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Exploring the History of Manners in Thailand

Fri, April 1, 10:30am to 12:30pm, Washington State Convention Center, Floor: 3rd Floor, Room 308

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel


Manners, civility, courtesy, and culture, have for a long time been closely bound up with notions of “civilization”. In the case of Thailand civilization (Thai: siwilai) has been a perennial theme in the study of how the country has come to terms with modernity. Scholars have placed particular emphasis on the part played by the West in justifying its imposition of colonial rule by appeals to a “civilizing mission”. Much of the scholarly literature on Thailand’s encounter with European colonialism is permeated by nationalist or postcolonial sentiment against this mission. The Western colonial powers are criticized for setting up a culturally-specific standard of civilization that Thailand and other colonized peoples must strive for. Yet this critique misses the central argument of Norbert Elias’s classic work, The Civilizing Process, in which civilization is to be understood as the progressive adoption by individuals of a series of self-restraints due to changes in the social, economic and political structure of societies over time. In Thailand today manners are politically charged. The debilitating political crisis that began in 2005 has brought the subject of manners and morality to center stage. The coups of 2006 and 2014 have been largely justified by the military and their supporters on moral grounds. There has been a revival in the official rhetoric about the importance of the values of servility, respect, deference, obedience, and orderliness. This panel explores Thailand’s history of manners and its relevance to the country’s current political predicament.

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