The Karen of northern Thailand have attracted considerable ethnographic attention. In the past decade or so, this interest has heightened (particularly among Thai scholars) given that the Karen are seen as representing an ideal of social and ecological sustainability.
However, despite this considerable interest, there are few full-length English language studies of Karen communities. Much of the recent work on the Karen (in both Thai and English) has been undertaken in an applied development or an activist setting, meaning that there is often a lack of ethnographic depth or nuance.
In this context, the publication of Remaining Karen represents a very significant contribution to the literature. It has been published by ANU-E Press “as a tribute to Ananda Raja and his consummate skills as an ethnographer.” This is the first time it has been published since it was submitted in 1986 as a PhD Thesis to the Department of Anthropology in the Reseach School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the ANU.
Remaining Karen is an extraordinarily detailed study of religion, cultural identity and economy in a small Karen village in Chiang Mai province. It is more detailed and ethnographically rich than any other published study on a single Karen village. His description of the Karen’s “procreative model” of social process is an important contribution to the ethnography of the region.
But its contribution goes further than this. What is most valuable about Ananda Rajah’s work is that, writing in the mid-1980s, he directly addressed issues that have become central in contemporary academic discussions of the Karen, and other ethnic groups in the region. His primary interest is in the relationship between livelihood, religion, culture and ethnic identity. These are precisely the issues that preoccupy contemporary scholars who debate the merits (or otherwise) of the “politics of identity” that has come to dominate Karen studies. Not being distracted by the politics (or applied implications) of this debate, Rajah is able to provide a nuanced discussion of the way in which a small community maintains a distinctive cultural identity (based on a symbolically important but economically constrained form of subsistence agriculture) in the context of incorporation into the broader northern Thai economic world.
Remaining Karen is available as a digital download or by print-on-demand from ANU E Press.