The Traffic in Hierarchy: Masculinity and Its Others in Buddhist Burma
350pp. September 2017
The Traffic in Hierarchy: Masculinity and Its Others in Buddhist Burma
Author: Keeler, Ward;
Until its recent political thaw, Burma was closed to most foreign researchers, and fieldwork-based research was rare. In The Traffic in Hierarchy, one of the few such works to appear in recent years, author Ward Keeler combines close ethnographic attention to life in a Buddhist monastery with a broad analysis of Burman gender ideology. The result is a thought-provoking analysis of Burmese social relations both within and beyond a monastery’s walls.

Keeler shows that the roles individuals choose in Burman society entail inevitable trade-offs in privileges and prestige. A man who becomes a monk gives up some social opportunities but takes on others and gains great respect. Alternatively, a man can become a head of household. Or he can choose to take on a feminine gender identity—to the derision of many but not necessarily his social exclusion. A woman, by contrast, is expected to concern herself with her relations with family and kin. Any interest she might show in becoming a nun arouses ambivalent reactions: although it fulfills Buddhist teachings, it contravenes assumptions about a woman’s proper role.

In Burma, hierarchical understandings condition all relationships, but hierarchy implies relations of exchange, not simply inequality, and everyone takes on subordinate roles in their bonds with some, and superordinate ones with others. Knowing where power lies and how to relate to it appropriately is key. It may mean choosing at times to resist power, but more often it involves exercising care as to whom one wishes to subordinate oneself, in what ways, and on what terms.

Melding reflections on the work of theorists such as Dumont, Anderson, Warner, and Kapferer with close attention to the details of Burman social interaction, Keeler balances theoretical insights and ethnographic observation to produce a rich and challenging read. The conundrum at the heart of this book—whether to opt for autonomy, the Buddhist seeking of detachment, or for attachment, the desire for close bonds with others—is one that all humans, not just Burmans, must confront, and it is one that admits of no final resolution.

“In this well-written book, Ward Keeler offers many sensitive and engaging descriptions: of Burmese traffic as a means of understanding Burmese society, of Buddhist monks, nuns, and (not un-critically) meditation, of sexualities and genders. Seeing Burmese society as, like all societies, having to deal with the contrary values of autonomy and attachment, he draws skillfully on a number of theorists. Specialists of Burma will find much to reflect on, and non-specialists can enjoy a delightfully lucid account of everyday life in a society closed to the outside world for many years.” —Steven Collins, author of Nirvana: Concept, Imagery, Narrative

“Seasoned with well-aimed appeals to enduring insights in classical social theories, in conversation with contemporary anthropological analyses focused on Myanmar, and grounded in personal encounters with everyday life in Mandalay, Ward Keeler provides an intimate, informative, interdisciplinary, and intellectually provocative study focused on how autonomy and attachment constitute formative ideals for the masculine and feminine within hierarchical Burmese Buddhist society...[The book] contains one of the very best discussions I have read on the increasing importance attached to meditation in modern Burma.” —John Clifford Holt, author of Theravada Traditions: Buddhist Ritual Cultures in Contemporary Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka

“Keeler’s work constitutes a significant theoretical, interpretive, and methodological contribution to Burmese studies, studies of masculinity, sex and gender, social psychology, and the comparative anthropology of South and Southeast Asia. His analytical framework goes a long way to help illuminate why in Burma ideas, ideals, and practices of autonomy and subordination can coexist easily, why hierarchy makes far more sense to most Burmese than equality and rights, and how a spectrum of idealization and practice that runs from autonomy to attachment correlates with gender expectations.'” —Jason A. Carbine, author of Sons of the Buddha: Continuities and Ruptures in a Burmese Monastic Tradition
Author: Keeler, Ward;
Ward Keeler is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.