On tribespersons

I’ve been slowly working my way through James C. Scott’s excellent The Art of Not Being Governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia, enjoying the challenges it poses on pretty much every page to Received Wisdoms. As a teacher of anthropology I was especially allergic to the witless collective term ‘natives’ and to its flabby cousin ‘tribesmen’ and finally I have a clearer understanding of just why. Scott puts it beautifully:

The entities represented as “tribes” seldom exist with anything like the substantiality of state imaginings. This misrepresentation is due not only to the official identities cooked up by the state but also to the need of ethnographers and historians for social identities that can serve as a coherent object of description and analysis. It is hard to produce an account of, let alone govern, a social organization that is continually going in and out of focus. (pg. 209)

Starting from this short passage, one could rewrite (or anyhow reimagine) a lot of the ethnography of the golden age, which was mostly written from (and in service to) the state/official perspective. If only I’d seen this more clearly back in the day…