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Michael Walzer once began a book with the advice of a former teacher to “always begin negatively”. Tell your readers what you are not...

Michael Walzer once began a book with the advice of a former teacher to “always begin negatively”. Tell your readers what you are not going to do and it will relieve their minds, he says. Then they will be more inclined to accept what seems a modest project. Whether or not Ward Keeler had this writing strategy firmly in mind when he wrote the preface to The Traffic in Hierarchy: Masculinity and Its Others in Buddhist Burma (University of Hawaii Press, 2017), it’s the one he adopts, and with the recommended effect. Anticipating that the reader picking up a book on Burma with both “hierarchy” and “masculinity” in its title might be looking for answers to the question of how and why military men dominated the country for so long, and how and why everyone else tolerated them for as long as they did, he tells the reader that he leaves it to them “to speculate as to how such notions as the workings of hierarchy or the location of power ‘above one’s head’ encouraged… members of the former regime to impose control over the nation’s populace with such ferocious complacency”. His own concerns are more immediate and pedestrian, he says. Except, of course, they are much more than that. For as the reader turns the pages they are led through deceptively straightforward descriptions of both street and monastic life, into a theory of hierarchy and a study of masculinity that is at once in conversation with Keeler’s many interlocutors in Burma, and with classics in anthropological inquiry.

Ward Keeler joins New Books in Southeast Asian Studies to discuss egalitarianism and autonomy, anthropology and audience, clientelism and communism, and how the study of Java and Bali informed his thinking about Burma.

Enjoyed this episode? Then you may also like listening to Ward Keeler discuss Guillaume Rozenberg’s The Immortals: Faces of the Incredible in Buddhist Burma, which he translated.

Are area studies your thing? Then why not also check out the New Books in Eastern European Studies channel. They’re featuring a lot of great books on topics relevant to Southeast Asian studies.


Nick Cheesman is a fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. He can be reached at nick.cheesman@anu.edu.au