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Ethnonationalism and Southeast Asia

Dr. Jacob R. Hickman

 Fall 2020: Tues / Thurs 12:30pm-1:45pm

B002 JFSB (in-person)


Ethnonationalism is perhaps the most pernicious human tendency. It is also emanates from one of humanity’s most fundamental virtues, the thing that makes us human, as social animals driven to identify with others around us and build communities out of these commonalities. When ethnonationalism becomes the sole end of political action, however, this force has brought about the absolutely ugliest tragedies in human history. 


If there is one thing that I want you all to get out of this class, it is the ability to see the core values at stake in any action, any movement, any community, any end that people pursue, across the cases that we will discuss in this class and beyond. I want you to cultivate your capacities as moral analysts, able to check your own ideologies at the door—or at least to realize that they exist in the first instance, and to be willing to question them—and to ask yourself hard questions, questions that your ideologies don’t want you to ask, level critiques that your ideologies don’t want you to level, in pursuit of attempting to see the human goodness in the other. To be clear, what I am asking is not that you become a relativist, but rather quite the opposite. I want us to be able to collectively engage in a form of moral analysis that is able to see the moral realities that manifest themselves in various forms of life that, “on their surface enigmatical” (Geertz 1973), initially appear anything but. In the course of this journey, I expect we will also be confronted with genuine evil. This is bound to happen when one seeks for the moral content of any cultural enterprise. But this genuine evil, and its determination as such, is what distinguishes the enterprise that we will undertake in this course from a superficial form of “relativism” that many outsiders (incorrectly) think tends to characterize anthropology as a field.


I will at times provide one theory of the moral universe that attempts to account for the fact that we observe morally incompatible forms of life in different cultural contexts, while refusing to denounce the genuine concerns at the heart of competing moral visions of the world. I will try to help you understand how this approach should not lead to the conclusion that “anything that is, is okay.” But the most important exercise will be for us to collectively analyze, pick apart, even deconstruct, the values in the movements and groups that we study, ask hard questions about the values that seem to lie at the center of these visions, and ask what balance is being struck by competing, incompatible values in these systems, and quite often between systems when multiple moral visions come into conflict with one another.


These moral visions lie at the heart of politics, violence, ontologies (visions of reality itself), and all of the actions that extend from these. Southeast Asia will make up the majority (but not all) of the case studies that we take up in this journey. This is in no small part because Southeast Asia can be seen as a microcosm of fundamental human nature and the depths of tragedy that can result from the largely unchecked and absolutist pursuit of ethnonationalism. Southeast Asia also became the global focus of such issues in the latter half of the 20th century. The “Vietnam War” (including the many regional conflicts that the American gloss of this conflict ignores) will make up one case that we will study. The Khmer Rouge genocide will be another. The hope that accompanies millenarian movements that are intended to bring about utopian societies will constitute others (and these millenarian inclinations, as we will discuss, make up another inmate human tendency). We will ask ourselves, “can hate be good?” (Webster 2020). Can in-group favoritism be morally good, and what are the limits to this goodness? How is the liberal vision of the world—both classical liberalism and contemporary political liberalism—both enabling and limited in its abilities to facilitate human pursuits of the good life? What about populism? What is the role of pluralism, multiculturalism, and related ‘-isms’ in these dynamics between moral communities? What motivates people to die (or kill!) for a cause or a community, most of whom one does not know personally? What is the future of nationalism, and are we on the precipice of a post-nationalist world order? What is imperialism, and what are its historical and future roles in these dynamics? What forms of imperialism have manifested in both liberal and conservative guises, both in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world? How do we develop modes of thinking about the morality and ethics of political movements that reach beyond tribal affiliations with parties or movements? How can we learn to see the morality of those we are so strongly inclined to hate? On what grounds can one stand to genuinely, righteously hate something or someone?


These are difficult questions. If this course does nothing more than open up a Pandora’s box of issues—even if it appears that the complexities and conflicts are insurmountable—then I believe that this is the first step on the high road to calling ethnonationalism into question, as well as distinguishing when identification with a community can be genuinely healthy versus when it seems to be nothing more than the means to fundamentally destructive ends. This is where I intend for us to go in this course. The world is in an interesting state at present, and there is perhaps no better time to examine these issues than in our society, at this particular time in history.


Books to Purchase 

(other readings will be provided as PDFs)


Leach, Edmund Ronald. 1970. Political systems of Highland Burma. A study of Kachin social structure. London School of Economics Monographs in Social Anthropology 44. Oxford: Berg.


Anderson, Benedict R. 1991. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New York: Verso. (purchase any version)


Jonsson, Hjorleifur. 2014. Slow Anthropology: Negotiating Difference with the Iu Mien. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications.


Smalley, William A., Chia Koua Vang, and Gnia Yee Yang. 1990. Mother of Writing: The Origin and Development of a Hmong Messianic Script. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Mueggler, Erik. 2017. Songs for Dead Parents: Corpse, Text, and World in Southwest China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reading List

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