Searching for Classical Social Theory in Thailand

By Tony Waters

When I first taught in Thailand in 2011, I sought Thai sociologists to help me figure out what was different from my American-style sociology. In California, I taught many years of Classical Social Theory, focused on Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and wondered: what might Thai Classical Theory look like?

The Thai sociologists I asked about Thai Social Theory often gave me a blank look and noted that they too used at least Weber and Durkheim.  They liked survey research, too.  They would then complain about how Marx was pushed aside by the anti-Communism of Thailand’s military governments, and perhaps note the burgeoning feminist and post-colonial theory from abroad.  And that seemed to be about it.  Thai Sociology, it seemed, was about borrowing from the West, or at best illicitly resuscitating Marx because he was banned by the government.  

But this did not make complete sense.  Thailand has deep traditions of literacy, scholarship, and philosophical thought, and was never formally colonized by the British or French. Unlike their colonized neighbors (i.e. British Burma, British Malaya, and French Indochina), education systems were never developed in a European language. The Thai education system instead had origins in Buddhist monasteries. King Mongkut (1851-1868) trained as a monk and as King established high levels of scholarship, encouraging both religious education, and western sciences.  His son King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) sent many of his sons abroad for education and established a Ministry of Education to develop a national curriculum.  King Chulalongkorn’s  own son, King Vajiravudh (1910-1925), wrote anonymous social commentary for the emerging newspapers during his reign. Elite Thai continued to be sent to Europe and Japan to be educated.

An answer came to me in 2016-2017, upon returning to Thailand to teach long-term in the Peace Studies Department at Payap University. My colleagues there had overseas doctoral degrees in Sociology, Philosophy, Religion, and Business, but none of them were probing the mysteries that could be evaluated by using the latest form of Bourdieu, Foucault, Butler, or William Julius Wilson.  Rather they implicitly used the reasoning of what might be called an earlier Sociologist, The Prince Gautama – a contemporary of Socrates and Plato – also known as The Buddha. 

Kukrit Pramoj’s  Farang Sakdina (Western Feudalism) is an example of this Buddhist reasoning. Kukrit’s book is an explanation about why American-style elections advocated by the United States State Department in the 1950s, so often seemed to result in just another military coup in Thailand. In setting up his sociological question, Kukrit uses a style similar to which Max Weber addressed the inquiry: “why is capitalism found in northern Europe, but not southern Europe?” Or that with which Durkheim questioned “why are suicide rates higher in Protestant areas than Catholic areas?”  Kukrit’s question is “Why do British forms of representative democracy work one way in England, but in Thailand seem to result in military coups?”

In 1957-1958, powerful Americans from the United States State Department were again insisting that Thailand end the cycle of coups and adopt a representative democracy involving decentralized constituent-based elections, such as found in America and England.  The Americans argued that because English feudalism gave birth to democracy, so Thai feudalism (traditionally called “sakdina”) would give birth to the same form.  Kukrit says that this transfer would not work, because underpinning any form of democratic rule are unique “contradictions” which tell you how/why the system can change, or not. Contradictions are to Kukrit what dialectics are to Marx; they frame a form of reasoning about society.

Kukrit’s reasoning dips deeply into British history, describing how British democracy is rooted first in the Roman system, which after deterioration was the basis for the Saxon kings. The Saxon form of governance also went into eclipse and was reborn as the Parliamentary system bequeathed in the Magna Carta in 1215.  To explain the paradox why this is fundamentally different than Thai sakdina, he argues that “Sakdina describes only Thai society while feudalism only describes the Western Farang society.”  As a result the tensions are different, and therefore the type of democracy must also be different.

How were they different?  In Thailand the King held the land in trust for the people, and the King in the central capital was sovereign. The King and his appointees then allocated and reallocated agricultural land from the center.  In contrast, land in feudal England was held by a noble living on a manor, who controlled the peasants living on it in the system of serfdom.  The English “King” was just another senior noble of limited powers.  Thus, real power resided in the meeting of nobles, which later turned into the bicameral House of Lords, and House of Commons.  This worked in a country like England (and the United States too), where there was a culture of such decentralized “federalism.”  However, in Thailand (and in many other countries), rule is centralized.

What does this mean for twentieth century democratic movements? Kukrit argues it means a lot—and that the experiments in Westminster-style parliamentary democracy pressed on Thailand were bound to fail because such habits make sense only in places where the “rhythms” of society match the kind of democracy developed.  Toward the end of Farang Sakdina, Kukrit points out that westerners made a fundamental social research mistake by taking theory developed in one place, and applying it to another place from which no data was collected. Kukrit cites Karl Marx

“The history book about the rhythms of human society written by Karl Marx that every Communist reads points out that, at one time humans used the right over the land in Europe as the key to domination by the ruling class. … He did not know about societies outside of Europe”.

Kukrit goes further, pointing out exactly how England and Thai concepts of kingship and land ownership are different.  In England, feudalism meant that the land was “owned” by individuals, and central to the idea of “freedom.”  In Thailand, the land became the “treasure of the whole nation.”     

Kukrit’s theory of social change in turn has some similarities to that of Marx’s historical materialism, but the primary source of his reasoning is clearly Buddhist.  Kukrit claims that the process of social regeneration is analogous to what happens in the human body in which there is birth, death, and then a rebirth rooted in the ashes of the previous society, and its institutions.  Because of plans for a new society cannot be transplanted from foreign sources and be expected to work the same way.  This is why perhaps transplanting de-centralized Westminster style democracy resulted in coups, and not a flourishing democratic culture.

I still don’t think I’ve found a complete answer to the question of what “classical” Thai social theory is, and maybe that’s not the right question anyway. Something though that seems important in Thai social theory are the themes of Buddhism;  Kukrit in Farang Sakdina describes cycles, rhythms, and in other parts of the essay the resolution of “contradictions.” Discovery of these views does change my teaching, particularly with students from Thailand and Myanmar for whom such approaches readily resonate.  I wonder though if I were to go back to the United States, how would such an approach which goes beyond the “Dead German Guys” resonate with my American students for whom the “conflict” in Marx, or the “functionalism” in Durkheim resonate readily?  

Tony Waters is a Lecturer in Peace Studies at Payap University, Thailand, and Professor of Sociology, California State University, Chico. He has published in the past about the Social Thought of Max Weber in Max Weber and the Modern Problem of Discipline (Hamilton Books 2018), and Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy, and Social Stratification (Palgrave and MacMillan 2015). He is currently interested in Thai social thought, and peacebuilding in Myanmar/Burma.

This blog is part of the Global Sociology special collection. Read other contributions here.

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