Interview with Professor Jonathan Rigg

Over the coming months, New Mandala will publish a series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies.  These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field.

The second in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Durham University’s Professor Jonathan Rigg.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Rigg, thank you for taking time out of your of your busy schedule to answer these questions.

Professor Jonathan Rigg: My pleasure!

Nicholas Farrelly: Anybody who visits your online profile will know that your “research interests encompass, in broad terms, the problems, tensions and potentialities of development in the Southeast Asian region. This is based on a long-term commitment to the region dating back to 1980”. However, the story of how you first became interested in the study of Southeast Asia all those years ago is not widely known.  How did it all begin?

Professor Jonathan Rigg: It really began during the final year of my degree in Geography and Archaeology at London’s School of Oriental & African Studies. To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and as the employment climate at the time was less than favourable – being in the trough of the recession linked to Margaret Thatcher’s and her Chancellor’s economic policies – when someone suggested I might be in the frame for a SOAS PhD research scholarship, it was rather appealing. At that time, all I knew for sure is that I wanted to do something on agriculture in Asia. It could, though, have been anywhere in Asia – I was born in India and raised in East Asia, so South or East Asia would have fitted the bill so far as I was concerned. But as my most likely supervisor was Harvey Demaine – a specialist on Southeast Asia and, in particular, Thailand – he encouraged me to think about work in Northeast Thailand, and one thing led to another, as they say.

Nicholas Farrelly: Early in your academic career you held positions at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and since 1993 you have been based at Durham University’s Geography Department.  Throughout these decades of research and analysis you have covered a wide range of Southeast Asia’s most pressing issues.  How would you characterise the evolution of your scholarly priorities?  Which topics have been the most satisfying to research?  

Professor Jonathan Rigg: I am still – and I write this (if it is possible) sotto voce – a regional geographer at a time when regional geography is very much out of vogue. My time at SOAS grounded me in a region and while I now work in a mainstream geography department with more than 50 teaching staff, I still find myself returning physically, emotionally and intellectually to the region for inspiration and sustenance. In terms of style my research has not changed a great deal – in the sense that it is based on a grounded engagement with people and places. Rather I found events changing my objects of interest. So, for example, when I began working on rice variety selection strategies in Northeast Thailand I was struck by how mobile ‘farmers’ were, and this kept disturbing my assumptions about the character of rural lives and livelihoods. This led to an interest in migration. This, then, widened my interest to the study of rural livelihoods (rather than farming activities) and this, in turn, to rural-urban relations and dynamics. On reflection I think that it has been rural people who have cut the path which I have then followed – rather than me bravely cutting through the thicket under my own intellectual inertia. Theory, for me, has emerged from experience and my engagement with theory has always been through the lens of fieldwork.

Nicholas Farrelly: Based on your own experience of academic Southeast Asian Studies, if you were giving advice to a student hoping to pursue a career in the field what would you tell them?  

Professor Jonathan Rigg: I regret writing this, but my advice would be to make sure – if possible – that they keep both the area studies and the disciplinary balls in the air. If one has to fall, let it be the area studies ball. An early career academic, more often than not, has to cement their reputation in a disciplinary field rather than a region. 

Nicholas Farrelly: Among Southeast Asia scholars, one of your best-known arguments challenges romantic images of villages in Southeast Asia.  For example, in a 1994 article you reflected that “across Southeast Asia, if one scratches the surface of the ‘moral’ economy, the extent to which self-interest and individualism is the driving force becomes clear.  In many instances, what may appear to be an example of redistribution from the better-off to the worse-off, on closer analysis, is nothing of the sort.  The general point is that traditional villages were not made up of farmers working for the betterment of the community working as a whole; they were made up of households and families working for their own ends first and foremost, ends which in some cases overlapped with those of the wider community”.  More than a decade since you made this argument, do you feel that the image you challenged—of a traditional and benign village economy—still persists?  If so, to what do you attribute its continuing relevance?  How do you react nowadays when you read articles that assert the “moral” character of rural livelihoods and lifestyles?

Professor Jonathan Rigg: I think the debate – and the way myself and others have framed it – has often been too oppositional in tenor. Farmers (and everyone) act both ‘morally’ and ‘rationally’, depending on circumstances, and the two are not mutually exclusive. But I suppose what I still do think is that farmers are far less romantic in their visions of the past and the present than many of those scholars who study them and development activists who try to assist them. I still find myself reading arguments about the past and the present that do not resonate with what I see and hear. In the case of Thailand, for example, I find myself reacting against – almost instinctively – the visions of the past and the future contained in the notion of the ‘sufficiency economy’ (and most recently elaborated in the UNDP’s Thailand Human Development Report). So I think writing and thinking of ‘moral’ economies or communities or livelihoods or lifestyles is a bit of a cul de sac because it ascribes a particular quality to something which is mixed and contingent. Giving it a name and a title can, therefore, obstruct understanding.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a 2001 article co-written with Sakunee Nattapoolwat and published in the journal World Development, you provided a general critique of activist-journalist-academic positions on Thailand’s place in the global scheme.  You made an argument that drew its strength from “the contrast between the fears of globalization expressed by NGO activists, journalists and academics and the enthusiasm with which the global is being embraced by many ‘ordinary’ Thais”.  As you are well aware, many NGO activists, journalists and academics were prominent in the effort to depose Thailand’s elected Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.  I would be interested to know whether you see the anti-globalisation fears of the middle class as an important component of the current political situation?  In your view, can an anti-globalisation political movement speak for the concerns embraced (and voted for) by “ordinary” Thais?

Professor Jonathan Rigg: In my mind, I have no doubt that Thailand’s engagement with the world economy – ‘globalisation’, if you like – has delivered benefits to the great mass of the population. This is not to gloss over the inequalities, environmental tensions, social malaise and so on which have also arisen from the same process of global economic (and social) integration. But the people, or their descendants, that I studied back in the early 1980s in Northeast Thailand are immeasurably better off today than they were – in terms of health, wealth, education, and so forth – a quarter of a century ago. This is in large part down to the trajectory of development/modernisation that Thailand has followed. I also find time and again a separation between what I read and hear from many of the anti-globalists and what I find in the fields and villages of Thailand, and other countries in the region. It was the urban middle classes and their concerns which led to the ousting of Thaksin Shinawatra – not those concerns that concentrate the minds of most rural people. That said, I have no doubt that the anti-globalisation movement does have some thing to offer Thais; they just can’t, and don’t offer everything. Moreover they do not – and cannot – speak for all Thais.

Nicholas Farrelly: Since immediately after Thailand’s 2006 coup, the military government has sought to shape discussion about appropriate livelihoods and economics.  Back in 2003’s Southeast Asia: The Human Landscape of Modernization and Development you provided an interesting anecdote from your wide-reading on Thailand’s development that I think is relevant to today’s situation.  You wrote that “Sulask Sivaraksa, a well-known critic of Thailand’s modernization project, argues that in the late 1950s…American advisors managed to persuade the Thai government to encourage the Supreme Sangha Council to encourage monks not to preach on the virtue of contentedness…If people were content with nothing (in material terms), these advisors reasoned, then how could Thailand enter the race for development?”.  The race for development has, obviously, remained politically sensitive long after that early batch of American advisors departed.  As you are aware, since the coup the concept of “sufficiency economy” has been given new discursive prominence within Thailand’s policy machinery.  Do you see this as a serious effort to change Thailand’s economic trajectory?  Is the “virtue of contentedness” now making a serious comeback?  Or do you see “sufficiency economy” as simply a way of diverting attention from other political and economic concerns?

Professor Jonathan Rigg: As I hinted in answer to an earlier question, I find the ‘sufficiency economy’ an interesting subject for discussion and reflection – and an important one. But I don’t regard it as a real ‘alternative’. I find it too woolly, too disengaged from the realities of people’s lives, and too disconnected from their concerns and priorities. Trying to pin the sufficiency economy down is rather like trying to pin a jelly to the wall – you think you have got it, and then it slips to the ground! I realise that there are many who feel strongly and deeply about the sufficiency economy and what it stands for; but I also think that we need to subject it to the same rigorous examination and appraisal that we would any other ‘policy’. This is all the more important because, unlike most of the musings of academics which don’t get much further than the page, the sufficiency economy is being used to inform Thai development policy. I am pleased, therefore, that the forthcoming Thai Studies Conference to be held at Thammasat University in Bangkok in January 2008 will have a panel on the sufficiency economy. All that said, I don’t think that the sufficiency economy is just a cynical attempt to distract attention from other political and economic concerns – the intellectual history of the sufficiency economy is deeper and longer than that. Nor, for that matter, is it just a Thai intellectual tradition. We can see it rooted in Victorian England, in present day Sri Lanka, and in many other places and times too.

Nicholas Farrelly: New Mandala readers will know that much of your recent research has focused on Laos.  In your 2005 book Living with transition in Laos: Market integration in Southeast Asia you make some particularly interesting comments about the resettlement of villages in the Lao context.  You write that, “The more normal situation…is that resettlement is very much a mixed blessing with a series of trade-offs to be calculated and negotiated.  These vary not only between villages, but also between households (and individuals) within villages”.  This analysis provides a contrast to some of the more bombastic accounts of village resettlement that circulate in academic and activist circles.  Do you see your writing on this issue, and others, as contributing balance to debates about the social impacts of government programs?

Professor Jonathan Rigg: Yes, I guess so. I have read the work of Ian Baird, Keith Barney, Jim Chamberlain, Yves Goudineau, Olivier Ducourtieux, Bruce Shoemaker, Olivier Evrard, Peter Vandergeest (who I am working with on a Canadian-funded project) and others and appreciate that land resettlement has been highly destructive of livelihoods in some – perhaps many – cases. But our own experience in the villages where we were working was rather more mixed than the more one-dimensionally negative accounts that have been circulating. We found that re-settled villagers valued the sense of connection that came with resettlement, while also worrying about the loss of traditional livelihoods. I suppose that part of the book was trying to tread a middle ground (in general, if there is a fence to sit on, I will find it!) and to see and identify the mixed outcomes of resettlement and, perhaps more importantly, to understand why and how some people succeed and others fail. We didn’t want to simply assume that resettlement was necessarily destructive, but unpick how this might or might not occur.  

Nicholas Farrelly: In a review of that 2005 book on Laos, Vatthana Pholsena concludes that your contribution “is essential reading for students on Laos and in development studies, aid workers, policy-makers and anyone who aims to achieve positive changes in this lesser-known country of Southeast Asia. To this end, it is hoped that the book will find a co-publisher in the region so as to be more widely accessible and affordable”.  How important is it that the results of the type of research you are undertake are disseminated widely in Southeast Asia?  In your experience, what can researchers do take make their outputs more widely accessible and affordable?

Professor Jonathan Rigg: That review was pleasing, particularly from Vatthana Pholsena. The book – like many research monographs – is hideously expensive, even for an academic based in the USA, UK or somewhere else in the rich(er) world. I can’t spend more than US$100 on a book. For a scholar in Laos it must be equivalent to several months’ salary. Fortunately, increasing numbers of studies are available on line (not my book, it has to be said) and I think the information gap between North and South is narrowing, and will continue to do so, I hope. When I was based in Mahasarakham in Northeast Thailand back in 1981 it was like being in another information world: no journals, no books to speak of – and no email or internet, of course… Now Mahasarakham is connected to all these things. Of course not everyone has access to computers and the internet, but it is becoming increasingly commonplace for scholars and development workers in all the countries of East and Southeast Asia. The issue, perhaps, is not access to research per se but language: so much is in English.

Nicholas Farrelly: Keeping up your regular output of major books, this year you have published An everyday geography of the Global South.  In this comparative analysis you usethe experience of the non-Western world to illuminate and inform mainstream debates in geography, and in beginning from the lived experiences of ‘ordinary’ people…provide an alternative insight into a range of geographical debates”.  After your decades spent researching Southeast Asia, do you feel that lived experiences from the non-Western world are still overlooked?  If so, to what do you attribute any remaining ignorance or disinterest?  

Professor Jonathan Rigg: This book – which has just been published – is a text book for undergraduates and was born of frustration. Frustration that views of the non-Western, or poor, or underdeveloped world are always seen through the lens of the West/rich/developed world, with the unstated assumption that the experiences of the latter countries are somehow appropriate and relevant to the former. I find that turning the tables is sometimes instructive: would a scholar of British geography (say) feel comfortable about using Indonesia or Thailand as an intellectual template? The book was also an attempt – in which I was only partially successful – to consider the non-Western world separated from the baggage of ‘development’. Just as John Pilger once wrote (or perhaps said) that it is hard to think of Vietnam as a country and not just as a war, so too with the Global South which is so often viewed as an object for ‘development’. I should also say that I wrote the book as a geography text so my frustrations were linked to mainstream geography rather than to Southeast Asian area studies! What I find reassuring, though, is that my (geography) students are perennially interested to learn more about the world beyond their own. 

Nicholas Farrelly: Finally, I would like to ask you to reflect on the more specific context of Southeast Asian Studies.  In this field, what do you see as the three issues deserving more scholarly attention?

Professor Jonathan Rigg: Phew! Rather than list three quite specific issues, I want to highlight three more general areas or approaches to scholarship. First, I think we need to avoid hunkering down in our own cosy regional world and we need to engage in mainstream debates through mainstream outlets. I think Southeast Asian Studies has something to offer which is distinctive and valuable but which rarely gets the attention it deserves because of where we say it and how we frame it. Second, I think there is scope for some really interesting comparative work beyond the region – so we need to bring research and work on Southeast Asia in contact with allied concerns in the other Asian regions, in Africa and Latin America, even Europe and North America. For example, there is an interesting debate in Europe on re-peasantisation which resonates with some of the sufficiency economy concerns mentioned earlier in this interview. We need to connect across regions. And third, I also think we sometimes overlook opportunities for valuable work between the countries of island and mainland Southeast Asia. By this I don’t mean edited volumes which have chapters on Indonesia or Vietnam, say, but research projects which are rooted in such comparative research and which, preferably, require scholars from countries in the region to work together. All these three ‘issues’ are really ones of connection – between area studies and the disciplines; between Southeast Asia and the other world regions; and between the countries of Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you, Professor Rigg, for taking the time to participate in New Mandala’s interview series.

About Nicholas Farrelly