Hierarchy and the Embodiment of Change

From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY SA.

Social hierarchy in Thailand is deeply rooted and distinctly marked by physical deference. As Thailand tumbles into the uncertainty of extended military rule following the May 22, 2014 coup d’état, an appreciation of the embodiment of public interactions must factor into the investigation of assembled masses, popular dissent, and social change in this context. It is, for example, tempting to identify a clear and legible egalitarian pro-democracy sentiment across anti-coup demonstrations; however, we cannot judge the political and social stakes for these protesters or their opponents by rhetoric alone. Instead, greater specificity is needed regarding the physical embodiment of, and historical lineage related to, group interactions in Thailand in order to understand the current crisis on its own terms.

I have elsewhere argued (Aulino 2014) that conventional Thai social interactions involve active attention to and care of the social body: transient groupings that function as an entity, akin to an individual body, in which everyone plays a restricted part. Common ways of perceiving and behaving in a group reflect how one’s own part is understood in relation to others and how hierarchically differentiated roles (in a metaphorical sense, from the “head” of the body to its supporting organs and lower extremities) are deemed necessary for group functioning. Lowering one’s body in relation to someone of higher social stature, the height of one’s hands when forming a wai greeting, bowing when entering formal meeting spaces, and registered discomfort in the face of conflict: these are all signs of perceptual patterns and corresponding bodily attunement to collectives, as well as of hierarchical norms, all enacted for the well-being of the group as a whole and its constitutive parts. In this way, the physical embodiment of social, religious, and political structures comes into view as habituated modes of being that continually re-inscribe leadership patterns, cosmological truth claims, and power differentials.

The social body can thus offer important indicators of changes in leadership, respect, and belonging central to the current political upheaval—particularly as instantiations of hierarchy embedded in everyday forms of sociality may be more directly evident on and between bodies than in rhetorical declarations. Nidhi Eoseewong and Tyrell Haberkorn (2014), for instance, have recorded alarming similarities between the current Thai situation and the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Western Europe as detailed by Hannah Arendt (1994). Key to this argument is people’s unthinking “surrender” to leaders as part of assembled masses. However, the group dynamics I explore under the rubric of the social body—for instance, the ways in which individuals are frequently subsumed into gatherings, large and small, and often forego “personal” interests in response to leadership therein—also bear resemblance to the functioning of “the mass of the people” under totalitarian dictatorship. We thus need descriptions of changed patterns of deference to help substantiate claims that forms of leadership and group participation are changing. Take Tyrell’s observation that Thais active in the PDRC are “bored with politics” and yearn to have “good people” be their leaders so that they can feel like part of a community and return to their daily lives. While this certainly rings true, there is a long history in Thailand asserting “good people” —particularly those with “dharmic insight” or claims on “truth beyond truth” (Streckfuss 2011) —are best suited to serve as the “head” of collective bodies. And again, such an implicit rationale has been evident in people’s physical comportment, traceable in what they mark in their social environment and how they deferentially respond to status cues, whether in small informal gatherings or in large formal settings.

Physical performance in demonstration spaces and settings outside political protest can calibrate our attention to the changes currently afoot. In suggesting something akin to totalitarian dictatorship and the birth of the “mass” in Thailand, Nidhi compellingly argues that socioeconomic factors have “undermined traditional forms of belonging” (family, temple, etc.), which are now replaced by forms of belonging that are further from oneself (nation, religion, and so forth). Within so-called social bodies, this would mean a replacement of more proximal leaders with guides from afar, including political figures. In my work within Chiang Mai communities in 2009, I witnessed Red Shirt supporters shaking their legs under tables and departing meetings dominated by Yellow Shirts more than outright disagreements. One might understand even these subtle displays of conflict as evidence of new allegiances outside immediate circumstances. But I think it remains unclear whether people no longer want to submit to old forms of leadership or whether they simply want a new set of criteria for the “good people” that serve such a function. Participation in more distantly-led groups so far seems to maintain a familiar group “body,” complete with a “head,” as people align themselves with political leaders understood to support local interests. This type of collective participation may represent a key difference between Thai and European social forms that deserves critical attention. So in contrast to coup supporters, are anti-coup protestors or Red Shirts at large embodying deference to leaders in different ways? Given the Thai history of hierarchical social relations, would we have to see resistance to “heads” of social groups at local levels in order to confirm the possibility of resistance to totalitarian dictatorship?

It does seem that socioeconomic and geopolitical forces have influenced changes in traditional coordinates of the social body in various manifestations. And there are activists questioning deferential norms in society. But to understand properly the current state of change in Thailand, we have to ask: alongside various demographic coordinates and politically motivated discussions, what (if anything) has changed in more proximal forms of lived experience, such as interpersonal relations? When people interact in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and meetings, is there diminished clarity in expected social roles? Are there clashes? Displays of tension?

The situation under the current coup is an affront to ideals of constitutional democracy, individual freedoms, and distributive justice. And yet correlations to egalitarian rhetoric may mask more than they reveal. While I am under no illusion that the junta’s calls for unity and happiness will achieve their desired effect, the social body can help decipher the military’s mindset and conservative Thai logic more generally. The open issue is the logic and trajectory of the opposition. I raise questions in this short piece not to stall activist intentions but to strive for greater understanding, in Arendt’s sense: that is, as a call for continually challenging and refreshing the preliminary understandings that serve as the foundation for our knowledge and the templates for our action.


Arendt, Hannah. 1994. Essays in Understanding 1930–1954. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Aulino, Felicity. 2014. “Perceiving the Social Body: A Phenomenological Perspective on Ethical Practice in Buddhist Thailand.” Journal of Religious Ethics. 42, no. 3: 415–41.

Haberkorn, Tyrell. 2014. “Hannah Arendt, Nidhi Eoseewong, and the Spectre of Totalitarianism in Thailand.” Asia-Pacific Journal 12, no. 14, article 4.

Streckfuss, David. 2011. Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté. London: Routledge.