other recent work on Christianity, I argue that Christianity is a subject position analogous to other committed subject positions outside androcentric, enlightenment modernity (e.g. feminism). As such, the Christian voice should be welcomed and encouraged in the academy as a valuable ethnographic perspective.
... 3. In contrast, Tooker (1992) argues that the religious precepts and rituals of the Akha of Thailand are simply formal public expressions of the Akha's externalized collective identity, much like their distinctive headdresses, clothing style, posture, house structure, spatial orientation, and so on. The Akha are not believers; they are performers. ...
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In this article, I contrast the ideal-typical models for the verification of belief proposed by Max Weber (external and meaning-centered) and Emile Durkheim (internal and emotional). I then put forward a continuum of types of belief legitimization based on these models and place the articles in this collection within this framework to demonstrate the complex interplay between modes of belief corroboration and to provide a theoretical basis for making cross-cultural comparisons of belief maintenance.
... A partir daí é interessante pensar o significado, para os ameríndios, daquilo que costumamos chamar de tradição. Em um artigo sobre o conceito de tradição entre os Akha (Birmânia/Mianmar), Tooker (1992) observa que para eles o termo zán, que significa "modo de vida", "modo de fazer as coisas", "costumes", "tradição", caracteriza-se como um conjunto de práticas, e é concebido como uma carga que se leva em um cesto. O idioma da tradição é, portanto, "exteriorizante", e se opõe à nossa idéia de tradição como um conjunto de valores internalizados, aos quais se adere, como disse Viveiros de Castro (1992, p. 25), como a um sistema de crenças, e que tem relação com uma concepção "teológica" da cultura que nos é própria. ...
... Se o termo "religião" é problemático não menos o é "crença". Tooker (1992), abordando os akha do leste da Birmânia, fala antes em "costume" ou "tradição" e da obrigatoriedade de "carregar" os espíritos, ao invés de "acreditar" na sua existência. Apesar da distância geográfica e não querendo cair em "universais culturais", tal perceção encontramo-la no imaginário yorùbá. ...
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This paper aims to focus on the concept of “religion” and its conceptual implications to the observation of African religions taking the Yorùbá religious attitudes and beliefs, as well as candomblé’s, as case studies. It is our intention to trace a new itinerary in the conceptualization of African religious experiences taking the native structures as the scenery for theory. Having present the idea that religion in those contexts is made, it is intended to present alternative categories to the classic “monotheism”, “polytheism” and “pantheon”.
... 36 There are a number of good grounds to resist readings such as Horton's. Among others, one reason is that so-called primitive relativism is not only intercultural, but also intracultural and even "auto-cultural," and, to boot, expresses neither tolerance nor indifference, but rather an absolute departure from the crypto-theological idea of "culture" as a set of beliefs (Tooker 1992;Viveiros de Castro 1993). The main reason to resist such readings, however, is perfectly prefigured in Gow's own comments, namely, that the idea of "parochialism" translates the Santa Clara debate into the terms of the teacher's position, with her natural universalism and (more or less tolerant) cultural particularism. ...
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... This is largely due to the pressure they sustain from the mainstream Han-Chinese society. As in many Southeast Asian tribal societies that seek to maintain an identity apart from the dominant culture by converting to Christianity [Tapp 1989;Kammerer 1990;Tooker 1992;Keyes 1993;Kipp 1995;Hefner 1998], the Bunun view Christianity as an emblem of distinction that helps them maintain a boundary between themselves and the Han- will despair over their loss, it is not an obligation to cry, and there is no "emotional division of labor" ...
... The practice happened to different extents in such diverse ethnic groups as the Igbo and Ijaw of Nigeria (Leis 1965;Milner 2000;Bastian 2001), the Efik of Nigeria and Cameroon (Livingstone 2012), the Kikuyu of Kenya (Milner 2000), the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert (Milner 2000;Turner 2008), the Maidu of Northern California (Riddell 1978), the Khoikhoi of South Africa (who killed female twins Milner 2000), the Akha of northern Thailand, where giving birth to twins was the "greatest calamity" (Tooker 1992), and the Amhara of Ethiopia (who used to exposed twins, Granzberg 1973;Milner 2000). ...
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Historically, some societies around the world killed newborn twins, though the practice was forsaken in the early twentieth century. Anthropologists have proposed different theses: (1) the delivery of twins occurred when the mother cheated on her husband, or committed a great sin, and killing the twins was the penalty, (2) twin-killing was done to assert that human beings were different from animals among which multiple births in the same delivery were seen, (3) twins brought a dilemma to the kinship structure of societies and to cope with it different rules were adopted, twin-killing being the extreme one, (4) twin-killing was a means to face resource stress. We argue that although those interpretations are useful, we can improve the understanding of that phenomenon by adding an identity economics model, where twins are a taboo. Identity economics helps us explain the persistence of the practice and its eventual decline. We make our case with examples from the Igbo of Nigeria.
... In 2013 and 2014, for the first time, two boys from Lak Sip Ha entered the wad of Chansavang as novices. Once again, this indicated not so much a replacement of one cosmology by another, but rather a reorientation toward different, but co-existing socio-cosmic horizons, motivated by local reasoning (e.g., Kammerer 1990;Tooker 1992). Both boys were not sent as agents of conversion, but for reasons of health and education. ...
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As in many Southeast Asian societies, the religious landscape of Laos is structured by the difference of a world religion and local and personalized relations often called animism. This chapter deals with the dynamics between Buddhism and what is vernacularly called spirit religion (sadsana phi) among Jru’ (Loven). It focuses on two villages, one that identifies mostly with Jru’ ritual and one where people identify as practicing both Buddhism and spirit religion. Both, however, have integrated elements of Buddhist and Lao ritual in village ritual life. The spread of Buddhism has close connections with the shift from swidden agriculture to coffee plantations in this region. This raises the question how a transcultural religion like Buddhism affects the non-human agents of local ritual and value systems.
... Há vários motivos para se recusar uma leitura como essa de Horton; entre outros, o de que o dito relativismo primitivo não é apenas intercultural, mas intracultural e 'autocultural', e que ele não exprime nem tolerância, nem indiferença, mas sim exterioridade absoluta à idéia criptoteológica de 'cultura' como conjunto de crenças (Tooker 1992;Viveiros de Castro 1993). O motivo principal, entretanto, está perfeitamente prefigurado nos comentários de Gow, a saber, que essa idéia do "paroquialismo" traduz o debate de Santa Clara nos termos da posição da professora, com seu universalismo natural e seu diferencialismo (mais ou menos tolerante) cultural. ...
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Este artigo tenta extrair as implicações teóricas do fato de que a antropologia não apenas estuda relações, mas que o conhecimento assim produzido é ele próprio uma relação. Propõe-se, assim, uma imagem da atividade antropológica como fundada no pressuposto de que os procedimentos característicos da disciplina são conceitualmente de mesma ordem que os procedimentos investigados. Entre tais implicações, está a recusa da noção corrente de que cada cultura ou sociedade encarna uma solução específica de um problema genérico, preenchendo uma forma universal (o conceito antropológico) com um conteúdo particular (as concepções nativas). Ao contrário, a imagem aqui proposta sugere que os problemas eles mesmos são radicalmente diversos, e que o antropólogo não sabe de antemão quais são eles.
... Manuel Gutiérrez Estévez (2009) quien analizó la diferencia conceptual entre "las religiones de Yahvé" y las que prevalecen entre poblaciones amerindias, caracterizó este tipo de representación dual dentro del mismo credo como constituida por una "ambivalencia elemental", una lógica en la cual "las maneras" priman sobre la sustancia, en la cual la forma se vuelve "la verdadera sustancia ética". Distinciones similares se encuentran en otros grupos autóctonos que han sido sujetos a la evangelización, en el continente americano o fuera (Wachtel 1990;Tooker 1992). Esos casos muestran la importancia de entender las inferencias por las cuales colectivos autóctonos cristianizados aprehenden su universo religioso compuesto y las relaciones que se entretejen en él. ...
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p>Los ritos de curación indígena contemporáneos se caracterizan a menudo como derivados de un “sincretismo religioso” por la presencia en ellos de aspectos religiosos de orígenes distintos. Sin embargo, si bien este término procede de una constatación de una realidad social y religiosa post evangelizada, no aporta al entendimiento de la estructura de estos ritos ni de su significado para sus participantes. En cambio, si los tratamos analíticamente, con los mismos términos de los interlocutores autóctonos, la comprensión de su gestualidad y prácticas al realizar los ritos de curación, permite integrar la agentividad intelectual de los actores. Así abarcamos de otra forma el sincretismo y el análisis de ritos nahua y teenek de la Huasteca veracruzana, anclados en una descripción etnográfica densa, así como en su contexto histórico, lo que permite vislumbrar lógicas internas en torno al credo específico subyacente a estos ritos.</p
... 36 There are a number of good grounds to resist readings such as Horton's. Among others, one reason is that so-called primitive relativism is not only intercultural, but also intracultural and even "auto-cultural," and, to boot, expresses neither tolerance nor indifference, but rather an absolute departure from the crypto-theological idea of "culture" as a set of beliefs (Tooker 1992;Viveiros de Castro 1993). The main reason to resist such readings, however, is perfectly prefigured in Gow's own comments, namely, that the idea of "parochialism" translates the Santa Clara debate into the terms of the teacher's position, with her natural universalism and (more or less tolerant) cultural particularism. ...
... As Pandey argues (Pandey 2005, p. 415) what is 'conjured up' is an idea of the community as an entity 1 For the purposes of this paper, the dialogue between Robbins and Howell is both useful and sufficient to lay the ground for the notion of community that I wish to foreground here. However, it must be acknowledged that there are many views on this question of belief in the context of Christianity including for instance Kirsch's (Kirsch 2004) articulation of the unstable and cyclical nature of believing dependent on its performative power or Tooker's idea of belief not being an internal condition of assent (Tooker 1992). See also (Engelke 2002). ...
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The anthropology of Christianity has emerged as an exciting field in the last decade or so. Themes of interest for us in India and South Asia in general include issues of caste, conversion and belief, the ideas of sin and morality, individualism, and the like. As part of this growing field, the issue of belief in particular has gained considerable importance. It has been argued that the strict reliance on belief is obstructive and counterproductive for the understanding of non-Western Christianity, particularly where religious affiliations may be shifting rather than stable. Moreover, it has been suggested that belief could be laid aside in favor of the notion of commitment, wherein the latter term encompasses presence, embodiment, shared social location, and the like. This paper argues that while the discourse oscillates between belief on the one hand and commitment on the other, the intermediating term between these might be community. There are social and spiritual divisions, which the available discourse does not immediately allow us to contend with. In the words of one Dalit Catholic, the church must be with its people, the Bishop-Shepherd must ‘smell’ his sheep. This paper will explore how it is precisely the absence of community that Dalit Catholics experience when they find that Christian equality becomes physical separation and Christian fraternity remains outside the social domain and will suggest the implications this has for the anthropology of Christianity.
... Moreover, the "belief" of others stands in oppositionsometimes explicit, more often implicit-to the methodological atheism of the anthropological "self" ( Blanes 2006 ; Stewart et al. 2001 ). As a number of commentators have pointed out, this is not how many people in much of the world experience their religion ( Evans-Pritchard 1956 ;Mitchell and Mitchell 2008 ;Needham 1972 ;Tooker 1992 ). Religious ideas, or indeed any other ideas, are not things which you "believe in" or not; they are knowledge-or even further, they simply are. ...
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Women play a peculiar role in tourism. In general, it is more difficult for women to access the profits coming from tourism. This is often due to social expectations regarding gender as well as social restrictions on women, which exist in the countries themselves.In the case of a sustainable tourism project working with the Akha, an ethnic minority in Northern Laos, the gender question was raised, but experts were rather unsure of how best to integrate women actively in the project. Those who had a stake in the discussion felt as if giving a more active role to women from an ethnic minority would disturb the traditional image of the culture and traditional gender roles which tourists long for. Ethnic women in Laos are thought to represent the traditional lifestyle, and to subsist in more passive roles rather than participating actively. The concerns surrounding cultural and social change were so strong that ethnic minority women, who were already benefiting from tourism through the selling of souvenirs, were excluded from sustainable tourism projects.The concepts of cultural conservation, rather present in the scientific and international debate about sustainable tourism, are, in this case, conflicting with the interests of ethnic minority women by limiting their involvement in such projects. The article argues that only if the question of gender equality is taken more seriously can these conflicts between global ideas and local interests, as well as possible ways to resolve them, become clear and understandable.
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Recent initiatives by Stein, Flynn, Conrad, and others have promoted ‘unbelief’ as a replacement, an ‘umbrella term,’ for concepts like atheism, secularism, and irreligion. In this essay I show that unbelief as it is currently construed cannot serve this function: it is simultaneously too broad (embracing not only irreligion but heterodox religious belief) and too narrow (focusing on religious belief to the exclusion of other types of belief), and it commits a taxonomic error of equating unbelief with categories above and below its level. However, I also argue that, once reformed and disciplined, unbelief is a valuable and essential tool, and I provide some resources and models for a future Unbelief Studies in the Credition Research Project and the literature on agnotology, as well as ethnographical material questioning the cross-cultural applicability of belief and unbelief. Finally, I charge Unbelief Studies with the mission not only to analyze belief but to criticize and ultimately banish it as a bad mental and linguistic habit that perpetuates mistakes and leaves individuals vulnerable to further faults while eroding social trust and facticity itself.
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