Natures in Southeast Asia: The ontological approach

Lecture at Chiang Mai University, Faculty of Social Sciences

Wednesday, September 13 (09h00 – 12h00).
International Program Meeting Room 1 (SB3201)

Speaker : Dr. Abigaël PESSES (deputy director of Irasec)
Moderator/discussant : Dr. Robert Farnan (Faculty of Social Science, Chiang Mai University)

Partners : Irasec, RCSD Chiang Mai University, CAS (Center of Asean Studies, CMU)

Abstract : This lecture will present the work of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola and focus on the main ideas he developed in his master piece, Beyond nature and culture, published in 2005 (2013 for English edition). This book is a deconstruction of the idea of a unique and universal nature as opposed to the diversity of cultures. Descola’s ethnographic experience among the Amazonian Achuar led him to build a relational ecology that connects together human and non-human actors including plants, animals, spirits and artifacts. Adopting a comparative approach, using ethnographic datas from the whole world as case of studies, he proposed to consider that there are four modes of identification, or ontologies, by which societies relate to others, humans and nonhumans: animism, analogism, naturalism and totemism. This ontological model invites us to reconsider Southeast Asian ethnographic material and more specifically the relations between natures and societies in the light of this typology. We will especially question the overlapping of three ontologies – animism, analogism and naturalism – that seems to be more significant in the region. This lecture will also prepare the venue and discussion with Philippe Descola who will come in November 2017 for a two days’ workshop “Natures and Cultures in Southeast Asia” organized at Chiang Mai University

Next Session : April, 28 2017

 Web of relations: the way of giving, taking and reciprocating in the Moken’s world

Narumon Arunotai

This talk reflects diverse worldviews of different groups towards a cluster of islands in southwestern Thailand, namely Surin Islands in Phang-nga Province.  It also reflects how government policies are based on certain set of worldviews about “nature”.  Surin Islands have been a home, stopover point, foraging ground and burial site for the Moken indigenous people for centuries.  The Moken have mobile homes and their residence are on different islands in the Mergui archipelago, from the present day southern Myanmar to southern Thailand.   At the start of Thai state dominant power on the Surin Islands, the surrounding waters fell into a concession of petroleum exploration issued to a private foreign company.  Later it was proposed as a site for Indochina refugee camp, but the proposal was rejected by the Royal Forestry Department.   In 1984, state power is more apparent as the Islands have been declared a Marine National Park with supporting budget and resources.  Later a unit under the Department of Fisheries and another under Royal Thai Navy have been established.  Though all of these groups share their lives (or part of their lives) on Surin Islands, their worldviews and their missions/mandates towards “nature” on the Islands are quite different.  Through looking at the web of relations, especially the way of giving, taking and reciprocating in the Moken’s world, we can understand the mode of thinking, practicing, and policying of other units and groups undertaking their “duties” on the Islands as well.  ​

– 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Next Session : February 24

Understanding an Active Volcano: Animism and Naturalism in Central Javanese Society

Adeline Martinez, IRASEC/IrAsia, Aix-Marseille University

Through the example of the Merapi volcano in Central Java in Indonesia, this talk will explore different practices and conceptions related to the comprehension and the communication with this uncertain environment. It aims to put in perspective two main ontologies in the Central Javanese Society in relation with this specific volcano: naturalism and animism as defined by Philippe Descola. Indeed, in this region, scientific views of ‘nature’- represented by state institutions and volcanoes’ surveillance agencies – are coexisting with a specific cosmological system and ritual practices in relation with the volcano – such as the Labuhan, the annual offering ceremony in Mount Merapi. After presenting the main characteristics of these ontologies and their current specific expressions in Central Java, this communication will discuss the conditions of the overlapping and articulation of these two modes of identification.

Friday, February 24 , 2017 – 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Next session : January 20, 2017

Politics of Nature Conservation in Thailand


Friday, January 20 , 2017 – 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Pinkaew Laungaramsri

(Faculty of Social Science, Department of sociology and Anthropology, Chiang Mai University)

This talk focuses on the process of social production of “nature” within the changing political economy of modern Thailand. By historicizing nature, I argue that the so-called untouchable, self-regulating, human-free “nature” has primarily been a product of constant state intervention in forest and natural landscapes since the turn of the twentieth century. The making of “first nature” has been an intimate part of the process of state-building, in which nature as economic capital is no less important than nature as “symbolic capital”—a signifier of the modern and civilized nation-state. Thai state’s adoption of North American wilderness thinking within the country’s particular stage of capital accumulation has engendered an ambivalence between “nature conservation” and “economic development.” Used as a tool to modernize the country and its people, Thai “nature conservation” abandons the wild freedom of areas once beyond the reach of the state and assigns new functions to the landscape now designated as “protected”. “Unspoiled nature” has also been built along the ethnic and class line. While the most perilous threat to the nature forest constructed by the state has been the agricultural activities of the “hill tribes” often portrayed as the dark side of nature, urban middle-class has been held as the savior of the fragile nature. Militarization of park management has therefore coincided with the growing desire of urban middle-class for nature consumption. As a national space, national park in Thailand since its inception has therefore come to serve as a effective tool to delineate the Thai from the non-Thai other. Nature and nation-building have thus been an integral part of the history of marginalization of the modern Thai society.


Next Session : December 16, 2016

Beyond Nature and Culture of Modern Thai Water Engineering

The Ontology of Infrastructure


Friday, December 16, 2016 – 14h30 / 16h30
Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Jakkrit Sangkhamanee (CSDS, Faculty of Political Science, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Chulalongkorn University)

The talk will explore Thailand’s Royal Irrigation Department Museum for Heavy Engineering where the works and lives of engineers are displayed and narrated and their machines exhibited. Through the museum walk-through, Jakkrit Sangkhamanee will analyze the mutual constitution and historical transformation of the amphibious assemblage that makes up Thai water engineering. In some ways, the  human and non-human hybridity depicted in the museum exceeds the binary of nature and culture proposed by Philippe Descola is his critical work Beyond Nature and Culture. Tracing the complex interrelation of engineers, landscapes, bureaucracy, statecraft and myth depicted in the exhibits, the analysis elicits the museum as a particular, and peculiar, parliament of things that articulates the amodern characteristics of the Thai water engineering assemblage.


Introduction session part 1 : Beyond Nature and Culture in Southeast Asia


The objective of this seminar is to study the relations between natures and societies in Southeast Asia in the light of the work of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola. The expressions Beyond nature and culture1 refers to the title of his master piece which is a deconstruction of the idea of a universal nature. It means that we will attempt thought this seminar :

Beyond Nature and Culture

  1. To transcend the Western dualism that opposes nature and society as two different and separate realms of beings.
  2.  To include in our study the relation between human and non-humans – gods, spirits, plants, animals, objects.
  3. To explore the diversity of natures in Southeast Asia.


In this first part, I will present Philippe Descola and the big lines of the his thought.
In the second part, I will develop through examples how his theoretical propositions could be adapted to Southeast Asian ethnographic materials.

Continue reading “Introduction session part 1 : Beyond Nature and Culture in Southeast Asia”

  1. Philippe Descola. Beyond Nature and Culture, Translated by Janet Lloyd Foreword by Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago Press, [2005] 2013, 488 pages []
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