Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Penny Van Esterik

Materializing Thailand

Oxford: Berg, 2000
pp. xi, 274. Includes Index
ISBN 1 85973 311 5, paperback, $US19.50

reviewed by LeeRay M. Costa

  1. In the conclusion to her book, Materializing Thailand, anthropologist Penny Van Esterik writes, 'This book ends with no grand narrative, no total scheme that accounts for gender relations or women's status in Thailand or elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Rather it is a reminder that there are many stories to tell' (232). This statement encapsulates both the strengths and weaknesses of this exploration into gender relations and gender representations in Thai contexts.
  2. Materializing Thailand, composed of eight more or less independent chapters, demonstrates a move beyond totalising theories of gender through its particularised accounts of Thai women in the contexts of Thai royal and national history, Buddhist texts, heritage sites and theme parks, prostitution and sex tourism. But Van Esterik is not content with just a few stories of Thai gender (or more accurately, Thai 'women and representation' [30]). Rather, she attempts to tell so many stories that the book ends up reading like a series of vignettes, i.e. the very 'surfaces' to which she so often refers. So for example, we learn about the Tourist Authority of Thailand's 'Amazing Thailand' campaign and the ways that images of women are used to 'sell' Thailand. We are told about Buddhist nuns and the institutional androcentrism of the Thai monastic order. And we are educated about how HIV/AIDS policy in Thailand is rooted in Western assumptions about sexual practice and sexual categories that fail to correspond to Thai lived realities.
  3. In spite of the vast and varied number of examples she amasses (only some of which are mentioned here), Van Esterik tells us little that is new about Thai women or Thai sex/gender systems. For, by now, her assertions that binary gender categories and heteronormative definitions of sexuality fail to grasp the complexities of Thai contexts have become quite commonplace. Many of the stories Van Esterik tells here are, while meticulously conveyed, regrettably well-rehearsed, either in the work of other Thai and Southeast Asian specialists, or in Van Esterik's own work, for example, on beauty contests (chapter five). Hence, there is a survey quality to the book that belies Van Esterik's thirty years of research experience in Thailand and her 'position of expert on Thai women and gender issues,' a position she notes was 'uninvited' (22). And so while we no longer seek a meta-narrative for 'the' Thai sex/gender system, we do still hope for 'thick description,' and attention to how various social relations, discourses and institutions are intertwined, mutually reinforcing and most importantly, productive of gender.
  4. Due to Van Esterik's tendency to remain on the surface of things, the book does at times evince an orientalist perspective, i.e. that Thai culture is—in the end—unknowable, impenetrable, resolutely 'other.' This position is reinforced by Van Esterik's periodic essentialising statements, which seem more the province of cultural studies (grounded in the analysis of texts) than the contemporary anthropology with which I am most familiar. This may also be an unintended result of relying too heavily on representations at the expense of human discourse and practice. Indeed, Van Esterik's focus on the Thai concept of kalatesa (glossed here as proper, suitable, and balanced behaviour, and/or politeness and orderliness in social relations) (36) works ironically to sustain an orientalist approach, despite her sincere efforts precisely to critique constructions of essentialised Thainess put forth by the Thai state and media, as well as by academics.
  5. Still, there is much about Materializing Thailand that I enjoyed and which I think other scholars will find of note. Foremost, is Van Esterik's honesty and humility in her knowledge claims. She writes, 'The problem for me is that over the years, Thailand has become more familiar but less comprehensible' (24). She openly shares with readers anecdotes of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, humanising the anthropologist and reminding scholars of the need for reflexivity and levity in the ethnographic process. This thoughtful attention to process foregrounds the struggle for meaning among our subjects and ourselves, instead of giving in to a futile orientalism.
  6. Van Esterik also spends a significant portion of chapter one detailing her own experience of Thailand. This self-narrative serves both to demonstrate her academic genealogy and to indicate where her theoretical tendencies lie. Such knowledge may assist readers is assessing Van Esterik's approaches, assertions and questions for their relevance and explanatory power. At the same time, her narrative will, in the future, likely serve as an important historical document for those interested in Thai studies of the past and the past of Thai studies.
  7. Most effectively, Van Esterik employs the metaphor of palimpsest, or 'layers of images and meanings,' in order to provoke a historical sensibility among those seeking to understand representations of contemporary Thai women (41). She argues that, like figures on a canvas that have been painted over again and again, past ideologies and practices seep into and reshape the present in specific and important ways. Thus, these 'ghosts' are reminders of what has gone before, what has been partially or entirely erased, and what might yet endure in whole or in part. Such 'remnants of meaning,' must therefore be taken into account in any analysis of gender representations and practices.
  8. While Materializing Thailand does have its flaws, it will no doubt stimulate those working on gender in Thailand to ask different kinds of questions and hopefully, to move away from the 'foundational ideas' and 'metonymic prisons' that have gripped scholars of Thai culture and society so firmly (15). Van Esterik's considerable experience, flair for detail, and her ability to synthesise the copious literature on Thai culture and society certainly provide us with a strong foundation from which to work. Moreover, her interest in and theorisation of historical processes does suggest new avenues for those of us who follow her. Perhaps then, the model of 'gender unfinished' with which Materializing Thailand leaves us is just one more palimpsest that ties past and present. This model may very well be Van Esterik's most lasting and meaningful legacy to the study of women and gender in Thai contexts.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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