Jacob R Hickman, Anthropology
Hmong are a highland ethnic minority group that span the Southeast Asian Massif, including China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The research funded by this MEG grant was designed to address questions of how Hmong have adapted to distinct social and political circumstances as they have migrated to new locations, including displacement as refugees from Laos to Thailand. In order to cultivate a mentored environment where students could receive close training and help design and carry out substantive research projects, the PI organized an ethnographic field school in a Hmong community for three months during the summer of 2013. The primary field site for this research was in northern Thailand in a Hmong community with a relatively large percentage of the community descending from post-1975 refugees from Laos, and the remainder descending from Hmong who had migrated to present-day Thailand several generations ago. The PI and students engaged in this research were seeking to conduct ethnographies of everyday practice that would reveal some of the dual psychological and cultural dimensions to how Hmong are positioning themselves in their contemporary political context, including the new and innovative ways that they are wielding cultural resources to this end. These strategies included new ritual innovations, reimagining Hmong history and asserting new forms of that history, changes in ethical thinking that adapt to new economic circumstances, and large-scale shifts in identity politics in which Hmong are recasting Hmong identity in terms that make more sense of the current sociopolitical climate. To this end, some students in this program collected data on the PI’s primary research questions, while other students tailored their senior thesis projects under close mentorship with the PI to develop additional dimensions of this larger project that explore further dimensions of how Hmong have adapted to new sociopolitical circumstances. The PI’s core project dealt with understanding how Hmong daily life in the diaspora feeds into cultural models that underpin religious revitalization movements. Thesis projects built on this to understand how this history plays into a series of related phenomena, as described below.
List of Students and Products
PI and Students in the Field School:
- Jacob Hickman, Principal Investigator
- Mary Cook (BYU undergraduate)
- Lindsey Fields (BYU undergraduate)
- Ricky Gettys (BYU undergraduate)
- Seth Meyers (BYU undergraduate)
- Krista Rau (BYU undergraduate)
- April Reber (BYU undergraduate)
- Jolysa Sedgwick (BYU undergraduate)
- Rachel Cornwall Twelmeyer (BYU undergraduate)
- Nikkita Walker (BYU undergraduate)
- Tshiabdua Yang (University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate)
- Sam Lor (BYU undergraduate)
- Belinda Ramirez (BYU Undergraduate)
- Joseph Vang (BYU undergraduate)
- Jeanny Xiong (BYU undergraduate)
- Mai See Xiong (BYU-Idaho undergraduate)
Products—International Conference Presentations:
- Reber, April. Sewell’s Concept of Agency and Hmong Political Change: Narratives of a Self- Characterized Minority Group. Presentation at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, Washington, DC. December, 2014.
- Reber, April.“This Is Like Dying While Still Being alive”: How Village Hmong Engage in Street- Level Politics. Presentation at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, Chicago, IL. November 2013.
- Ramirez, Belinda. Cultural Revision Through Religion: A Messianic Hmong Approach in Northern Thailand.” Presentation at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, Chicago, IL. November 2013.
- Ramirez, Belinda. Cultural Revision Through Religion: A Messianic Hmong Approach in Northern Thailand. Presentation at the Biennial Hmong Studies Consortium Meetings, University of Minnesota. October, 2013.
- Gettys, Ricky. Making a Profit at What Cost? Sociality and the New Economic Realities Facing Hmong Entrepreneurs in Thailand. Presentation at the Biennial Hmong Studies Consortium Meetings, University of Minnesota. October, 2013.
- Sedgwick, Jolysa. A Shift in Priorities: The Motivations Behind Hmong Urban Migration in Northern Thailand. Presentation at the Biennial Hmong Studies Consortium Meetings, University of Minnesota. October, 2013.
- Reber, April. “This is Like Dying While Still Being Alive”: How the Hmong Engage in Street-Level Politics. Presentation at the Biennial Hmong Studies Consortium Meetings, University of Minnesota. October, 2013.
- Rau, Krista. Where Do the Spirits Reside?: Hmong Sacred Places Now and Then. Presentation at the Biennial Hmong Studies Consortium Meetings, University of Minnesota. October, 2013.
Products—Works in Preparation for Publication
- Hickman, Jacob, and Fields, Lindsey. The Weight of Tradition and the Wait of Salvation: New Religious Dynamics in the Hmong Diaspora. (Book manuscript in Preparation, in talks with Stanford and Palgrave).
- Cook, Mary, and Hickman, Jacob. (In Preparation). Shades of Collectivism: Case Studies of Hmong Polygyny and Implications for Marriage and Family Therapy. (To be submitted to the journal Ethos).
- Gettys, Ricky, and Hickman, Jacob. (In Preparation). Social Dissonance Surrounding Hmong Entrepreneurs in a Rural and an Urban Market. (To be submitted to the Hmong Studies Journal).
- Reber, April, and Hickman, Jacob. (In Preparation). “We stood up to them”: A Narrative Reimagining of the Ethnic Landscape in Southeast Asia. (To be submitted to the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies).
- Twelmeyer, Rachel, and Hickman, Jacob. (In Preparation). What about your placenta?: The effects of medicalization on birth and mortuary practice among Hmong in Thailand. (To be submitted to Medical Anthropology Quarterly).
Evaluation of Academic Objectives
The 2013 Thailand Ethnographic Field School was a success on several fronts. As outlined above, this program that was funded by this MEG grant led directly to eight presentations at international conferences at the largest professional academic associations in the country. These included presentations at the 2013 and 2014 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, and the Hmong Studies Consortium Biennial Meetings at the University of Minnesota in 2013. Students presented the findings from their fieldwork and received quality feedback to help them develop that work for publication. These presentations made an impression on faculty from several top research universities, who commented to the PI that this program makes them take more seriously the potential and value of taking undergraduates to the field, considering the quality of work that came out of the program.
Further, this work that students presented is currently being further developed by the students and the PI for publication in several journals, and in one case this work will provide the empirical basis for a book manuscript. In the case of the journal articles outlined above, the students who conducted the bulk of interviews will be listed as the first author, and the PI as the second author. Students developed the first drafts of these manuscripts as their senior thesis, and afterwards the PI has been working with each one to get the project up to par to be submitted to high-tier journals in relevant sub-disciplines to the work, i.e., Southeast Asian Studies, Medical Anthropology, Psychological Anthropology, and Hmong Studies.
In one case, the student thesis was quite closely related to a body of material that the PI was developing in his prior work, and the student and PI made the decision to integrate all of the material into a short-form book manuscript. This manuscript will outline the transitions and continuities that Hmong undergo as they convert to Christianity and a local millenarian movement. The book makes an innovative theoretical point of disentangling belief and ontology to allow for a more nuanced understanding of the process of conversion to a new form of religious practice.
In addition to these tangible products—international conference presentations and manuscripts being developed for publication, this program also resulted in a broad dataset of information that can be used in future research that builds on these research questions concerning how Hmong adapt to new social and political contexts. The PI is amassing a database of all of the interviews, fieldnotes, recordings of rituals, photos, and other ethnographic materials into a single database in a Filemaker Pro platform that will allow these materials to be catalogued, summarized, searched, and analyzed in future work. This database will grow in future projects as the PI carries out future research in other locations of the Hmong diaspora (such as his planned field school in 2015 among Hmong villages in Vietnam and China). Just from students data collection in the 2013 field school, the data amassed and catalogued in this database include roughly 1,000 pages of field notes, 308 digital audio recordings of interviews or naturally-occurring discourse or rituals, roughly 100 digital video files, and a large database of digital photographs and scanned documents, all collected during the three months of fieldwork on these projects. This database includes descriptions of projects and contextual summaries for these items, such that future researchers or the PI could go back to this database an find relevant material to analyze in future projects. Students in the program not only learned principles of social science research design, but also crucial skills of data management and analysis, as they helped amass this systematic database of primary ethnographic data.
Evaluation of the Mentoring Environment
The PI and the students in the program found the field school and all of the mentored research conducted after the field school to be incredibly productive for all involved. For the PI, this was an opportunity to get motivated and ambitious students involved in his research and to expand his ethnographic reach int he community as students conducted interviews and observations to supplement his own during the summer on topics closely related to his own research. In many instances, student interests and ambitions even pushed the research questions productively in new (but still related) directions, such as Rachel’s interest in birthing practices, or April’s interest in political anthropology. In all of these cases, we developed a productive synergy that led to projects that expand the PI’s horizon of topics that fall under his umbrella research questions, and also helped students channel their interests into particular phenomena and building off of the PI’s former work to carry out productive projects that also addressed their own research interests. In other instances, students carried out further data collection on additional phenomena that the PI could not cover by himself during the program. For example, Nikkita and Krista conducted interviews on folklore with several elders in the community that provide crucial insights into the baseline of cultural models that inform contemporary religious practice.
From the student side, participants in this program found their training to be an invaluable research experience. Students were not mere research assistants to the PI, but on the contrary played a primary intellectual role in developing research questions and designing methods to adequately address those questions. While the PI provided close mentoring throughout the process, the projects were subject to the directions that the students wanted to take them, such that both the student and the PI shared intellectual input into the nature of the project and the ultimate products. In sum, students learned to perform a research project from the point of conceptualization to design and through to analysis, rather than simply carrying out research tasks designated by the PI. This synergy proved productive for all involved.
In addition to the PI, who worked extensively with students prior to, during, and after the field school, several faculty from other institutions were also brought in to help mentor the group of field school students. Dr. Prasit Leepreecha (Chiang Mai University) visited the field school and mentored students in the field. We also organized a research conference two-thirds of the way into the summer of fieldwork where students had to present their initial findings. The PI (Dr. Jacob Hickman), Dr. Prasit, Dr. Kathleen Culhane-Pera (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities), Dr. Peter Kunstdater (University of California-San Francisco), and other faculty and graduate students at Chiang Mai University attended this conference along with the BYU field school students, and gave students critical feedback on their projects. This allowed an additional several weeks of fieldwork after the conference for students to fill the empirical gaps in their projects. Students in the program all agreed that this collective mentoring in the field and the conference itself forced them to improve their projects significantly while still int he field with the ability to do additional data collection.
Findings of the Field School
The findings of the research conducted on this field school all fall under the general research question of ‘how to Hmong adapt culturally and psychologically to new social circumstances’, but they are also focused on the outcomes of distinct thesis projects conducted under this umbrella question. While the core findings of the PI’s research conducted on this field school are being written up in a series of journal articles and an eventual book manuscript, what is outlined here emphasizes the findings of these mentored student projects.
Mary Cook’s findings provide a critique of Individualism-Collectivism theory. Collectivism and individualism have long been understood in the mainstream social sciences as dichotomous cultural constructs that hold significant implications for therapeutic practices. While cultures certainly exhibit differing extents to which a collective entity is generally a primary influence in people’s lives, this research argues that collectivism and individualism are co-constituted in that they are embedded in and work to perpetuate each other. In this study, we examine discourse from the lives of three Hmong women (coming from a culture we would typically label “collectivist”) who each determined to remain committed to their husbands in polygynous contexts. Each woman (one unwillingly divorced, one separated, and one cohabiting with the husband and second wife), decided to remain committed to her marriage primarily for reasons involving ancestral rituals, their children’s relationships to their clans, and karmic beliefs concerning personal responsibility. These three primary decision-making domains illustrate the co-constituted nature of individualism and collectivism.
Lindsey Fields’s research focused on conversion narratives among recent converts to Christianity and an indigenous millenarian religious group in the community. While many anthropologists explain conversion as a process of cultural continuity in which elements of traditional religions persist as part of the process of conversion and remain part of the new belief system, others offer a model of conversion in which the convert breaks from the past completely. This research offers an alternative conceptualization of conversion, suggesting that discontinuity and continuity are not as dichotomous as they seem. Hmong converts with whom we interacted experienced and narrated their conversion as a discontinuous process with a complete break from their past practice of traditional shaman rituals. While the adoption of a new faith constitutes a rupture in belief, the undeniable similarities between traditional shamanism and the new faiths of Christianity and Messianism reveal that a much more continuous process of conversion is taking place. In blending former assumptions with new faith, syncretism links old and new values and practices together.
Ricky Gettys’s research builds on the PI’s work on intergenerational differences in moral reasoning in this community. Getty’s conducted interviews with Hmong entrepreneurs in the rural field site and an urban site. Other researchers have argued that Hmong in urban Thai environments are changing the way that they view and interact with their families. Moving from a formerly Confucian ethic—where more moral weight and punishment is put on those who sin against family—to a more abstract, universalized view—where all sins against others carry the same weight, other researchers indicate that urban Hmong are moving toward the latter. The present findings indicate that universalization seems to be happening with both urban and rural business owners. Of particular interest in this regard is that, counter to previous research, rural business owners viewed family with a more universalized ethic as compared with their urban counterparts. In this work we discuss two cases and use their stories to highlight trends in the broader dataset collected to illustrate the shift in moral thinking.
Krista Rau worked very closely with the PI as they studied a local millenarian group’s reconceptualization of history. By refashioning traditional Hmong history, the group’s leaders are attempting to reconfigure the structures of significance for Hmong to imagine their own origins and history. Using Marshall Sahlins’ framework, the traditionally imagined history presented through a folkloric story of ‘the fall’ can be seen as a “structure of the conjuncture”, which, when confronted with recent Hmong history – including the Secret war, mass death and destruction, and flight from Laos – becomes reconfigured by these messianic practitioners into a slightly new version of this history. In this revised version, the relative depravity of Hmong vis-á-vis other ‘successful’ or ‘developed’ groups – such as Thais, Americans, French, and British – further presents these messianic practitioners with a need to rethink historical reasons why Hmong fit in to the contemporary world order and have experienced such tragedy the way they do. This rethinking becomes the newly formed structure of significance for them, a new version of Hmong history, which this group is working to standardize in the minds of other Hmong.
April Reber’s project investigated the aftermath of a racialized environmentalist and politicized economic controversy in July and August, 2000, when a coalition of Thai farmers, Royal Forestry Department (RFD) and other government officials blocked off roads leading to Hmong farms in the mountains in Thailand and destroyed the farms of hundreds of Hmong farmers. These local Thais identified Hmong fields and cut down Hmong lychee trees, leaving Thais and other ethnicities’ orchards standing. Land disputes between state and minorities are not new in the Southeast Asian Massif and this event is one in a long history. While others focus on the development of these problems, this project focused on how Hmong memories of the incident re-characterize Hmong as agentive, contradictory predominant views of Hmong. This is a critical finding that signifies a largescale social change in the way that Hmong are positioning themselves in Thai society.
Jolysa Sedgwick’s research focused on the reconceptualization of Hmong identity, including an analysis of how Hmong ideas about what makes up Hmong identity are shifting as the younger generation is increasingly speaking Thai and not adopting some of the traditional symbols of Hmong identity that their elders do. This work reveals some of the nuance of how Hmong thinking is changing to still stake out a unique space for Hmong identity in the broader context of identity politics in Thailand, but one that is not as narrow as the older generation has framed it.
Rachel Cornwall Twelmeyer’s research focused on the medicalization of birthing practices in this community, including the ritual transformation that is happening as s result. This research argues that Hmong are social actors that are able to exert their agency within the Hmong and Thai structures of medicalization. The placenta ritual is a key aspect of the transformation of structure, since placenta burial in traditional Hmong ritual was historically so significant in rituals across the life course, from birth to the funeral. In this community, Hmong actors are reinterpreting and mobilizing ritual resources in ways that affect their schemas; they are transposing traditional Hmong values in ways that reconcile the contrasting structures of medicalization and traditional birthing ritual. For this reason, the placenta ritual is a key model of shifting schemas, and a mode of examining Hmong agency in reaction to these forces of medicalization.
Seth Meyers, Nikkita Walker, and Tshiabdua Yang did not write senior theses out of the fieldwork that they conducted, but the ethnographic interviews and participant observation that they carried out provide incredibly important observations about changing religious practice in this community that we have yet to fully analyze. However, these data collected by these students do reveal some of the ways that Hmong are integrating broader rituals of health and healing, including a seemingly new form of shamanism that draws heavily from Buddhist ideas and iconography, while integrating some forms from ‘traditional’ Hmong shamanism as well. These data also include a rich collection of folklore about the ancient Hmong kingdom and other stories that are revealing about the religious and political ideologies that underpin Hmong religious and political activity. These data, which we are currently analyzing, have the potential to reveal some of the potent psychocultural underpinnings to why the leaders of the local millenarian movement have established and formulated their new forms of religious practice, as well as why other Hmong groups elsewhere (per the PI’s research in the U.S. and other locations) have established similar movements.
Description of Expenditures
|Other Program Expenses (student travel, subsidize program expenses)||$4250|
|Student Stipends to Cover Travel Expenses||$6750|
|Translation Expenses for Data (post-field analysis)||$4000|
|Equipment (2 iPads, field recorders, satellite imagery, software)||$3000|
The current MEG grant provided a substantial source of funding to carry out this three months of mentored fieldwork in Thailand, as well as critical resources for data analysis after the fieldwork. $2,000 of the grant went to covering the PI’s travel, and an additional $4,250 went to cover the overall fieldwork expenses (local research assistance, group travel expenses, etc.), all of which made the program more affordable for the students who attended the field school. In addition, a total of $6,750 was given to 8 students in the field school to specifically help them pay for their travel expenses during the program. $4,000 of the grant paid for research assistant wages in the translation and transcription of certain subsets of the data that we collected that allowed us to analyze them in greater detail. These RAs also received valuable training in this process, and worked with the field school students throughout the data analysis period. Finally, $3,000 of this grant went toward the purchase of critical supplies, including satellite imagery, software, field recorders, and 2 iPads for field data collection. The expenses from this field school (and these items in particular) extended far beyond the $20,000 MEG grant, but the difference was made up by the PIs other research funds and program expenses covered by students in the program. The MEG grant was critical in providing critical additional resources and making this entire field school much more accessible to the students and PI involved, all of whom benefited immensely from this mentored research program.