To Zomia or Not to Zomia?

In early 2011 I organized a panel by the same title as this post in which we brought together ethnographers and historians to test the Zomia hypothesis against a body of ethnographic and historical material related to two Southeast Asian highland groups — Hmong and Mien. Two of the panelists (including fellow guest-blogger Leif Jonsson) were interviewed for this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education ( that addressed the traction of Zomiography (if I may). I must say that since that time my ambivalence about the argument in James C. Scott’s latest book has perhaps only grown deeper.

On the one hand, I find myself really wanting to jump in with both feet to the political project in which one could locate Scott’s work. Important characteristics of this project might include the rejection of methodological nationalism and the ultimate legitimation of the cultural practices and social lives of highlanders that are so commonly perceived as barbaric or backwards by their lowlander counterparts (who, you guessed it, run the states which the highlanders, it supposedly turns out, have been successfully evading — at least until the mid 20th century). This political project is one that almost any anthropologist could jump on board with.

Quickly tempering this attraction, however, was the weight of ethnographic evidence from my own work that calls into question at least the reach of this argument, if not some of its fundamental premises. Granted, my ethnographic research with Hmong began more than 50 years after Scott says ‘all bets are off’ with regards to his argument about contemporary highlanders. However, we also cannot pretend that all highlander cultural practices and belief systems magically shifted away from what Scott portrays historically, just because you can drive on paved roads to much of the highlands all year around. In other words, if we take Scott’s argument seriously, contemporary Hmong, Mien, Akha, etc. societies exhibit cultural practices and ideologies that were extant and therefore historically rooted in the pre-post-Zomia period!

All footnotes aside, I want to focus on this ambivalence which I and others have experienced about Zomia (and its discontents?!?). First, one interesting parallel strikes me as a particularly apt one, given Scott’s inspiration from one anthropological classic, Edmund Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma. It seems to me that one could level a critique on the Zomia argument that directly parallels Leach’s critique of the prior structural functionalist school. To wit:

“In brief, my argument is that although historical facts are never, in any sense, in equilibrium, we can gain genuine insights if, for the purpose of analysis, we force these facts within the constraining mould of an as if system of ideas, composed of concepts which are treated as if they were part of an equilibrium system. Furthermore I claim to demonstrate that this fictional procedure is not merely an analytical device of the social anthropologist, it also corresponds to the way Kachins themselves apprehend their own system through the medium of the verbal categories of their own language.” (pp. ix)

In other words, any notion of an actual equilibrium on which structural-functionalists relied is really completely fallacious. People may well experience their culture as maintaining some said homeostasis, but this is only true at the ideological level or inherent in the ideal types that people build about their own institutions. For an anthropologist to lend theoretical weight to such an idea is really just imagining society the way the natives do.

I would argue that so it goes with Scott’s thesis. For example, his argument seems to be quite a good representation of a Hmong ethnohistory of their own primordial search for political independence, but it appears much more shaky when it comes to ethnographic and historical details. As with Leach’s critiques of structural functionalism, Zomiography as a theoretical enterprise is aligned nicely with local ideologies. In particular, Scott’s argument allies itself with the specious historical/linguistic hypothesis that ‘Hmong means free’ ( The portrayal of Hmong people (among others) as a group constantly on the run from the state and forever in search (okay, maybe only until the 1950s…) of political autonomy from ethnic others really coincides with this common historical narrative that one hears from Hmong who have migrated to the United States. This narrative seeks to understand historical and ancestral struggle of all Hmong for autonomy. Some variations on this narrative in the United States culminate in the realization of ‘true’ freedom in ‘the most free country in the world.’ From a phenomenological perspective, Scott’s thesis coincides quite well with this particular insider’s account of Hmong history, similar to the way that Leach argues a structural functionalist explanation of Kachin social structure aligns with the daily imaginings of Kachin actors, but less with a larger historical view of the dynamic system over time.

There are at least two problems here. For one, there are significant ethnographic and historical questions to be raised about the ‘Hmong means free’ thesis. Not the least of these being the way that it discounts perhaps the majority of Hmong in the world who do not see things this way, such as those that did not migrate out of Southwestern China in the mid-19th century, or even those that are often forgotten to have fought on the ‘other’ side of the Indochinese wars (for example: CLICK HERE).

Second, it is hardly the case that Scott purports to be simply engaged in a phenomenological account of how highlanders see themselves! Rather, I think that he argues to be engaging in a more ‘objective’ account of a historical reality akin to what the structural functionalists imagined themselves to be doing. This very same problem sparked Leach’s critique of the extent to which they were imagining the reality they thought of themselves as documenting.

There is a looming issue that complicates my critique of the Zomia thesis. That is that while the larger scope of Scott’s thesis is nicely aligned with a prominent Hmong historical narrative (i.e., Hmong means free), at a more micro-level of analysis the details he brings to bear to build the larger argument at times run directly counter to what Hmong purport to be engaged in. The best example here is Scott’s analysis of millenarian movements in Zomia, not the least of these being a host of Hmong/Miao millenarian and messianic movements throughout the long history of the region. These movements work consistently, the argument goes, to provide yet another mode of evading the state — an “escape social structure.” At the same time, Scott admits to the explicit goals inherent in the majority of these movements of actively seeking to usher in a new state. However, I think that what he is ultimately forced to do is to claim that this is irrelevant, because the fact is that none of them do. In other words, directly countercurrent to what “prophets of renewal” claim to be doing, they are really up to state evasion in the ultimate scheme of things. As with the host of other cultural practices that highlanders are up to, the would-be state-making of millenarian religious activity is really just about avoiding any state that already exists and would encapsulate the faithful of these movements.

As one who has significant phenomenological proclivities, I find myself wanting to react to the inevitable false-consciousness that is implicit in Scott’s analysis of these movements. Having worked closely with people engaged in such movements, this functionalist take on what they are really up to simply rubs me wrong. However, I must also confess that the more critical side of me wants to also question the larger scope of the Zomia thesis as a critical account of highlander society that really simply seems to be a reproduction of highlander’s own ethnohistory. Perhaps I, like Scott, would like to have my cake and eat it too.

On a final note, I must reiterate that I am drawn to the political project that Scott is building up. I really want to agree with him (on some points). I like the fight against methodological nationalism. I like the recognition of limits of state power that calls into question our projections of current political subjectivities onto older political orders. I like the way he does justice to ‘my people,’ since Hmong come out of his account as having “won” in some sense. This inversion really resonates with a lot of anthropologists, I would imagine, at least politically. When it comes down to understanding Hmong religious life in all of its diversity, however, I simply can’t find myself buying the reach of the argument for some of the similar reasons I find my self agreeing with it. In the end, the history of Hmong and other highlanders in the Southeast Asian Massif calls into question the extent of the Zomia hypothesis, and whether it only really works for a much more limited subset of people and practices — another common anthropological trope.